Canonical has ambitious plans for Ubuntu. The Linux distro for human beings began as a slightly themed GNOME experience. Since then, Canonical has created its own Unity desktop interface. Now it’s working on an new version that isn’t based on GNOME at all. Plus Ubuntu will have its own display server that manages how pixels appear on your screen.
Unity 8 has been coming down the pipeline for years. The interface is expected to unify the Ubuntu experience across phones, tablets, and desktops — an idea Canonical calls convergence. The undertaking has proven to take more time than expected. The same is true for Mir, the display server that accompanies Unity 8.
But you can try both of them out right now on the latest version of Ubuntu, Yakkety Yak.
Take a Look
Ubuntu-powered phones run an interface called Ubuntu Touch. Unity 8 extends this experience to traditional desktops. This isn’t the first time Canonical has taken this approach, for Unity began as an interface aimed at netbooks.
You could try Ubuntu Touch on desktops over two years ago, but that was mostly a proof of concept. Canonical had yet to tailor the interface for PCs. Things have progressed since then, though Unity 8 remains far from finished.
If you’ve used an Ubuntu Phone before, what follows should seem familiar. Move your mouse to the left of the screen to slide in the launcher. Go to the right to switch between open windows. You can pull up this same interface by pressing Alt-Tab.
Selecting an indicator in the notification area will pull open a sidebar. There you can connect to networks, adjust the sound, view a calendar, and toggle other system settings.
Some applications still feel geared toward phones. I couldn’t maximize the System Settings window, nor resize it wider than a certain width.
That’s not the only sign that this is clearly a preview. On my System76 Lemur, a laptop that came with Ubuntu pre-installed, the Browser app is nearly unusable due to visual artifacts.
If you have Ubuntu 16.10 running on your computer, then you already have the Unity 8 preview installed. Log out of your current session to return to the login screen. Before entering your password and signing back in, switch your desktop environment from Ubuntu (Default) to Unity8. You can do this by clicking on the Ubuntu logo next to your name.
The Unity 8 preview comes with only a few applications. These include a web browser, a terminal, and system settings. Fortunately these aren’t the only ones out there.
Other Unity 8-ready applications include an address book (address-book-app), a calendar (ubuntu-calendar-app), a camera (camera-app), and a gallery (gallery-app). To install them, enter the command below, replacing the app name as needed:
sudo snap install --edge --devmode address-book-app
A Personal Package Archive is available that provides more options. Add the PPA using the following commands:
sudo add-apt-repository ppa:convergent-apps/testing
sudo apt update
Then you can install a calculator (ubuntu-calculator-app), doc viewer (ubuntu-docviewer-app), or music player (music-app). Since these are packaged as DEBs, you will use the usual command:
sudo apt install music-app
Unity 8 runs on top of the Mir display server. As a result, most Linux applications aren’t yet compatible. They still rely on the X display server.
Since this is Linux, there’s a workaround. By installing Libertine, you can run more of the applications you expect, such as AbiWord. To install Libertine, enter this command:
sudo apt install libertine libertine-scope libertine-tools
Be patient while Libertine does its thing. Once that’s done, open Libertine from the Apps scope, leave the fields blank, and click Install. Then hit Ubuntu Yakkety Yak and select the Enter package name option. Type abiword and watch as the package is installed. Then launch AbiWord from the Apps scope.
AbiWord will work, but don’t expect it to fully resemble what you see on your usual Unity 7 desktop. Under Unity 8 and Mir, legacy GTK apps default to a different theme.
There’s more to your Ubuntu desktop than applications. Scopes are a core part of Unity. Think of them as sections. The Apps scope lets you launch apps. Others let you search YouTube or Wikipedia. These come as part of the preview.
To enable them, click the arrow at the bottom of the Apps scope. A list of available options will appear. Click the star icon beside the scopes you wish to enable.
Unity 7 searches the songs and videos you have saved to your hard drive. Unity 8 can already do this too. But first, you need to install additional software. Enter this command:
sudo apt install mediaplayer-app mediascanner2.0 unity-scope-mediascanner2 ubuntu-restricted-extras
You can manage media in the Music, My Music, and My Videos scopes. After Ubuntu indexes your media, you can play files directly from these scopes.
What Does the Future Hold for Unity 8?
Canonical doesn’t want to repeat the mistakes it made with Unity 7. When the interface launched in the netbook edition of Ubuntu 10.10, followed by the main version of 11.04, it wasn’t fully finished. The experience was fine to me, but many people complained of performance issues, instability, and the lack of customization. Rather than push out a buggy release, Canonical is hoping to launch Unity 8 when it’s more polished. Maybe we’ll see something by 18.04, but that remains to be seen.
Are you excited by Unity 8? What about Mir? Have you already played around with convergence on your phone? Are you already frustrated by all the delays? Share your thoughts about the future of Ubuntu in the comments below!