Disunity Over Unity

Ubuntu’s Unity desktop environment is in many ways wonderful. It is innovative, minimal and gorgeous. It is mouse-friendly, keyboard-friendly and touch-friendly. It will also, eventually, be truly “convergent,” meaning that it will automatically adapt to the size of the screen and type of interface: you will be be able to plug your phone into a dock, and everything will expand and morph to fill the usual desktop design. Finally, that powerful computer in your pocket will unleash its full potential.

Nothing else, in the free and proprietary software worlds, comes close. Windows 8 attempted convergence, but with miserable results. Instead of one unified interface, we got an unwieldy hybrid, with the desktop interface essentially deprecated, despite its being still very, very necessary. Apple might have something up their sleeves, but for now OS X and iOS are very different beasts. Indeed, OS X remains an old-fashioned, clunky realization of the venerable windowed paradigm. Unity doesn’t try to “revolutionize”: it takes what we already know, just organizes it better and streamlines it.

But I don’t want to make Unity my daily desktop environment, not quite yet. It suffers from a frustrating lack of customization options. Frustrating not only because it’s hard to adapt Unity to well-established work habits, but also because it seems that these issues would be eminently easy to fix--and they won’t be fixed. Why not? Despite the claims, it’s not because of a focused, determined design vision. Instead, it is due to the worst habits of project leadership: thin-skinned defensiveness, petty passive-aggression and haughty condescension.

Early on, users took the time to report usability problems on Launchpad. The conversations about these very reasonable suggestions are depressing: here we suggest to allow users to minimize windows by clicking their Launcher icons; here we ask to allow the option of moving the Launcher to other edges of the screen. The former has just been “fixed,” 4 years after it opened; the latter will likely continue to languish; and there are plenty of other examples. But if you take time to read the progression, you’ll be amazed by how the Unity development team responds: it starts with a firm “no” and a curt explanation, and continues with increasingly unconvincing, unestablished, conflicting rationalizations, merely half-hearted excuses meant to shut the rabble out, while making it clear to us that we have no business in making design suggestions. Patches, too, are routinely refused (after we are told that we should just fix it ourselves). As some people in the userbase become shrill, the Unity team responds with childish indignation: "if you don’t like it, fine, just go away and leave us alone to build the brave new future."

As if we don’t know that we have other options: Ubuntu itself comes with KDE, Xfce, LXDE and GNOME. And there’s MATE and Cinnamon, better supported in Mint, an Ubuntu derivative. Really, we know. But thanks for reminding us.

As if we’re taking the time to open bugs merely in order to fulfill selfish personal demands, rather than to help make Ubuntu better for everyone, so that it can succeed in the operating system arena. Seriously, it would be easier for us to just use something else, as indeed many users do. Do you think there might be a different reason for us making these suggestions?

As if the opinions of these longtime supporters and promoters, coming from the trenches of the war to sway public opinion towards Ubuntu, don’t matter. But these bugs are not just ours: we hear these complaints from our coworkers and families.

As if Ubuntu didn’t become what it is--the most successful free desktop operating system--without this exact community of “whiners.” How quickly we stopped being respected! How quickly we are being shut out to make way for a new generation of computer users, who have no preexisting usage habits. Who these people are exactly, I don’t know. But I guess they know more than we do.

This might seem petty. Why care so much about a few missing customization options? That’s not the point: the point is that it’s hard to trust that the project is being led in the right direction if you can’t trust its leadership. Ubuntu is asking us to promote it, on laptops, workstations, servers, living rooms, phones, tablets and in the cloud. In the fight against proprietary software vendors and their powerful lobbies, there will be many critical choices to make along the way. How can we believe that Ubuntu will be making the right choices if it fails these basic tests?

The click-to-minimize option has at long last been merged and will be available in Ubuntu 14.04. However, it is purposely unsupported, hidden away and difficult to enable. A compromise? The only thing being compromised is our trust in the project’s leadership.

But does Ubuntu actually need our trust, our support, our promotional work? Perhaps not. Perhaps it was important in Ubuntu’s early phases, but is now being replaced by top-level business partnerships. Perhaps, even, our suggestions are hindering progress towards closing bug #1. Time will tell, and I hope for the very best.

Dec 31, 1969, 18:00 CST