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Controversial Unity desktop gets UI makeover in Ubuntu 11.10
Aug. 18, 2011

Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth unveiled an improved Dash interface for its controversial Unity desktop in Ubuntu 11.10, featuring panel changes and a filtered search interface. The Ubuntu project recently unleashed the third alpha release of Ubuntu 11.10 ("Oneiric Ocelot"), offering Linux 3.0, Firefox 6.0, and Thunderbird 6.0.

Following the release of an Alpha 3 version of Ubuntu 11.10 "Oneiric Ocelot" last week (see farther below), Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth posted an Aug. 16 blog entry describing an overhauled Dash interface that sets the tone for Canonical's Unity desktop environment.

As deployed initially in Ubuntu 11.04 ("Natty Narwhal"), the multitouch-enabled Unity desktop, which replaced GNOME as the default, received a rough welcome from many Ubuntu users. The radically altered interface, which features an icon-driven, left-column program launcher, was faulted by many as being too simplified on the one hand and just plain strange on the other. One core problem is that it is focuses on a touch interface when there are still relatively few touch-enabled devices that run Ubuntu.

New Dash interface on Ubuntu 11.10, Alpha 3
(Click to enlarge)

Unity has its admirers, too, however, and it has yet to endure quite the level of ire that GNOME 3.0 has engendered. Recently, Linux founder Linus Torvalds blasted GNOME 3.0, called for a GNOME fork, and announced he had switched to Xfce.

Now, Canonical is addressing some of the criticisms of Unity with a new version destined for Oneiric Ocelot, which is due in final form Oct. 13. The changes include the replacement of the "Places" concept with more search-savvy "Scopes and Lenses." In addition, there have been some panel adjustments, some cosmetic alterations, and further integration of the alternative 2D interface with the mainstream 3D version.

Scopes and Lenses open up filtered search

Unity's "Places" concept failed to register for many Ubuntu users, so the Ubuntu team went back to the drawing board and replaced it with new constructs called Scopes and Lenses.

Scopes are data sources that can access both online or offline data "as long as they can generate categorised results for a search, describe a set of filters and support some standard interfaces," explains Shuttleworth in his blog announcement. Filtering options are said to include user ratings and categories such as games.

Lenses, meanwhile, present the data derived from Scopes in different views. In the image farther above, for example, Lenses are offered for applications, music, files, and social messages.

The combination of Scope and Lenses, "delivers on the original goal of creating a device-like experience that was search driven," writes Shuttleworth. He also notes that similar ideas have emerged in Mac OS X Lion.

Among the panel changes, meanwhile, the biggest change is that the top left corner is "now consistently used to close whatever has the focus," writes Shuttleworth. Maximizing a window keeps the window controls "in the same position relative to the window -- the top left corner," he adds.

Shuttleworth goes on to note that the panel changes could be further altered during beta testing, based on user feedback. The issue won't be fully stabilized until Ubuntu 12.04 arrives in 2012, he adds.
The "look" in the look and feel of Dash have been altered with a new wash effect based on the user-defined desktop palette. In addition, real-time blur effects have been added, and indicators are "rendered in a more holographic fashion," Shuttleworth explains.

There is now far greater code unification of code between the standard, GL-based 3D version of Unity and the still developing, QML-based 2D version used for lower-end devices. "In this round, Unity-3D and Unity-2D have grown together and become twin faces on the same underlying model," writes Shuttleworth

Finally, countering the general uproar in the Ubuntu community in recent months against Unity and Canonical's business practices, the Ubuntu founder strikes a somewhat defensive tone, writing, "Contrary to common prognostication, this community is shaping up to be happy and productive."

Oneiric Ocelot Alpha 3 peeps out

Back in March, Shuttleworth tipped a few details about Ubuntu 11.10 including a more robust alternative 2D UI and greater Qt integration. Now that the Alpha 3 version was released last week, we know more about the software components, as well as the Unity UI changes revealed above.

As Softpedia explains it, Oneiric Ocelot features the brand new Linux 3.0 kernel. It also offers the GNOME 3.1.4 desktop as an alternative to Unity instead of the old-school, but far less controversial GNOME 2.32 offered by a number of distros released in the post-GNOME 3.0 era. These include the Ubuntu-derived Linux Mint 11.

Ubuntu 11.10 Alpha 3 provides Mozilla's latest Firefox 6.0 web browser and Thunderbird 6.0 email client. In addition, says Softpedia, the ALT+Tab functionality has been replaced with CTRL+Tab, and "the launcher and panel perform better."

The distro now provides easier access to monitor setup, Bluetooth devices, startup applications, printers, USB devices, and system updates, says the story. Finally, the Ubuntu Software Center is now said to offer a "top rated" views feature for all the subcategory pages and the main category page.


Alpha 3 of Ubuntu 11.10 is available for download here. Mark Shuttleworth's blog entry on the new Dash interface in Unity should be here. A recent OMG!Ubuntu! overview of the new Dash interface should be here.

-- Eric Brown

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