NOTE : This post is NOT a review, as there are plenty of them out there. It’s more of a discussion on the direction in which Ubuntu seems to be heading in.
If you're an avid Ubuntu user and follow its development closely, you'd know that Canonical's newest offering - Ubuntu 11.04 christened ‘Natty Narwhal’ is creating quite a stir. It sports a completely redesigned user-interface, a departure from the familiar GNOME 2.x which has been the de-facto standard for most distros out there. Called ‘Unity’, the new desktop environment has been exported from Ubuntu's netbook offering, coupled with Compiz (instead of mutter) as a compositing manager.
All major changes are met with equal amounts of acceptance and opposition. Many have argued over the lack of customizability and more importantly, stability that Unity suffers from. Many have made up their minds to switch back to the traditional GNOME 2.32 desktop at the earliest opportunity. But amidst all the hype surrounding it, let's take a minute to put ourselves in Canonical's shoes.
Every new release brings with it higher expectations, and developers are faced with the task of giving existing users ample reasons to upgrade and also to prove exciting enough to draw in first-time users. While Ubuntu 10.04 LTS saw major changes both in terms of software as well as appearance, 10.10 focused mainly on minor fixes and stability improvements. Maverick Meerkat was brilliant for what it was, but I do believe that development on the GNOME 2.x desktop had reached a certain saturation limit.
They turned to the Unity shell, which had been previously implemented on the Ubuntu Netbook Remix, and tried to adapt it to suit the regular desktop user's needs. For what it's worth, I think Unity is a brilliant idea. One aspect I find particularly appealing is that Unity seems to be slightly oriented towards touch-devices. The launcher and the larger icons in the Unity shell make for a great touch UI , and since the rest of the world is becoming increasingly touch sensitive, it seems to be a move in the right direction.
(On a side note, another reason for abandoning GNOME might be the introduction of GNOME 3.0, which apart from its many flaws, has been marred by delays and won’t see the light of day until later this year. Some distros like RedHat’s Fedora, have decided to give it a go anyway. But then again, Fedora has been known to be a melting pot of the latest, cutting-edge software in the FOSS community.)
Moreover, the drastic overhaul gives Ubuntu a chance to revamp and completely re-invent itself. The idea of starting from scratch, of starting from a clean slate is terribly exciting since it opens up a whole bunch of new possibilities. Agreed, the final build that we see may not be as stable as 10.10 or even 10.04, but I think Canonical deserves some credit for their effort. They've had to engineer many major design changes, and in doing so they've introduced many nifty features, which will go a long way in simplifying and streamlining the overall user experience. We will, of course, be seeing some expected changes, such as some newer apps replacing old ones (Banshee/Rhythmbox, LibreOffice/OpenOffice) as well as updates to many existing ones (Firefox 4, Ubuntu One, and even the Linux Kernel - 2.6.38).
Unity 11.04 won't be a flawless product, in the sense that it might come with it's share of bugs, which are expected out of any product being tried for the first time. Canonical is aware of this, and has decided to include the standard GNOME 2.32 as a fallback option. However, their confidence in Unity is reflected in the fact that 11.10 (Oneric Ocelot) will NOT ship with the GNOME environment, the standard install will include only Unity.
Personally, I'm very excited about the direction in which things seem to be heading. Ubuntu is being redone, and I think in the long run it will prove very beneficial to Ubuntu's target audience - novices and Windows converts. While Natty may not be the most rock-solid release yet, I think it marks a very significant landmark in the evolution of Ubuntu and many related distros. When computers and computer-software seem to be evolving at such a blinding pace, why not Ubuntu ?