Susan Linton in Linux Journal charitably described the community response to Ubuntu 11.04′s Unity shell as “mixed.” At least anecdotally, it’s clear to me that the mixture is this: generally people who derive their paycheck from Mark Shuttleworth’s personal fortune approve of Unity; most other users do not. No one collects this kind of data, because Ubuntu isn’t spyware, but I’d be willing to wager that above 80% of Ubuntu users tried Unity for a few minutes and immediately reverted to classic Gnome.
But why? The reason isn’t that Unity is a bad user experience, or that it’s buggier than you’d expect for such a new project, or that it lacks certain important features. All of those points are arguable and probably valid criticisms, but that’s not the problem. Almost all software, especially new software, deserves that kind of criticism.
The problem with Ubuntu Unity is that it’s a disappointing departure from what Ubuntu has been, at least for the past several years. Ubuntu’s appeal has never been its adoption of new and cutting edge features. No one uses Ubuntu for its KDE 4s, the latest kernels, or a great new tiling window manager. We use Ubuntu because it’s really, really stable and has fewer issues (bugs) than almost any Linux distribution. Ubuntu’s greatness is epitomized by its famous 100 Paper Cuts Project: The idea that Ubuntu could improve by eliminating one hundred small, but annoying, paper cuts — little things we have to work around. Ubuntu has always polished all the little bugs and disconnects between the otherwise great nature of Linux software. There are new features, but more importantly, critical features that have been around forever just work.
Unity does not just work.
Unity introduces hundreds more little paper cuts to the Linux experience, regardless of whether you think it fundamentally is a good idea. If you have Focus-Follows-Mouse enabled, Unity isn’t compatible with that. But does it warn you and prompt you to change your settings? No. Does it change them for you? No. Instead, it just doesn’t work. At all. Or take the Dock. There are at least four major clones of Mac OS-style docs available for Gnome — AWN probably being the best. But Unity? New papercuts: windows without icons don’t show up right, things don’t stack right, icons can’t be moved, launchers can’t be modified.
Worst of all, Unity requires support for compositing. To run. At all.
I use compiz, but if there’s one thing that almost never just works out of the box in Linux, it’s compositing and 3d acceleration, so requiring a perfect GPU driver merely to login is an absolute disaster.
Unity might be a worthy project. But it isn’t what we come to rely on Ubuntu for. It doesn’t just work.
Update: I’ve switched to LinuxMint and I’m loving it. The only real complaint I had was that changing the default search engine to straight Google was non-trivial; the LinuxMint people try to force you into using their own Google Search results, which have extra ads and terrible formatting. Very spammy of them, but otherwise LinuxMint has been great.