LINUX VENDOR Canonical has acknowledged that Ubuntu's shift to the Unity user interface was painful for many of its users but insisted it hasn't led to a decline in the popularity of the Linux distribution.
Canonical, which sponsors the popular Ubuntu Linux distribution, made the shift to the Unity user interface last year, with some of the distribution's faithful users crying foul. Adding to the sense of things going downhill, reports that Ubuntu's popularity suffered as a consequence of the change have left Canonical's CEO Jane Silber with a job to do.
Silber told The INQUIRER that she "recognised that [Unity] was a painful change for many, and is a difficult process as well, but it is something that we think is important not just in terms of having Unity being able to span multiple screen sizes but emphasising the importance of design and user experience in the open source world."
Canonical's decision to move to Unity was based on its desire to create an interface that works better on devices that do not primarily use mice, such as smartphones, tablets and televisions. However it also wanted to improve the fit and finish of user interfaces, according to Silber. "For open source to effectively compete with proprietary stacks we collectively have to do that not just for these new form factors but also the desktop and everywhere."
Silber's point about a high-quality interfaces for open source applications might result in much shoulder shrugging from hardcore Linux users who still use Vim, but it is a view that has merit. Apple has shown that a BSD-based operating system can become popular if the user interface has bells and whistles.
According to Silber, Canonical made its decision to try to increase the effort placed by developers into user interfaces a couple of years ago and that it has resulted in success. She said, "Canonical has been successful at issuing a challenge to open source overall, even Gnome talks a lot more about design and user experience than ever before, and I think that is a positive thing."
Silber did admit that Unity isn't all things to every Ubuntu user. "Unity will be the best solution for some folks and not for others," she said, but added that "any pain associated with such major change is a part of the process".
Given that Silber admitted that Unity was a major and painful change, she was quick to say that there won't be similar changes any time soon. "I'm not expecting any major, major changes the way that first change to Unity was. We will continue to evolve [Unity] and continue to enhance and improve it every six months with our regular release cycles," said Silber.
Silber also said Canonical will try to appease its experienced users who had gotten to love Gnome, saying, "In 12.04 coming up, enhancements have been made particularly aimed at power users and developers and trying to address some of their concerns about their individual workflows around Ubuntu and Unity."
That Unity was a painful change for Ubuntu became apparent last year with a report that Ubuntu had fallen off its perch on the popular Distrowatch web site. According to the web site Linux Mint, a derivative of Ubuntu, is most viewed on its website, however Silber doesn't see that directly translating to installation figures.
"I think by any reasonable indicator of popularity, I think Ubuntu is well ahead. [Linux] Mint, which is the thing that is gaining attention in Distrowatch, is great. That's basically Ubuntu, it is an Ubuntu derivative and we have always supported derivatives. I think there is room for small projects and it is a positive thing to have small projects derived from Ubuntu and address a particular market," said Silber.
Silber went on to say that Linux Mint is mainly for "people who want codecs pre-installed and [are] not necessarily concerned about security updates", adding, "it's filling a need but I don't consider it a net-negative for Ubuntu". Silber believes the market is growing fast enough that Linux Mint is not necessarily stealing Ubuntu users, though in browsing popular Linux user forums that might appear to be the case.
Silber's confidence in Ubuntu's popularity stems from her belief that it is merely part of a cycle that Ubuntu and other longstanding distributions have seen and weathered. It is true that the Linux distribution veterans Slackware, Debian, Red Hat and Suse have all survived the arrival of more recent distributions such as Ubuntu and CentOS and continue to flourish.
However Silber's comments strongly suggest that it is unlikely Canonical will want to impose another major and painful change on its users anytime soon. µ