The Good and Bad of Unity (Part 1): Useless Application Menu

Foreword: I wrote many articles in my Chinese blog (imtx.me), and I have a lot of readers.

Back to five years ago, when I first started my blog, many of my articles were just translated from the English articles.

After five years’ writing, I have a lot of my own thoughts, so most articles were written by me. A friend told me that it’s time to translate my articles back to English, to share with the people over the world.

So, here’s the first article not about Ubuntu Tweak. I don’t have a good written English yet, but I will improve. Just point out the grammar/word mistake, thanks!

———-

As a long time Ubuntu user (about 5 years), I’m really happy to see that the release of Ubuntu 11.04. This is really a big jump! Unity is an innovation desktop shell which brings a lot of advantages to make the desktop life much more easier!

And I’m also a Mac OS X user, Unity has many concepts like OS X, such as “Application Menu”(or Global Menu) and Launcher (Dock). So I’d like to compare Unity with OS X, to see which design is better.

The first post, I will talk about the bad of application menu in Unity.

The application menu is first appeared in Mac OS. It can save the vertical screen space, and user can always reach the menu even they don’t watch it (if it can be consider as a feature).

The bad is: there will only be one menu showed in the panel, you have to click and focus the other application, then can click its menu, one more step then typical desktop (Windows, GNOME, KDE etc).

Is that all? No!

Application menu is not about saving screen space, it’s about a consistent way to access the application feature.

Let’s start from Pidgin and its shortcuts.

As you know, Pidgin has two kinds of window: one is buddies window, which you can choose who to chat. The other one is conversation window, this is the window which you can have the real conversation with your buddies.

Each window has its menu,when the conversation window is activated, the application menu will look like this:

So it’s the Pidgin’s main menu when the buddies window is focused.

“What’s wrong with that? It just works!”

You don’t get the point. Let’s see another screenshot, the Adium in Mac OS X.

Adium is an open-source IM application which shares the same protocol library from Pidgin (libpurple). In Mac OS X, application menu is associated with application, not window.

So no matter which the current focus window(conversation window or buddies window), the application menu will always be the only one.

See the highlight item: Quit Adium, I can always use the shortcuts (CMD+Q) to close the Adium, even when I’m chatting with my buddies in the conversation window.

But in Pidgin (also Empathy), I have to do an extra step: 1. use “Ctrl+W” to close the conversation window, or “Alt+Tab” switch to buddies window. 2. use “Ctrl+Q” to close the application.

If you don’t use shortcuts, it is much more inconvenience: 1. move mouse to click to focus the buddies window, 2. move mouse to application menu and click “Buddies” and “Quit”. Really a big mouse movement!

In the classical desktop, you just need to find the Pidgin buddies window, then click the menu.

I hope you understand my words. So here’s my conclusion.

As I said before: Application menu is not about saving screen space, it’s about a consistent way to access the application feature.

It means, I can do everything with the current application through application menu, just because it’s “application”. How can it be “application menu” if it is only show window menu?

I know most applications do not have multi-windows with different menus, so they just work with Unity’s application menu.

But Pidgin/Empathy/GIMP(2.6) are all frequent used multi-window applications, they need to be changed as a real application menu application to make the desktop experience more comfortable.

Of course, the best solution is to provide an API to set the real aplication menu, like the way AppIndicator does.

There’s much more work that Unity has to do, I hope the developers will focus on how to solve bugs and make desktop more consistent, not always focus on new features.

As an application developers, I found it is more important to provide a standard set of API then always hack on the source code.

18 thoughts on “The Good and Bad of Unity (Part 1): Useless Application Menu

  1. thnx for sharing?
    your english is very good…so why make it perfect?
    i like different types of english so you can see or here where the person comes from…
    like me..im from holland..live in portugal..and speak mostly english ;)
    ciau4now

  2. I don’t know. Honestly I think them switching to Unity will just slow down the development since they’ll have to put a lot more work into it, thus splitting their efforts. Also, upon trying it out, I found the lack of customization and the application menu rather vexing. Since I don’t rely on keyboard shortcuts taking away my Panel Menubar slows down my work considerably. I suppose only time will tell if their decision was a right move, but I’m not holding my hopes up.

