There's the whiff of irony in Canonical's latest announcement. For the next release of Ubuntu, Canonical has said it's going to replace the default Gnome desktop with something it calls Unity.

As founder Mark Shuttleworth puts it, this is "the most significant change ever" for Ubuntu – a statement whose portent is reflected by the Unity story being the third hit when you search for 'most significant change ever' on Google.

The irony is that there's not much agreement, little unification, no federation and no coalition in the wider community over its decision – all words a thesaurus will spit out when you search for 'unity'. 'Divisive' would have been a more fitting name.

You already know Unity. If you've used Canonical's netbook Linux distribution, UNR, it's what provides the front-end interface for application launching, file management and system configuration. It doesn't replace Gnome – it sits on top of it. Gnome is still there.

Unity does work well on a small screen. Icons are large and applications run borderless in fullscreen. It's uncertain how similar UNR's Unity is to the version due to appear in April, but that's not the main problem with the controversy surrounding Unity.

The main issue is that there's a major new version of Gnome due at the same time, and Gnome is a desktop that doesn't take updates lightly.

Its last major overhaul was almost nine years ago, and you might expect that Gnome-based distributions such as Ubuntu would be champing at the bit to help launch a new version of a desktop that's remained quietly effective for years.

But not Ubuntu. It's decided that this moment is the perfect time to introduce its own desktop interface.

Radical overhaul

What's even more worrying for the community is that Gnome 3.0 is itself attempting a radical overhaul of the user interface, pasting something called the Gnome Shell onto the surface of the standard desktop we all know and love.

Gnome Shell encapsulates application management, launching and configuration into a full-screen, dynamically adapting console.

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's a strikingly similar concept to Canonical's Unity – two desktop shells that use GTK+. And because Canonical isn't known for its copious source code contributions to other projects, certain members of the community feel that it should have made more of a determined effort to merge its attempts at innovation with the Gnome team to produce a single upgrade next year.

The timing is bad. Had this happened a year or two ago, no one would have worried if Canonical made an announcement to say it wanted to start experimenting with its desktop environment. They would have been happy to see Ubuntu rise or fall on the back of its own success, and would probably have been interested to see what a company with such a strong design aesthetic could do to the desktop.

But switching to Unity at the same time Gnome is switching to Gnome Shell dilutes the momentum for both desktop technologies and, ultimately, does Linux a disservice. It's the same old argument about diluting expectation with redundancy.

The important question is whether two projects, taking a similar approach, are better than one. I would argue that it's the results that matter, and it's too early to say.

Duplicity isn't working on the desktop because there's no clear winner. Having a plethora of options isn't working for the sound layer, the file manager, the web browser or the word processor. One becomes dominant because it's better, or because it's innovated.

Competing for usability

Perhaps the only way for innovation to appear is for two projects to compete for usability. When one succeeds, it supplants the other. The only difficulty is knowing when we've reached that point.

I've argued for less division and more unity, but I'm not sure if that's the best approach to innovation. I want unity when there's a clear choice for applications and environments, but the Linux desktop is lacking real innovation.

If someone wants to try their hand at adding it, that can only be a good thing. All popular desktops, whether they're on Windows, OS X or Linux, have evolved from slightly different interpretations of the same idea – a metaphor for the computer desktop.

And while Linux has attempted to ape both Windows and OS X in its quest to welcome new users, what's really needed is a solid desktop advantage. Only then will new users choose to use Linux over its competitors.

It needs to do things better, not just cheaper. It needs to combine many of its good ideas into working ones. It needs to innovate or remain the third option.

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Liked this? Then check out Ubuntu's vision for its Unity interface

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