Q: When is a desktop not a netbook?

A: Ever.

For some time now, you’ve seen me turning into a Ubuntu loverboy. Mark this post as my officially running for the exit with only a brief stop to grab an industrial strength barf bag.

Ubuntu 11.0, “Natty Narwhal”, is in Alpha. I’ve given it a short spin, done a little reading to check on my initial conclusions.

Don’t misunderstand: It’s perhaps the best Ubuntu yet. But you come near one of my workstations with it and I’m not going to think twice about smashing you in the head with my monitor.

I think that, for many people, the big Ubuntu win was it’s ability to deliver a better-than-tolerable desktop experience. Their success has enabled them to leverage the same smarts to delivering a fantastic netbook experience. Then they did too many drugs and now they’re trying to deliver the netbook experience in the desktop version…

Oh shit.

Out of the box, Natty looked gorgeous on my display. But that appreciation was immediately spoiled – no, screw that, it was nuked from orbit with some serious angst – by the realization that all my menus and etc had gone away and been replaced with some confused attempt at a Mac/GEM like “my window’s menu is now the screen’s titlebar”.

Worse: I couldn’t find anything.

Fortunately, this is an artefact of a first boot of an alpha system. Unity had sprung to life like greased lightning, while all the underlying GNOME cruft was still taking a before-we-start smoke break. Eventually the little Ubuntu icon became a short-cut to the applications folder and the OS bar along the top of the screen finally began to double as a menu bar for the foreground application.

Yes, that’s like the Mac. But for a netbook’s 7-10in widescreen display, it’s invaluable recovery of screen real-estate.

This understanding, unfortunately, only fuels my ire. This is NOT a desktop experience I want. This is where I went and did my reading… And my ire went from fueled to stoked to critical mass.

Apparently the netbook-centric app-bar-on-the-left is a “design decision” that they don’t want to let users adjust.

Back while I was downloading Win7 Beta, I read one of the dev’s blogs describing his joy at getting support for using a vertical taskbar in. (I can only find this – see Widescreen tip). So I tried it. Tried it for a day, msotly got over my initial reactions, but moved it to the right and fell in-love. Having it at the screen edge frees up so much screen estate.

But why left vs right? Many reasons.

I generally tend to focus on the left side of the screen anyway, so that’s where I want my application to be. My taskbar/start menu is just a tool, not the center of my universe.

Another is that in most windowing environments, the left edge of an application is typically the least decorated. Think about it: You have the title bar at the top, the bottom edge often has a status bar and/or scroll bar, and the right edge usually has a scroll bar.

Said decorations can serve as a buffer between interaction with an app window and interaction with a stupid task bar thing.

I know lots of folks who tried the auto-hide of a Windows task bar at some point and gave up on it because whenever they tried to click the horizontal scroll bar they hit the task bar’s pop-up region obscuring the scroll bar and accidentally launching something they didn’t mean to.

Did I mention: Desktops are not netbooks?

Netbooks are lightweight with limited storage capacity. So, like a phone, you’re probably not going to have an encyclopaedia programmatica installed on them: Web browser, office tools, etc. So having an “Applications Folder” is fine.

But I’ll bet even your phone has some kind of separation between system tools and apps. (On my droid, there’s apps and settings, and a settings app in the apps folder. If I’m trying to find my settings stuff I don’t have to search for it inbetween fart-noise apps).

If you’ve got a Windows machine that’s more than a few weeks old, I bet you’ve come to dread having to use the Program Files list to find applications. Even the most computer-illiterate of Windows users I know has at some point worked out how to organize the menu into sub menus … Games, Porn, Virus Checkers, P2P stuff and Shit I Installed But Have No Clue What It Is menus…

Unity takes a step backwards. From the categorized menus in Ubuntu 10.x etc, everything is slopped into an “Applications Folder”. By “everything” I really do mean “everything”. Like Microsoft deciding to do away with the Control Panel, Accessories, Games, System, etc, etc menus and just slapping everything into one big directory for you to browse thru…

On a netbook or phone, I can see how all those menus and categories are more clutter than its worth … But on a desktop, jeez if you put all that stuff into one big folder, that’d be freaking crazy amounts of stuff………:

Holy crap – look at that scroll bar! And this is a fresh install. Aside from Chrome I haven’t even started installing my shit on the box yet.

Don’t tell me I can organize them however I like. I want to do things with my computer, not play electronic flower arranging.

My last big issue with bringing this netbook experience to a desktop is that desktops aren’t netbooks. By which I mean desktops aren’t fixed format. They have different sizes, orientations and numbers of screens.

My workstation at the office has two screens. A 24in w/s primary and a 19in 4:3 secondary which I use as a reference display. Some days, I don’t even turn that monitor on. So I definitely wouldn’t want the task bar on it. And having a task bar down the left side of the primary display would be bloody inconvenient since it would effectively be in the middle of my screen.

