Ubuntu 11.04 – Unity Fail!

Okay, so Ubuntu 11.04 is out. I braved the stampede and upgraded my notebook just to see what this Unity Desktop brouhaha is all about. The title of this post should give the astute reader the general gist of my experience. Read on for more details.

Style note: any time you see <bleep> below, insert the absolute strongest expletive you can think of, derived to fit the context.

The upgrade went smoothly with only two mysterious questions popping up. The first was about “mime.types” being customized and did I want to keep the customized copy. Now I know what “mime.types” is and what it does but I know I didn’t customize it. That would baffle the average user. The other was about a grub configuration file which is even more mysterious to most, though at least there is an outside chance that I did customize that one for one reason or another. Other than those two mysterious questions, everything was smooth right through to the first boot with the upgraded system.

Once the system booted, up came Unity. So I said to myself, “It’s different but I can do this.” It took a while to find how to launch various software but it mostly worked. My desktop icons were still present. Xchat started just fine, as did Deluge, Firefox, and Thunderbird.

Enter the first baffling situation. I closed Xchat and it disappeared entirely. See, I had it configured to minimize to the system tray which doesn’t exist on Unity. Okay, fine, I re-launched it and it came back without loading another copy of itself. But Deluge was a different story. It simply would not re-appear, no matter what I did. But, hey, I figured I can still deal with that somehow by modifying the app configurations. After all, I reasoned, I would likely have configured them differently under Unity anyway.

Enter the second baffling situation. Where the <bleep> did the application menu bar go? I looked around the screen and there was no <bleep> clue. Then, after a while of randomly waving the mouse around, I hit the top bar of the screen, which held the title of the focused application. Suddenly, “File Edit…” appeared there. Now that is <bleep> stupid if the window is not maximized. And those of us using screens that are larger than a postage stamp are unlikely to operate with everything maximized all the time. Not to mention that it interacts very badly with “focus follows mouse”.

This highlights what appears to be an underlying assumption about how people work. They work on exactly one thing at a time, in exactly one window at a time, with that window taking full focus (maximized) on the screen. For people that work that way, which may or may not be a substantial fraction of computer users, the Unity interface will make perfect sense and elicit such responses as “Kewl” and the like. But for those of us who often have multiple windows open simultaneously and actually do stuff in more than one in rapid succession, the Unity interface gets in the way by forcing substantially greater mouse movement to accomplish the same tasks.

Now for the reason I think the menu bar being moved to the top of the screen for the focused window is a dreadfully stupid idea when the focused window is not maximized. If you are using “focus follows mouse” like I do, then the focused window might be underneath the foreground window. (Take it from me – this can be useful sometimes, say when you want to adjust a “log tail” in a shell or run a command while keeping another status readout fully visible, without playing games with window sizing which takes time.) In this case, the visual cues would suggest the menu presented should be the one for the foreground window but instead it’s the background window. And attempting to get the mouse to the menu bar will likely change the focus to a different window before you get there. See the problem? Obviously, that problem goes away with a maximized window, in which case merging the menu bar with the top bar on the screen might make some sense since the point of maximizing is to get maximum screen real estate allocated to the window.

Now, for a collection of windows sitting on a desktop, none of which are maximized and all of which are partially visible, it makes no sense for something which is specific to each window to be extracted from the window and displayed in a common place on the screen. Let’s consider again my use case which involves “focus follows mouse”. In that situation, I can directly activate a visible widget in any window without first bringing the window to the foreground. This becomes impossible with the menu bar under Unity because I have to first focus the window, then move the mouse to the top of the screen, then finally activate the menu of choice. Hardly an improvement in work flow.

So, while I can probably learn to navigate the new application launching scheme, and work out how to deal with the lack of a system tray, and possibly even have an improved usability experience from that, the fact that the application menu bar is extracted from non-maximized windows simply causes trouble. (Feel free to explain in the comments why this is a better solution, but when you do, keep in mind my use case.)

Now, to be fair, my particular work pattern is likely atypical. It may well be that most folks will find the new scheme to make more sense. Still, my particular work pattern is actually disrupted by the “improvements” in Unity.

Now Ubuntu still provides the “classic” Gnome desktop with 11.04 which, of course, allows me to continue to operate in the ways to which I am accustomed. However, I have no doubt that at some point in the future, the “classic” Gnome desktop will be eliminated. I am, therefore, seriously considering switching desktop environments for the first time in quite a few years (probably to xfce).

As a final comment to (attempt to) head off a few flames. Yes, I know some (all?) of my complaints can be addressed by adjusting configurations. But those configurations are not in obvious places or require a level of arcane knowledge that is simply unreasonable. And yes, I know that if I change my work pattern to match Unity, it will be less painful, but my work pattern is the way it is for a reason. I didn’t transition to a GUI until there was a benefit to my work flow, and that benefit was that I could have multiple self-contained windows visible at the same time.

As a semi-related side note, I also find the “unified messaging” scheme to be pointless and annoying – if I want instant messaging of a particular flavour enabled, I’ll do so at that time. I don’t give a <bleep> about staying up to date with social media, etc., and I certainly don’t want to show as “online” on everything all at once! Hence, in previous Ubuntu releases, one of the first things I have done is uninstall gwibber. But at least this particular feature is something that I could disable, or at least simply not use.

One thought on “Ubuntu 11.04 – Unity Fail!”

  1. I so agree with you .. I am thinking turning to an other disto … at last I turn to xcfe … I had a lot of hour on it and loved it for the stability
    what the hell canonical think by making us using an uncomplete gui ? gnome 2 was perfect …
    they are making ubuntu looking like mac thats all so that apple thinking crap and let’s go with something else :3 we might be happyer

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