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Ubuntu republic riven by damaging civil wars

Can the Linux Jedi hold things together?

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Analysis There's a popular misconception about open source: that it's democratic, that all users have a vote over its direction and development or even the running of the community around it.

The users of Ubuntu, arguably the world's most popular Linux distro these days, are currently discovering that this is not how it works. The result is making a lot of people very angry, but it might result in some interesting new developments for Linux – as well as maybe pointing the way towards the UIs of the next generation of PC.

Ubuntu started with the same broad goals as Bruce Perens' stillborn UserLinux distro from 2003: to be a simple, all-in-one OS for desktop and laptop PCs, with all the standard tools you need included: Internet clients, basic productivity software and so on and nothing much else. One CD, no awkward questions about what to install – just bung it in, point it at an empty bit of disk, give it your name and you're in business.

Both Perens and Ubuntu chose the GNOME desktop, for two main reasons – firstly, it was completely free, unlike GNOME's principal rival, KDE, based on the at-the-time-non-GPL Qt toolkit. Secondly, GNOME is simpler than KDE. Although there's not much difference in ease of use, KDE has many more options and settings to twiddle.

As soon as the first release of Ubuntu appeared in October 2004, the arguments started. KDE's many fans immediately rebelled at the terrible injustice of GNOME being chosen over their preferred desktop and promptly started to assemble a KDE version of Ubuntu.

The result, "Kubuntu", appeared simultaneously with Ubuntu's second release in April 2005. It was the first of many "remixes": tweaks and rebuilds of Ubuntu, whose creators actively encourage this sort of activity. Until recently, though, most of the remixes have remained relatively marginal… but this is changing.

This year, Ubuntu's fans have been in uproar again, and once again, the choice of desktop is the reason.

GNOME version 2 was released in June 2002, and the first version of Ubuntu – 4.10, known as "Warty Warthog" – used GNOME 2.8, the then-current version. (Ubuntu version numbers are just the year and month of release, so "4.10" denotes the October '04 version.) Since then, each successive release of Ubuntu has used the latest version of GNOME. But what few of Ubuntu's admirers realised was that the writing was on the wall for their chosen desktop. A new version of GNOME was looming, meaning end-of-life for the familiar interface. Ubuntu had to choose something else.

GNOME 3 and the GNOME Shell

Years in the making, GNOME 3 is a major new release with a radically different interface: GNOME Shell. After years of quietly aping Windows and in some respects Mac OS, GNOME Shell boldly strikes out in a new and idiosyncratic direction, not quite like any other GUI. The familiar top and bottom panels have gone. There is a bar across the top of the screen, but it's no longer very customisable – it just holds, from left to right, a pane labelled "Activities", the name of the current app blended strangely into a version of its icon, a curiously centred clock and some status icons. There are no application menus, quick-launch icons or customisable widgets. The desktop has no other panels, no specific task or window switcher tools whatsoever. App status icons, such as chat programs, float at the bottom right corner of the primary screen, along with an icon for notification messages.

Down the left hand edge of the screen is a "favourites bar" to which you can add your most-often-used programs. A faint background glow shows if an app is running, but not how many windows; it's not really meant for switching between programs. This is a keyboard operation – Alt-tab still works, and Alt-` (the key directly above tab) to switch between documents. The developers seemed to envision that the way to keep apps separate would be to put them on different virtual desktops. A virtual-desktop-switcher bar occupies the right edge of the primary screen, and there's an indefinite number of virtual desktops available – always one more than you're using.

The only way to navigate between windows with the mouse is an overall, Apple Exposé-like thumbnail view. So, if you have lots of windows, all on your first virtual desktop, the overview will be indistinct. The old hierarchical application menus have been replaced with a full-screen search-driven app-picker. Even windows' minimise or maximise buttons are gone.

GNOME Shell is like nothing else – which is brave, but confusing. It's a huge shift, and its developers weren't interested in Ubuntu's offers of contributions and suggestions, so Ubuntu chose a different route.

Unity, Son of Netbook Remix

For some years, Ubuntu had been developing its own "netbook launcher," originally intended to be an easy, simple, single-click sort of interface for small screens and low-spec systems.

Over several releases, this evolved from a full-screen menu-cum-file-manager to a simple panel down the side of the screen which combined the functions of program launcher and task switcher. All programs ran maximised to fill the screen, so as to make best use of 1024×600 netbook screens.

Now, though, the humble netbook launcher has evolved further, into a fully-fledged desktop for general-purpose PCs: Unity. And in April this year, Ubuntu switched the default desktop of version 11.04 of its eponymous flagship OS to the new GUI.

Like the old netbook remix, the Unity desktop has a Launcher down the left edge of the screen – an efficient use of space, now that most people are switching to widescreen monitors. To get at apps not in the Launcher, there's the "dashboard," another full-screen search-driven app and document picker, rather like that of iOS and Android – or GNOME Shell, come to that. The dash also shows apps that can be installed from Ubuntu's online repositories, which is a little confusing but makes software installation easy and even tempting for novices.

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