Two minority Linux desktop environments were updated this week. Coincidentally named Unity and Trinity, both are forks that continue projects long abandoned by their creators.
With the announcement of public testing, 7.6, which is Unity’s first update in six years, begins the process of modernizing Ubuntu’s old desktop.
When it was still part of the Ubuntu distribution, there were three separate branches of the Unity desktop. The original Unity desktop derived from Ubuntu’s special launcher for netbooks and was implemented as a plugin for the Compiz composition window manager – itself now discontinued.
The new release comes from Ubuntu remix prodigy Rudra Saraswat. Saraswat has plans for the development of a new Unity-like desktop, named UnityX.
In the meantime, however, he and his collaborator Khurshid Alam are working to resolve some of the issues with the old Unity7 codebase.
Unity7 and the UnityX project are entirely separate and independent from Unity8, Ubuntu’s planned touchscreen mobile desktop.
It’s not dead either: the UBports community continues its work and has renamed the Lomiri office.
Part of Ubuntu’s problem was the size of its efforts. Unity8 was running on the Mir display server.
This meant that in addition to a desktop UI and a separate mobile UI, as well as the Snap packaging format, Canonical was also working on a new display server to replace the now old X.org – duplicating much of the Wayland project.
Almost ironically, while Mir might have gone a little too far, he survived when Ubuntu killed Unity in 2017 and is still alive today.
There used to be a separate non-composite Unity2D, like KDE, built using the Qt toolkit. Unfortunately it used Qt 4, unsupported since 2015, and the effort to move it to Qt 5 or the new Qt 6 would be very considerable.
Speaking of KDE, the other popular desktop is a new maintenance release, version 14.0.12, from the Trinity project, a fork of KDE 3. KDE 4 appeared in 2008 and once annoyed our own Steven J Vaughan -Nichols, and he was not alone.
In addition to moving to new versions of Qt, KDE 4 and later 5 brought new features, such as “Plasmoid” desktop widgets. However, newer versions also dropped basic features that some users liked, such as the ability for a single panel to span multiple monitors. Even if you never wanted this, there’s an obvious comparison to Windows 11‘s inability to have a vertical taskbar.
KDE remains, as it always has been, highly customizable, but it shows an important lesson: one person’s unimportant thrift shop is someone else’s essential functionality. Freeing the widgets from the panel and allowing them to run on the desktop can make for some awesome tech demos, but it annoys users who just want to span their panel across the bottom of two screens.
With a widescreen, horizontal space is plentiful, but vertical space becomes a premium feature. For the author, the way Unity combined the top panel with the menu bar was a vital space saver on a netbook and is still very useful today when every monitor is a widescreen. If you have half a dozen windows, each with its own menu bar, that wastes a lot of vertical space, while Unity saves it. In-window menu bars also require precise mouse control, while the ergonomic principle called Fitt’s Law means that an edge of the screen is very easy to reach.
GNOME eliminates this problem by simply removing menu bars. However, hiding functionality behind keyboard shortcuts and hamburger menus results in additional wasted time searching for features that were previously in plain sight.
For the author, Unity combined the best of the Windows user interface, such as window manipulation and a menu bar that could be controlled by standard keyboard shortcuts (alt + F for the File menu, for example) with the efficient use of macOS space.
The vertical app launcher used up some of that plentiful screen width, while still allowing me to see more of the document I was working on. Windows 11’s obligatory horizontal taskbar and chunky graphical ribbons in modern Office apps waste that precious space on a beginner-friendly user interface, one that annoys me. and leaves me with less available workspace.
It may seem like small things, but those little paper cuts add up. They are the reason whole teams of people come together and form abandoned projects to keep them alive.
Today half a dozen teams all maintain separate Linux desktops that replicate the Windows 95 user interface. KDE and Trinity, as well as LXQt, do this using the Qt toolkit. Xfce replicated it using Gtk 2, while MATE derived GNOME 2; both are now moving to Gtk 3. Raspberry Pi’s PIXEL forked and continues LXDE, while Mint’s Cinnamon replicated the look and feel by forking GNOME 3.
They are all at risk of being left behind as the GNOME Project moves forward with Gtk 4. And let’s not forget that the reason the GNOME Project started wasn’t for a functional reason: it was because KDE used Qt, which at the time was not GPL-licensed software, and it was mostly written in C++, while Unix traditionalists tend to favor old C.
Elementary OS’ Pantheon desktop superficially resembles macOS, but lacks features like a global menu bar — or menu bars at all — which means its top panel is almost entirely wasted, empty space. This helps motivate Unity, but there are currently two separate Unity-derived codebases (versions 7 and 8), and possibly a new UnityX to replace Unity 7.
The SolusOS Budgie environment also does this, on a GNOME basis, although it plans to switch to Enlightenment’s EFL instead.
That’s a huge amount of duplicated effort. Meanwhile, the Linux desktop market share remains tiny, although ChromeOS is selling strongly.
ChromeOS, like macOS, has none of these rich features or customizations. And yet, Mac sales far exceed all desktop Linux distributions combined, and ChromeOS until recently sold more units than Apple Macs.
Surely there is a lesson to be learned from this. What was that old saying? Something about divide and conquer? ®