The plutonium to my reactor-of-ire was Mark Shuttleworth drawing the “it’s open source. If you want to change it, please do!” card. (This sound file aptly reflects my thoughts on reading that post).

Nuh-uh. That’s GenToo talk. Ubuntu is about out-of-the-box sexy. The exact philosophy that makes Ubuntu’s myriad “spins” add to its success rather than detract: they provide an off-the-shelf, out-of-the-box your kind of sexy.

My concern here is that this is Ubuntu core/desktop, and Cannonical appear to be toying with the notion of making a netbook-centric user experience their desktop showpiece.

As I’ve tried to expound, it just doesn’t scale up to a desktop well at all. Booting out of Windows 7 and into Unity is like replacing notepad with a batch file that launches EDIT in a DOS Window.

Folks for whom even the Mac desktop is too much will probably take to a Unity box like ducks to water, with so little to get between the power on button and getting to the first web page.

Plenty of others will just like Unity as it is.

But mainstream desktop users are just going to feel lost and floundering having so much of their desktop environment ripped away from them for netbookesque considerations that have no relevance to their day-to-day computer usage.

When I’m working with a half dozen windows at a time, I really don’t want to have to keep going to the top of the screen for my menu bar. Not something I would be doing on a 10-12in screen anyway. Whereas if I’m working with a single window full-screened, the screen-bar thing really isn’t probably doing anything for me anyway.

Although, I’m going to stick my neck out and say that it is a far better solution than Microsoft’s game of “find the thing to click that produces the menu-bar drop down” :( Vista apps usually have a button on the right edge of the Window (in Chrome its the spanner icon). Win 7 and new fangled .NET apps tend to have a large button at the top left of the window that – once you know about this – does kinda look like an applications own “start menu” button, but only if someone is considerate enough to tell you that.

Yeah, I know, the button at the top left of old windows apps used to be the “System Menu” button, but I can’t even remember when that menu last provided you with anything but a redundant, menu-format version of the buttons on the right hand side of the window, and I can’t remember the last time I used the “system menu” on a window to select “Close” instead of just clicking the close button…

As yet, I haven’t noticed anything much else different about Natty under the hood – I suspect the Unity change has taken up pretty much everything.

Ultimately my experience would have been a thousand fold better if there was some kind of “Welcome to Unity” greeting rather than a simple absence of everything.

So far, the only significant eye-candy that Unity seems to have added is the “Work space switcher”:



I was kinda hoping they’d have added something like <Windows-Key> + <T> under Win 7, but that didn’t do anything and alt-tab is as plain and boring as ever.

Of course, this is a very early alpha. I weighed that in consideration to my initial reactions, and would have quashed them if it hadn’t been for the ominous sounds of “this is where we’re going” from the Ubuntu developers…

4 Comments

i gave up on ubuntu long time ago. they’ve always felt very regimented like things were going to be done there way or else. i kinda like the current fedora. doing a @core kickstart install and then adding what you want seems to limit the bloat somewhat.

also i have a big problem with the whole sudo thing ubuntu uses. i find it insulting actually if i want to work as root i’m going to work as root. i dont want to run via sudo and constantly hassle with that. yes i realize it can be turned off as well as other ways to make it less awful but i still hate the whole idea of it.

I felt that way at first about sudo, but sudo is your friend, especially once you discover sudo -i and sudo -s :)

The regimented thing is where spins come into play. If you don’t like the way Ubuntu do it, try Kubuntu, Xubuntu, …

Really the problem for me here is that this is a netbook design philosophy errantly being supplanted onto the desktop. That seems to suggest somewhere along the line they misunderstood why Unity is awesome on a netbook – it is awesome on/for a netbook…

– Ol

Funny, I had a similar discussion with a coworker today. Don’t forget that there a still a lot of no-techie users out there for whom most simple things are very hard to do with todays desktop environments. Click here, start this, right click over there, select this etc pp. It took a long time for most people to use the desktop as a desktop (eg. put files there, use it as a space to organize things etc.) Maybe the desktop metaphor can be developed further – we will never find out if we don’t try.

Oh, I’m looking forward to where this goes, but right now there are desktops, there are netbooks, there are phones and there are touch-flavors, and as this relatively recent flourish of formats has shown, one shoe does not fit all.

I *like* Unity, part of why I was eager to try Natty. On a netbook, it doesn’t feel “dumbed down” – it really feels at home and relevant. You just aren’t going to interact with a desktop system the same way. Touch will definitely close that gap.

Take the trash can. Unity avoids context menus. To empty trash, you have to double click the can to open it’s window, choose the Empty Trash button, and then close the window again.

On a desktop, your average user doesn’t worry about things like disk space or emptying the trash can – infact, not emptying it is generally the best policy so that next week you can get back that file you deleted by mistake… Plus you’re far more likely on a desktop to be throwing around numbers of files that make waiting for the view to load a nuisance. Netbook: probably less so.

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