Ubuntu's vision for its Unity interface

7th Aug 2010 | 09:00

Ubuntu's vision for its Unity interface

David Siegel from the Unity design team

Ubuntu's ambitions don't stop with moving some window buttons and making everything purple – the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Belgium saw the announcement of Unity, a completely new desktop interface aimed at instant-on computing.

What's got us really excited is that fact that the creator of the fantastic Gnome Do, David Siegel, is working with the design team. Naturally, we wanted to find out some more…

Linux Format: How did you get into open source?

David Siegel: I had to build a Unix shell and Unix-like kernel for a university course on operating system design. After running into incompatibilities between system calls on Mac OS X and the Linux-powered lab computers, I installed Ubuntu on my Mac to align my development environment with that of the lab computers.

At the end of the project, I remember thinking: "This Ubuntu thing has everything I need, maybe I should stick with it." The following summer I worked at Google with Sean Egan, who was the maintainer of Pidgin at the time. Sean told me what it was like to run an open source project, and the responsibilities involved sounded really exciting.

The one application that was preventing me from making the switch from Mac OS X to Ubuntu was Quicksilver, a keyboard launcher application by Nicholas Jitkoff. For my senior thesis in computer science I formed an open source software project to explore desktop search with the goal of ultimately producing an equivalent application for Linux, and the result was Gnome Do.

LXF: How did you join Canonical?

DS: I met Mark Shuttleworth in Boston at Gnome Summit 2008, where I spoke with him about my ideas for user experience and free software. He suggested that I stop by Canonical's London office for an interview and to see if I'd be interested in moving to London to join Canonical's nascent design team, and by coincidence I had plans to visit London the very next week, so that's what I did.

I decided not to join Canonical initially, but eight months later Mark asked me to attend a design sprint in Cape Town and I was too excited to say no!

LXF: Where do you fit into the design team and design vision of Ubuntu?

DS: My role on the design team is "Desktop Interaction Architect." I write narratives and create wireframes to describe experiences for people using Ubuntu. Other members of the design team turn these descriptions into interactive prototypes and visual renderings that can be tested with users and eventually implemented.

LXF: Do you work with the wider Ubuntu community?

DS: When I'm not "architecting desktop interaction," I'm trying to engender interest in user experience throughout the free software community. To this end, I've led the One Hundred Paper Cuts project and the recently announced UX Advocate project while at Canonical.

I'm not sure how I fit into the "design vision" of Ubuntu, but I try to encourage technical stakeholders in Ubuntu to see software not only as an opportunity to write beautiful source code, but also as an opportunity to create beautiful experiences for people.

LXF: So is that what you're going to do with Unity?

DS: Unity is a lightweight interface for your Ubuntu netbook. Considered more generally, it's a shell tailored for devices with small screens.

Unity comprises a launcher, which makes opening and switching between applications delightful; a panel where indicators behave uniformly; a view of your installed applications, with Ubuntu Software Centre integration; a view of your files with quick access to favourite folders, recent files, downloads and simple browsing; and a search interface, enabling pervasive use of find-as-you-type search, so you can find apps, files and settings with a few keystrokes.

LXF: What is the vision for Unity? What do you seek to achieve with it?

DS: Canonical recently announced Ubuntu Light, a version of Ubuntu with an interface honed to create a fast, simple, and secure web experience. There's a lot of overlap between Ubuntu Light and Ubuntu Netbook Edition, mostly because they're both optimised for small screens and web browsing.

Unity serves as the foundation of both products so that they can share common elements like indicators and the launcher. My short term goal for Unity is to build a fantastic experience for Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.10 by extending Ubuntu Light to support basic application and file management use cases that are appropriate for general purpose devices like netbooks.

Unity

ANATAYA:The Unity interface is part of a raft of design improvements grouped into Canonical's Anataya project

I'd also like to explore search further, and incorporate touch. I'm interested in using search to tame complex user journeys (but I don't treat search as a panacea), and everyone is interested in touch devices these days.

LXF: When will Unity hit the netbook edition?

DS: I hope it will be released in Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.10! We have a lot of work to do before October, but with Neil Patel as the Unity engineering lead, I am at ease.

LXF: How do you feel Unity improves on the current crop of netbook interfaces?

DS: I've already described Unity's launcher as delightful, and I meant it. The first version of the launcher simply scrolled off screen when it was full.

The second version, due to land in time for Ubuntu 10.10, behaves completely differently. Words cannot describe it – it's breathtaking. If someone sees you using Unity, they will ask: "Hey, what is that?". It's not only an improvement over the current crop of netbook interfaces, it's an improvement over personal computer interfaces in general.

LXF: There has been some discussion of the Applications and Files places. What are they?

DS: The Applications Place is Unity's view of your installed applications. It lets you browse your installed applications and provides find-as-you-type search of both your installed applications and applications available in the Ubuntu Software Centre. It's slick.

The Files Place, Unity's view of the files on your netbook, eschews traditional, hierarchical filesystem navigation and instead promotes search and time-based browsing. This will make Ubuntu Netbook Edition the first netbook interface with a file browsing experience powered by Zeitgeist [the new file manager in Gnome 3].

There is still much to be designed, but it's already a bold and exciting experiment that challenges many long-standing assumptions about how people think about their files.

LXF: Some people have accused Ubuntu of mimicking Mac OS X – what's your take on that?

DS: I don't take a position on every silly little thing that people say, but if forced to take a position on the matter, I would say "haters gonna hate."

LXF: What do you see as the ultimate goal and opportunity for Ubuntu on the desktop?

DS: The ultimate opportunity for Ubuntu is to make people happy, and its goal is to do so ethically by not treating its users as means to an end; Ubuntu users will be made happy by great user experience, and they will be treated as ends in themselves by not requiring them to sacrifice freedom in order to use software.

LXF: How can people participate in Unity?

DS: Unity is available immediately from a the ppa:canonical-dx-team/une PPA. After you've added this PPA to your Ubuntu system (you need to be running Lucid for now), install the unity package, then change your session from Gnome to Unity at the login screen.

Once you have Unity installed, please play with it and report bugs. You can find me on the IRC channel #ayatana on irc.freenode.net, where my nickname is 'djsiegel'. Please come talk to me about Unity; I am eager to hear your feedback and suggestions!

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First published in Linux Format Issue 134

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