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Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal, Unity, and Debian Testing

New month, new Ubuntu release pending installation, time for update chaos. Only two machines to do these days, but (thankfully) I have approx (a deb file cache server) installed on my server and the machines use it as the packages source, so (thankfully) only one download of the 2GB of packages.

Of course this upgrade is special: Ubuntu now forces you to use Unity by default. Unity is supposed to be a new way of working. My first thought on logging in after the upgrade was "good grief, this makes Mac OS X look good". On further tinkering, it seems that Unity actually is a (barely disguised) attempt to be Mac OS X on non-Apple hardware. Or perhaps it's an attempt to bring back CDE (if you remember CDE you'll get the joke, if you don't, sorry but it is funny).

Whilst I think Apple hardware is very good, I really don't like the Mac OS X user interface. Some people like it, which is fair enough; some just rave about it for reasons known only to themselves. I do not like it at all. Of course I dislike Windwoes even more, which is why I am a Linux person.

What I want of a just-logged-in user interface is a completely empty desktop with a very small transparent strip along the top with some information displays, a (very) few shortcuts, and a small, dense menu to access things I start rarely. I can get this straightforwardly with Gnome (I guess I could with KDE as well, I just haven't tried).

After five minutes with Unity, I knew I wasn't going to be a user of it. I couldn't find a way of making the icons smaller, or putting them on the right instead of the left, or stopping them disappearing on whim, or make the fonts smaller, or change the colours to something at least partly pleasing, or making the top bar transparent instead of solid colour, or have the menu system small and dense instead of huge windows of huge icons, or stop browsers opening full screen. The list goes on.

Aha, I hear you saying "but after only five minutes you haven't given it a chance". In a sense this is true, I haven't used Unity long enough to know it properly, but I have used Mac OS X for a while, so I know the basic user interface model being used - and I know I don't get on with it. Mac OS X is a fundamentally fascist system: Apple presents you with a user interface that it knows is right for you, even though they don't know each user individually. They do though give some parameters you can tweak, so there is at least some room for arranging for personal taste. Unity presents the same fascist philosophy, but without any obvious way of changing anything. So it seems to be just a sub-standard version of Mac OS X.

_ Mark, if you want to use Mac OS X buy an Apple computer, stop trying to coerce Ubuntu into being a Mac OS X look-alike. _

My summary is that Unity is for people who value glitz and triviality over the ability to actually do stuff other than display photographs, listen to music, watch videos, browse the Web, and perhaps use a word processor. I guess this is actually a large market - except that most of them now use smartphones or tablets for all their computing needs. My workflow and needs appear not to match that of Unity. OK fine, I'll just use Gnome as I always have done. On logging out and logging back in with "Ubuntu Classic" I find that all my Gnome settings have been annihilated and the user interface is not obeying the Gnome theme that all the tools say is in force. What the f###?

Given that I was actually in the middle of angst about whether to continue with Ubuntu or go back to using Debian Testing - decision made. I am really a Debian Testing user now, not an Ubuntu user. I may leave Ubuntu there as a second OS on the two laptops, or I may reclaim the disc space. Anyway, on rebooting from Ubuntu to Debian, all the Gnome setting were just fine. Phew. But . . .

. . . there is soon to be Gnome 3 and the Gnome Shell. If Gnome Shell is anything at all like Unity, then it will not be appearing on my machines. But that is for the future . . .

(*) And all the raving about how great Unity is by the Ubuntu fanbois and shills really is rather ugly, and counter-productive to the marketing of Ubuntu to the masses (who still generally use Windwoes because it comes free with the hardware - but that is a whole separate rant).

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