Ubuntu Unity Interface Tailored for Netbook Screens

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It's been no secret that Canonical has designs on getting a solid hold on the netbook market. Today Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth announced a big step towards that ultimate goal: a step that will use a very Light tread.

What Shuttleworth is excited about is Unity: an interface specifically enhanced for wider and shorter screens found on netbook devices and quite a few laptops. Anyone who has been following Shuttleworth's blog has been privy to his public musings about the design challenges of this kind of screen real estate.

To Shuttleworth, the key challenge is conveying as much information as possible to the user without taking up scarce--and therefore valuable--vertical screen space. It's a valid issue: on my 1680X1050 monitor, the GNOME panels take up a total of 48 pixels--a mere 4.6 percent of the vertical space on my screen. If a typical netbook screen has a 1024X600 resolution, then the same panels will reside on eight percent of the vertical pixels--almost double the percentage.

Throughout April, while Ubuntu 10.04 LTS was rolling out the door, Shuttleworth was publicly spending a lot of time talking about the shape of Ubuntu to come, specifically 10.10 (Maverick Meerkat), which he wants to be "the perfect 10" release. From there, Shuttleworth focused on the technical design nuances for a netbook edition of Ubuntu, specifically window indicators--both icons and menu--for the future interface.

It's a little hard to imagine someone getting so excited about something so seemingly mundane, but there was the Shuttleworth, going on and on about Project Ayatana, which would enable events from outside the running application to be viewed (in the form of icons on the application's title bar) or controls (with operating system menus within the application's menu set).

That's a big part of what Unity is: by using "windicators," as Shuttleworth calls them, and tossing other navigation functions found in a typical GNOME desktop off the the side as a set of vertical controls, users could get eight percent of their vertical space back, because there would be little need for GNOME panel-like controls. Shuttleworth and his design teams, it should be noted, have little issue taking up horizontal space with vertical controls, since horizontal space is not as scarce on wide-screen devices like netbooks.

The real question is, does the reality meet the expectations? I took Unity out for a very brief test drive this morning, and I have to say that while the interface does not quite match Shuttleworth's vision yet, it's a neatly done design that is definitely moving in the right direction.

To get Unity, current Ubuntu users need to visit the Ubuntu Netbook Edition Launchpad page and add the PPA to Software Sources or manually add the necessary lines to /etc/apt/sources.list. Install Unity using your preferred package manager and reboot to start.

As you can see in the figure above, many of the planned design elements are in place. A Google search bar is added to the top Unity panel, and the vertical app launcher is in place. There are, as yet, no indicator icons in the application titlebars; maximizing your app still leaves the Unity panel in place. In the fully realized version of the Unity design, this panel's functions will be merged with a maximized application's interface.

Don't be fooled by that Ubuntu icon in the top left corner. Clicking it doesn't bring up the main menu, but rather floats all of the open apps in the session to the center of the screen so you can quickly switch between them.

Beyond the eye candy of the Unity development release was Shuttleworth's other piece of news: Canonical will be launching it's own brand of an instant-on desktop environment for netbook and laptop users who just want to get online as fast as possible. Called Ubuntu Light, this will be a dual-boot platform reminiscent of SplashTop and Phoenix HyperSpace. OEM partners can use Ubuntu Light as a dual-boot alternative OS for users who want to boot their machines in seconds and get right online.

This kind of instant-on environment is not new, obviously, though initially I was surprised Canonical wanted to head in this direction, since they have been partnering with OEMs to build netbooks and laptops with Ubuntu as the primary OS. Upon reflection, it kind of makes sense, because Canonical can still get Ubuntu out there, even to users who don't make the conscious effort to reach out to a Linux platform. And Ubuntu can offer something those other Linux-based instant-on environments can't: a direct migration path to another, more robust version of the same platform.

If this works, then Canonical will have opened up a new channel for incoming users to try Linux and like it.

Unity, indeed.

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