Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal - Unity replaces Gnome as default shell
Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has announced that the Unity shell currently used in Ubuntu's netbook edition will become the default user interface for Ubuntu's main desktop edition as well, starting with the next version of the operating system. Unity became Ubuntu's netbook UI with the release of the current version of the OS, 10.10 Maverick Meerkat.
Ubuntu 11.04 Natty Narwhal is set to be released before the end of April 2011, and will represent a significant milestone in Ubuntu's history. It will be the first version of the OS not to ship with the Gnome shell as the default UI. Gnome will continue to be the underlying framework, as Unity is based on it, but the interface layer will look nothing like Gnome.
The reasons for this shift are many, but consist mostly of differences of opinion between Ubuntu's leadership and the upstream developers of Gnome. According to Shuttleworth, Ubuntu tried to participate in the Gnome shell design process but found many philosophical differences that were impossible to reconcile. They decided to go their own way and improve Unity to the point at which it will become a viable replacement for the Gnome shell.
Gnome's rejection of global menus as well as performance issues with Gnome's new Mutter window manager are also to blame for Ubuntu's change of direction. A key factor was also multi-touch, and Shuttleworth's clear belief that extensive support for it should be built into the OS. Unity is already multi-touch-enabled in Ubuntu 10.10 but the plan is to bring richer touch interaction to the desktop with Ubuntu 11.04.
This move could anger at least some open source enthusiasts, but it probably shouldn't. Ubuntu is clearly trying to further differentiate itself in a Linux world filled with UIs and user experiences that are extremely similar. It is a risky bet, but Shuttleworth says that developers need not worry because fragmentation can be avoided by using FreeDesktop.org to ensure that desktop integration mechanisms are standardized and interoperable. Whether that will be enough to alleviate all possible issues or silence the critics of this decision remains to be seen.
The standard Gnome shell will continue to be available as a non-default installation option.