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Ubuntu developing new Unity UI, instant-on versions for netbook

Canonical is making fast progress on a promise to improve the netbook experience by launching a new user interface dubbed “Unity” and plans for light editions of Ubuntu.

In a Mark Shuttleworth blog posted today, the Unity interface and light editions of Ubuntu under development are aimed at the dual-boot-instant-on netbook market.

An early development codebase of Unity is available now for early testing and experimentation, he announced today. Unity will likely first surface in the netbook edition of the next Ubuntu version 10.10.

Shuttleworth, the founder of Ubuntu who recently left his post as Canonical’s CEO to focus on development, said Unity does not use the GNOME shell because it is focused exclusively on this instant-on, netbook market and does not provide significant file management capabilities. Due to the niche aspect of this Linux interface effort, he does not see Unity or Ubuntu light as competitive to current and future GNOME and KDE interface shells.

Unity, he said, is optimized for the web services experience and will offer a “dash” interface, instant-on and touch capabilities. One chief goal is to maximize speed — which is defined as getting users to the Internet and to cloud services pronto, rather than the typical fast boot-up metric everyone focused on.

It is also designed to maximize screen real estate, which is an issue for users of netbooks — like me. Even writing a blog as simple as this is on a netbook is constraining. “We focused on maximising screen real estate for content,” Shuttleworth wrote. ‘In particular, we focused on maximising the available vertical pixels for web browsing. Netbooks have screens which are wide, but shallow. Notebooks in general are moving to wide screen formats. So vertical space is more precious than horizontal space.”

Unity is also designed for the dual-boot environment; that is, for running Windows and Linux simultaneously on netbooks and desktops. This is a very smart move. Other Linux desktops have taken steps at running alongside windows well, but the lack of focus on dual boot has kept the Linux desktop use very low.

Here’s a lot more about Unity and plans for various versions of Ubuntu light from Shuttleworth’s own blog:

“A few months ago we took on the challenge of building a version of Ubuntu for the dual-boot, instant-on market. We wanted to be surfing the web in under 10 seconds, and give people a fantastic web experience. We also wanted it to be possible to upgrade from that limited usage model to a full desktop.

The fruit of that R&D is both a new desktop experience codebase, called Unity, and a range of Light versions of Ubuntu, both netbook and desktop, that are optimised for dual-boot scenarios.

Those constraints and values lead us to a new shape for the desktop, which we will adopt in Ubuntu’s Netbook Edition for 10.10 and beyond.

First, we want to move the bottom panel to the left of the screen, and devote that to launching and switching between applications. That frees up vertical space for web content, at the cost of horizontal space, which is cheaper in a widescreen world. In Ubuntu today the bottom panel also presents the Trash and Show Desktop options, neither of which is relevant in a stateless instant-on environment.

Second, we’ll expand that left-hand launcher panel so that it is touch-friendly. With relatively few applications required for instant-on environments, we can afford to be more generous with the icon size there. The Unity launcher will show what’s running, and support fast switching and drag-and-drop between applications.

Third, we will make the top panel smarter. We’ve already talked about adopting a single global menu, which would be rendered by the panel in this case. If we can also manage to fit the window title and controls into that panel, we will have achieved very significant space saving for the case where someone is focused on a single application at a time, and especially for a web browser.

We have an initial starting point for the design, called the Dash, which presents files and applications as an overlay. The inspiration for the Dash comes from consoles and devices, which use full-screen, media-rich presentation. We want the Dash to feel device-like, and use the capabilities of modern hardware.

The Unity Dash, showing the Applications Place

The instant-on requirements and constraints proved very useful in shaping our thinking, but the canvas is still blank for the more general, netbook use case. Unity gives us the chance to do something profoundly new and more useful, taking advantage of ideas that have emerged in computing from the console to the handheld.

Unity does embrace the key technologies of Gnome 3: Mutter, for window management, and Zeitgeist will be an anchor component of our file management approach. The interface itself is built in Clutter.

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