  3. You just nailed the problem I had when I tried using the Global (panel) Menubar thingie. It experienced serious usability issues. Even it did make my applications look cleaner and have a more simpler UI. I was a pain having to click to focus an app before I could access its menus. Also I had to disable “focus under mouse) settings as this was practically impossible with the Global Menubar. I however found a compromise with a tool for Kde window manager which allows for me to tuck application menus nicely in the window manager. http://bobby.com.ng/2011/05/06/most-elegant-way-to-manage-menus/ That way applications maintain their clean look. and I can still use my focus under mouse settings :)

  4. I was thinking these days exactly the same thing. I have that problem with Pidgin. One thing to add would be that, since Pidgin doesn’t have app indicator, if you close the buddies window and keep a conversation window open, you can’t access the main menu unless you close the conversation window. That’s the only way for you to have the main window back when clicking on the launcher.

    I hope those issues will be solved with time.

  5. You touched on an important issue regarding the global menus that seems to have escaped the folks who designed the Unity implementation, and that is that global menus are not an arbitrary feature–they are a fundamental portion of their progenitive desktop environment (OS X) and, as such, applications intended to operate in such an environment are designed with this in mind. GNU/Linux applications are not designed for such an interface, and when shoehorned into it some applications (i.e. those with multiple windows) will be very frustrating to use.

    Global menus are not just a fancy way to hide clutter; they are part of a completely different desktop paradigm that requires users to think and work in a completely different way. Unfortunately, while the global menu paradigm has its advantages, those advantages are erased when applications are not designed to leverage them.

  6. Pingback: A szemléletváltás a Unity mögött « Udi Online

  7. I’m Glad With New Views Ubuntu, But I Feel Lost With upper and lower panels that I used to use, indeed we could see an active application with Ctrl + Alt + Tab
    But I Will Learn Familiar With Ubuntu 11,
    wait more tips,

  8. while the application vs. window menu approach may have its merits for multi-window applications having the menu in a place totally detached from the window(s) itself is a total nightmare for focus-follow-mouse/no-autoraise people like me as to reach the top of screen the mouse may touch other windows from other applications in between and so the menu focus changes to that application instead of the one that i’m coming from

    so for me the main problem is not that menus are now in a different place by itself but that to safely get to that new place i need to let go of something that is a very basic usability feature to me …

    PS: menu not in the same place of the screen as the window you’re working in is also a nightmare when using remote access and having a smaller display area on the remote client than on the host system … but that’s a minor issue compared to breaking focus-follow-mouse …

  9. while the application vs. window menu approach may have its merits for multi-window applications having the menu in a place totally detached from the window(s) itself is a total nightmare for focus-follow-mouse/no-autoraise people like me as to reach the top of screen the mouse may touch other windows from other applications in between and so the menu focus changes to that application instead of the one that i’m coming from

    so for me the main problem is not that menus are now in a different place by itself but that to safely get to that new place i need to let go of something that is a very basic usability feature to me …

    PS: menu not in the same place of the screen as the window you’re working in is also a nightmare when using remote access and having a smaller display area on the remote client than on the host system … but that’s a minor issue compared to breaking focus-follow-mouse …

  10. I like the normal Gnome 3 interface, but it fails too often. However, Ubuntu 11 has another interface, with 2 panels 1 on top, other on the bottom. That one I like…it fails less often, and it and it has that old look.

    the thing I hate most is that customization on Unity or Ubuntu Old style is almost nonexistent

  11. I love global menu but sure Unity implementation has weakness including the utilization of maximus to clip the window title when maximized. I agree that auto hiding menu is pointless and there should be option to disable it. I use global menu in xfce panel inside LXDE and it mimicks mac os closer than Unity in my opinion. I keep the window title and its buttons for me to close a window easier, I rarely quit application using menu. I think ubuntu global menu should be more customizable and support other desktop environment other than Unity like LXDE.

  12. I really love Unity. With the new Ubuntu 12.04, it’s working beautifully. Give the new version a try, it’s much better, more stable and running smoothly on my Intel Graphics card.

    Nick,

  13. For me it’s ok to include unity in ubuntu, but not to make it the only alternative. Please, make it configurable. I know that you can hack gnome back (that’s what I did on my 12.04) but there really could be alternatives.
    Unity might be better on tablets but on an old fashioned table top with mouse hanging on the wire, it quite clumsy.

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