What's Coming in Ubuntu's New Unity Linux Desktop

Canonical, Ubuntu Linux's parent company is transforming its Unity desktop with the next version due out in October.

Unity is designed for new Linux users or those used to Windows but like trying Linux.

"Our goal with Unity is unprecedented ease of use, visual style and performance on the Linux desktop," according to Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical.

A recent blog post on Dash, Ubuntu Unity 11.10, has Shuttleworth talking about the biggest changes in the new version. In Dash Web servers, file servers, "Places" and directories will be handled by Scopes and Lenses. "Scopes are data sources, and can tap into any online or off-line data set as long as they can generate categorized results for a search, describe a set of filters and support some standard interfaces. Lenses are various ways to present the data that come from Scopes."

"The Scopes have a range of filtering options they can use, such as ratings ("show me all the 5 star apps in the Software Center please") and categories ("...that are games or media related"). Over time, the sophistication of this search system will grow but the goal is to keep it visual and immediate - something anyone can drive at first attempt."

Unity is also going to be developed to be more suitable with tablets. Shuttleworth says "This delivers on the original goal of creating a device-like experience that was search driven. Collaboration with the always-excellent Zeitgeist crew (quite a few of whom are now full time on the Unity team!) has improved the search experience substantially. Since we introduced the Dash as a full screen device-like search experience, the same idea has made its way into several other shells, most notably Mac OS X Lion.

Of course this is still a work in progress, "The existing Places are all in the process of being updated to the Scopes and Lenses model, it's a bit of a construction site at the moment so hard-hats are advised but dive in if you have good ideas for some more interesting scopes. I've heard all sorts of rumours about cool scopes in the pipeline and I bet this will be fertile ground for innovation. It's pretty straightforward to make a scope, I'm sure others will blog and document the precise mechanisms but for those who want a head start, just use the source, Luke."

In Ubuntu 11.10 "You'll see that the top left corner is now consistently used to close whatever has the focus. Maximizing a window keeps the window controls in the same position relative to the window - the top left corner. We have time to refine the behaviour of this based on user testing of the betas; for example, in one view, one should be able to close successive windows from that top left corner even if they are not maximized"

Further changes include "the Dash invocation is now integrated in the Launcher. While this is slightly less of a Fitts-fantastic location, we consider it appropriate for a number of reasons. First, it preserves the top left corner for closing windows. Second, the Dash is best invoked with the Super key (sometimes erroneously and anachronistically referred to as the 'Windows' key, for some reason). And finally, observations during user testing showed people as more inclined to try clicking on items in the Launcher than on the top left icon in the panel, unless that icon was something explicit like a close button for the window. Evidence based design rules."

Speed is another factor Ubuntu is taking into consideration with the new Unity desktop. "We have raw access to the GL pipeline, we're taking advantage of that with some real-time blur effects to help the readability and presentation of overlay content in the Dash, too. Both Nux in the case of Unity-3D and Qt in the case of Unity-2D have rich GL capabilities, and we'd like to make the most of whatever graphics stack you have on your hardware, while still running smoothly on the low end."

So far, it looks like the new version is going to offer a good alternative to Windows - though don't expect a sudden defection.

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