Once upon a time, Ubuntu was the go-to Linux distribution for users curious about the GNOME desktop. In 2011, however, Ubuntu is controversially parting ways with GNOME, as both groups work to completely imagine your computer’s desktop.
I call it a cage match, but both groups seem to respect each other, and leave it to users to choose which desktop they want to use. After all, the open source world is full of competition between software projects, especially when one project is a fork of an earlier project. However, it is unusual for a company like Canonical, which usually only packages Linux software into Ubuntu and distributes it, to craft its own version of a very prominent piece of the OS. It’s even more unusual for them to make such a substantial change when GNOME is already in the process of making change of its own.
In two words: It’s on. Who’s going to win? Users like us.
“I don’t use Linux. Why is this relevant to me?”
I know most of my friends are not Linux users, and think what happens in the Linux world does not affect them, but consider this: Before Microsoft created Windows Aero, the slick, polished look and feel for Windows that makes your program windows move smoothly in and out of focus, it was accomplished first in Linux. The animation of opening and closing windows in newer versions of Windows is pretty much identical to the Compiz window manager, which started in 2006.
Other portions of Windows have also been influenced by open source work, like the file manager displaying the folders in the address bar as clickable buttons. So, while you may not use Linux now, these design concepts may still appear in your OS in the future.
Gnome 3.0 turns the start menu on its head
Perhaps the biggest innovation in Gnome 3.0 is that its interface, dubbed Gnome Shell, abandons the idea of an programs menu, like the one Windows users have had since Windows 95. The problem with the programs menu is that, over the span of a computer’s life, we install a lot of programs—so many programs, what was meant to be a menu becomes a huge, screen-dominating titan, chuck-full of tiny application folders that are difficult to pinpoint.
The solution Gnome has arrived at is to replace this menu with a new user interface that takes up the entire screen, and uses that real estate to offer more helpful tools to the user. As in recent versions of MacOS and Windows, users can search for an application by typing its name. What’s different is, the search results are not shown in a list, but as a series of icons. If you plan on using an application a lot, you can drag it to the dock, which, unlike OS X, only displays on this screen, not on your default desktop. This frees up screen real estate, letting users focus on the application they are working with, without having to be distracted by icons for other programs.
Also noteworthy is the way the top toolbar is black, with white text. This design decision also seems to have been made to help users focus more on their application. We know eyes are drawn to the brightest parts of the screen, so the dark toolbar, the only bright spots on the screen will be your applications. The dark toolbar also allows the desktop wallpaper to stand out more, which appears to be a trend that I think we’ll see more of, especially in mobile devices.
Gnome 3.0 also does away with the task bar, which frees the top tool bar up to be just a notification area. You’ll notice this decision has allowed them to put the clock at the top center of the screen, which makes it feel more like the current time is being presented to the user, not something buried in system notifications.
Ubuntu brings a little more Mac
Ubuntu’s interface, Unity, will similarly get rid of the programs menu, but an even bigger change is that they have placed the menus from their applications into the top menu bar, much like MacOS has done since 1984. While the Mac style menu is problematic on larger screens, Canonical has stated that a big focus for their organization is to get Ubuntu onto more netbooks, which are a perfect form factor for this kind of menu design.
Where Ubuntu’s design differs most drastically from Gnome’s is that its dock occupies the right side of the screen at all times. This is a major frustration if you’re using a 1024×768 monitor, because that means even if you maximize your browser window, it still won’t be wide enough to view most sites without an annoying horizontal scroll bar. Most netbooks use a wider screen, however, so users with newer hardware won’t have that problem.
The bell rings this April
Both of these desktops are in alpha right now (unless you consider last year’s netbook-targeted release of Ubuntu Unity), with releases pegged for April. These ideas are fairly radical, and will likely frighten many seasoned users. I’m personally rooting for Gnome, but I won’t really know which UI I like until I spend some time doing some web development in both of these environments.
Having said that, I think it’s exciting to see this many radical new ideas all hitting at the same time. I think 2011 will prove to be an exciting year for UI design.