Saturday, April 23, 2011
My thoughts on Unity
Today is a good day to comment on Ubuntu Unity. I had refrained from doing so in the past largely because it seemed unfair to do so while it was in it's formative process and not yet clear where they were trying to go. However, with the release of Ubuntu 11.04 imminent, and now with a much clearer idea of what the intent and design really is, it seemed an appropriate time to do so.
Perhaps I am not choosing to be as critical of Unity as some are, for there is good ideas in it, and I know some good intentions intended. However I do feel it fails to deliver an effective user experience as a result of it's design rather than in incompleteness, and I think this is because the people involved did not choose to go far enough in what they were trying to do.
The first problem is the problem of the placement of the dock. Humans are wired for specific left-right symmetries. In western countries, people generally read from left to right, and most people are right handed. This suggests the logical default arrangement would be to have the icon dock on the right side of the display, and document windows that are viewed and read should start from the left edge. Indeed, a strongly right-handed individual, perhaps using one of the imagined touch-screen desktops Unity is also meant to address, will likely stick their right arm in front of the screen to reach that dock thereby limiting usability. This same symmetry and consideration also suggests of course that the most natural place for window controls as clearly on the right side of the title bar, not on the left.
Since not all people are wired the same, it is essential to be able to easily change such a fundamental arrangement. There should be easy and direct options to relocate both the window controls and the dock, rather than hidden and secret gconf entries or no option at all. While I happen to agree there is far more need for design people in today's desktop development, this to me is the difference between largely design driven desktops and desktops also done with full participation of human interface engineers. Clearly there is a need for both specializations.
OS/X and earlier Apple products demonstrate an understanding of basic left-right human symmetry, when one considers that by default desktop icons, such as for mounted devices, appear on the right side of the desktop by default, not on the left, and that document windows generally are placed left, not right.
To me the most problematic aspect of Unity is that it is a mesh of different ideas and historical anachronisms that should have been radically simplified. Further simplified, you ask?! I think so, and this should start with the top panel. The panel must die for usability to live!
The "panel" in most GNU desktops was used for all sorts of things including menus and launchers, and these of course are now on the unity dock. It was historically used for the taskbar to hold iconified applications. These too are gone in Unity. What we are left with is a large vacant space and indicators.
With this large vacant space now available, and netbooks being vertically challenged, I guess it may have seemed natural to move the application menu of the "currently focused" application into panel to conserve vertical space. It is however wrong. The only reason Apple retains this ugliness is because historically they had a single tasking operating system and this was the only way to represent the foreground application when it was "switched into". It remains an anachronism on OS/X today, and much like the human appendix, often causes other usability problems as well.
In addition to the inconsistent behaviors and consequences that appear on the OS/X desktop from this, one problem in the case of GNU systems in particular is that applications that do not use the GTK toolkit each have to be customized and patched for moving application menus. Even for those that do use GTK, their behavior may also not have been designed for this and may have unintended consequences.
Getting rid of the top panel means applications maximized have full access to the precious vertical real-estate. There is no need to hack toolkits or patch applications, and all the benefits and usability issues of having a real multitasking desktop or multiple monitors, and when not maximizing applications that Unity breaks or ignores are thus fully retained and solved.
What about the indicators? One purpose of the Ubuntu indicators was to move the notification tray operations and how notifications appear out of the applications themselves, and into the desktop environment. This is great, and offers a very easy and obvious solution. The notification icons just have to become special dock icons! Indeed without the top panel, in addition to a left or right edge, the dock should also be placeable on the top and bottom as well. An example of what this might look like, and how it might behave, would be rather easy to mock up in something like windowmaker, or in xfce.
The result of a single right dock and an "open" desktop to the left is I think both beautiful and radically simple; I think it offers something much closer to the user experience that Unity claims to desire, and it can do so without sacrificing the needs of experienced users in the process.