With the release of GNOME 3.0 and Ubuntu 11.04, the face of the Linux and open-source desktop is changing.
The GNOME Foundation, which has overseen the development of the default
graphical environments for the Linux- and Unix-based operating systems from Red
Hat, Novell, Canonical, Sun Microsystems, Oracle and others, has diverged from
the consistent look and feel that marked its namesake desktop environment for years,
with its new GNOME Shell interface.
GNOME Shell represents a new desktop approach intended to make applications
easier to access, limit workspace distractions and make more use of modern
desktop and notebook hardware.
Canonical, for its part, has broken ranks with GNOME by opting to not participate
in GNOME Shell, instead developing for Ubuntu a separate interface, called "Unity."
Unity is rooted in many of the same components and designed with many of the
same goals as GNOME, albeit with different implementation details.
I've been testing both interfaces throughout
their development and in their finished versions-I tested GNOME Shell in the beta release of
Red Hat's Fedora 15, and Unity in the shipping version of Ubuntu 11.04. I've
found each interface promising. Each does a solid job streamlining notification
messages and staying out of the way of active applications. With that said,
both will require that users spend time adapting, and the enhanced hardware
requirements of each will prove troublesome in certain scenarios.
In particular, in virtualized or thin-client
style deployments, where hardware acceleration for graphics isn't available,
these desktop environments must fall back to their earlier incarnations.
However, there's time for users and implementors to adjust to GNOME Shell and
Unity, as the operating systems shipping these environments are aimed at Linux
enthusiasts and early adopters.
The next Long Term Support version of Canonical's Ubuntu is set to ship
a year from now, with an October release of the OS in between to address
usability and hardware fallback issues. A 2D version of Unity is already
available in the Ubuntu repositories. As for GNOME Shell, it's not clear when
the new interface will make its way into the enterprise operating systems from
Red Hat, Novell or Oracle.
The new GNOME environment starts users off
with a blank desktop that seems to serve only as a sort of wallpaper for one's
computer-there are no icons to
interact with, and if you store files in the "Desktop" folder, they don't show
up on the desktop. Across the top of the screen, there's a panel with date and
time, volume control, network status, power manager and a small settings and
Moving the cursor to the upper left side of the screen brings the
environment to life, pulling up a desktop overlay, with a panel containing
application links to the left and a virtual desktops panel to the right. Also
on the right is a search box that I could use to locate applications on my test
system. I was also able to browse through a grid of installed applications by
clicking an "Applications" button toward the top of the overlay.
Moving the cursor to the bottom right of the screen pulls up a second
panel, where applications that typically stay running in the system tray live.
For instance, once opened, Fedora's chat application lives in this bottom
panel, and when new instant messages come in, a notification window pops up
from the panel with the message text. On my test system, I could respond to
instant messages from this same notification window.
After opening an application, I noticed that application windows lack
maximize or minimize buttons, though I could access these commands by
right-clicking on the title portion of the window. For applications such as the
instant messenger client, clicking the "close" button serves the same purpose
as minimizing, and the bottom panel provides a place to reopen the minimized
Ubuntu's new Unity interface departs a bit
less dramatically from the GNOME 2.x look and feel-for instance, files saved to the desktop
still show up there, and the typical assortment of panels, menus and window
buttons remain, although they've been shifted around somewhat. Where the
previous Ubuntu interface sported panels at the top and bottom of the display,
Unity ships with an application launcher panel at the left of the display and a
combination application menu and status indicator panel across the top of
By default, Ubuntu application menus follow
the Apple OS X global menu convention-the menu of the active, foreground application appears across the top of
the display. I'm not a fan of this menu configuration, so I was pleased to find
that it was possible to revert to the previous menu behavior.
As with GNOME Shell, Unity taps
search for locating and launching applications installed on one's system,
although Unity also suggests applications available for installation from
Ubuntu's software repositories.