Saturday, November 6, 2010

Unity – Great to be Different

Buying a computer – whether a pc or a notebook is really very boring. It is depressing that while we are overwhelmed by the variety of soft drinks or flavours of potato chips, there is very little choice in the marketplace in the way we interact with a computer. Of course, we can take the computer home and customise its interface to our heart's delight, but its not the same thing. It would be nice to have each vendor's computers show some distinctive character and give the salesperson a chance to talk about the differentiation. One can spend hours in the store or debating with friends as I find people doing about their smart phones. That is why I was very happy to hear the news that Ubuntu will have a non-standard interface for Gnome.
Some credit should go to Xandros for the custom interface layer they developed for EEPC701. It was just a thin layer on top of the icewm window manager but it made it very easy to use the, predominantly, KDE applications bundled with the netbook.
Developing a complete window manager is expensive but a layer to give it a unique character is well worth the branding effort.
As I implied, it does not matter whether Ubuntu's Unity interface is better. The fact that it is different makes it special. If we examine the way the major desktop managers, Gnome and KDE, are evolving, we can see that they are making it easy to support the desktops on different types of machines, including netbooks, tablets and mobile devices. In the process, they have to make it easy to create very different look and feel for a common underlying framework, widgets and applets.
KDE4.5 offers the workspace option. We can see the possibilities by comparing the desktop workspace with the netbook workspace. Soon, there will be a mobile workspace as well.
Gnome 3 is headed in the same direction. MeeGo 1.0 and Ubuntu Unity netbook 10.10 are both based on gnome. Both use the mutter window manager. It would be hard tell that by looking at them. The difference lies in a plugin for mutter and a few configuration files.
Sooner or later, some manufacturers will start to offer a custom OS. I can imagine manufacturers and desktop designers sitting and debating the character of their product, the audience they are targeting, the values they wish to promote. Introduction of the new designs can be regular events. We can have our own favourite designers. We may not have a 24x7 ftv but a couple of hours a week on the latest in UI designs seems inevitable!

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