Canonical to replace GNOME user interface with Unity in Ubuntu 11.04

Unity, Canonical's netbook user interface, will replace GNOME as the default UI for both PCs and netbooks in Ubuntu 11.04.

The Unity netbook shell will replace GNOME as the default user interface in the next version of Ubuntu (11.04) for desktops when it hits in 2011, giving both PC and netbook users 3D support and better touch screen enablement.

This news came from Ubuntu Project and Canonical Ltd. founder Mark Shuttleworth during the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Orlando on Monday, where the roadmap for Ubuntu desktops was laid out.

Canonical released Ubuntu 10.10 for desktops earlier this month with the Unity interface for netbooks. Unity will replace the GNOME UI as the default user interface for both desktops and netbooks in Ubuntu 11.04 due to user demand, Shuttleworth said.

Canonical moved away from the GNOME UI because the company’s shell suggestions for the next version of Ubuntu “weren’t well-received by GNOME developers,” Shuttleworth said during a Q&A session at the event.

Although the GNOME UI won’t be in Ubuntu 11.04, Shuttleworth said this was not a sea change; the rest of the GNOME project will still be used, and GNOME applications will run as normal without tweaking.

“A GNOME desktop with a Unity shell is still a GNOME desktop,” Shuttleworth said. “It has all the same settings, preferences and applications, so it would be pandering to the hysterical to describe it in stronger language.”

John Locke, Manager of the Seattle-based open source technology integration company Freelock Computing, said the UI change shouldn’t impact users too much because under the hood, it’s still GNOME.

“I don't expect any transition issues at all, because the way programs run won't change a bit,” Locke said. “It's basically a new way of getting to your applications -- icons that remain visible on the screen instead of hidden on a menu.”

There were some mixed reactions to the change on user community forums, but most of those posting supported the move to Unity saying the GNOME interface has been stretched to its limit.

“It's important that we consider new approaches to the desktop, because if GNOME 2 just stays GNOME 2, Xfce is going to completely catch up in features and make GNOME nothing but a novelty of the old guys in free software,” one user wrote on the Ubuntu Forum. Xfce is a lightweight user environment for Unix and Linux systems.

Ubuntu 10.10 users were promised a smooth upgrade path to 11.04, though the new UI will stretch hardware capabilities. If Unity doesn’t work on a system, it doesn’t have to be used, and people will be able to flip between interfaces depending on whether they need 2D or 3D support, Shuttleworth said.

He also did his best to quell suspicions that this signals a broad move away from the GNOME community. Canonical will continue to support GNOME’s usability values, and it is feasible for Unity to become part of the GNOME project, he said.

Getting the touch-focused Unity interface to work on PCs is going to take a lot of development effort, but Shuttleworth said it needs to be done to streamline the UI between netbooks and PCs, particularly to benefit OEMs. Dell, which sells Ubuntu netbooks, is already on board to support Unity for Ubuntu 11.04.

In addition, the way Ubuntu developers write, develop and update user applications may also change. Now, Ubuntu developers release updates every six months, but Shuttleworth hopes to see updates released every day, in real time based on user feedback, he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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