It’s not just Windows 8 that’s been criticised for expecting users to swallow an unpopular and ill-suited new interface. When Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, moved its default desktop OS interface to Unity in April 2012, it also alienated many loyal followers.
The issue, like the Metro tiles that can’t be avoided in Windows 8, is uncannily similar – an interface designed for mobile devices is blown up to huge proportions, even on large-desk monitors better suited to the mouse-and-keyboard paradigm.
Ubuntu’s Unity UI grew out of Ubuntu Netbook Remix, a workaround to make the low-res displays of mini-laptops more usable. But Unity has gently evolved since it became the default shell in Ubuntu 11.04, to the Unity 6.8 found in this year’s Ubuntu 12.10 ‘Quantal Quetzal’ release.
We had to reach for a dictionary to learn that Canonical’s leader Mark Shuttleworth, who dreams up these codenames, is alluding to a bird of the Trogon family with iridescent green plumage and red underparts; and one composed of discrete stepped units at that.
Thanks to some steady honing, the once-maligned Unity layout is now starting to gain traction with users. Shame, then, that Canonical has just shot itself in the other foot with the new 12.10 version.
The flak comes from Canonical’s newfound commercial collaboration with Amazon. Whenever you use Unity’s search bar (part of the Dash overlay that emerges from the top left corner of the screen) to find documents on your PC, your query is sent to the retail giant. It then offers vague matches with items in its online shop.
For Amazon, the wins are obvious: it gets the opportunity to advertise its products to Ubuntu users, and to mine lots of valuable user data to expand its customer profiling. For Canonical, it’s a chance to earn some cash on the side in kickback deals, a way to monetise the distribution of free software.
For the user, productivity is slowed by wasted online data traffic, privacy is violated by Unity transmitting the subject of local searches, and attention is distracted by a panel of thumbnails comprising retailed rubbish.
If you’re still reading following this news, either you don’t value your online dignity, or you’ve read the book before and know about the sort-of happy ending.
While Ubuntu 12.10 was still in pre-release beta, the backlash from testers and users forced Canonical to partly reverse its decision to make a quick buck, offering a discreetly hidden ‘off’ switch that will keep your computing life free of nosey shopkeepers. You need to look in System Settings, and slide the button marked ‘Include online search results’ under ‘When searching in the Dash’.
Leave the box checked, and your Dash queries will be sent not just to Amazon, but to Facebook, Twitter and the BBC, too.
For technical users there have been several changes under the bonnet. A new Linux 3.5 kernel results in low-level changes in file systems and the handling of metadata, but little that’s evident to most casual users. You can also try the new UEFI Secure Boot for improved security.
More noticeable are smoother interface graphics, perhaps aided by the move to Mesa 9.0, a software library for OpenGL 3D graphics.
We noticed a snappier UI with faster rendering of actions such as window minimising, and more convincing transparency overlays when the Dash was superimposed over the desktop. Even without hardware graphics acceleration, the Unity 2D interface now feels zippier.
Little treats include the facility to right-click on Dash results to get a large preview. And certain rich web pages can be set as ‘webapps’.
In Ubuntu 12.10 webapps can now be added to the dock Launcher for ready access and shortcuts – in the case of Google Calendar, to create a new event
When we logged into our work Google calendar, a small window prompted us to install Google Calendar for extra features and quicker access. A shortcut then appeared in the Launcher side dock, from which we could more quickly set calendar events, for example.
Other changes include the renaming of Update Manager to Software Updater, now available only from the Details section of System Settings. Social networkers can also log in through Online Accounts in the System Settings.
If you’d rather not broadcast your every search term to a host of third parties, you can opt out of Ubuntu’s misguided new commercial initiative. You’re then left with a free operating system that is fast, stable and a more viable alternative to Windows than ever before.