It's been a long ride for the favorite Linux distribution of many. Since it's inception on 20th October 2004 it has hurdled many barriers and silenced many critics. That cannot be stressed more so in the recent years, with the development of its very own shell, icons and fonts and the canonical team keeps the users begging for more innovation and they heed our calls.
Back in the old Gnome 2 days Ubuntu was suffering what all other distributions of that time was suffering... being unique. Sure a person going in-depth and clicking about the menus a bit and installing a few applications would come to realize that they were dealing with the famous and much mentioned Ubuntu. But a simple screenshot or glimpse from far away wouldn't be very revealing. It's Linux or might be Mac or Windows or Amiga even. Linux had a lot of flexibility to mimic existing operating systems and for some time that was all new Linux users did. With the advent of Compiz, the potential of Linux as an alternative desktop to those it mimicked grew even greater. But the old Gnome and Compiz did leave Linux suffering in a lot of ways. Even the very robust Ubuntu distribution was just trying to get more users to join in relying only on eye candy that can easily be duplicated by other distributions. This left new users or users on a hiatus with a lot to consider, specially when it came to the question of 'which Linux to use?'
The only unique thing about Ubuntu used to be it's logo. Then it's wallpaper which became an iconic default choice, even though users were crying out for something with more 'bling' in it. The color scheme change happened a few releases back and now users no longer had to complain about the bland brown color that Ubuntu used to default to. A few software packages and default choices such as inclusion of it's own software center, removal of the less user friendly package manager, the default applications to play music, open photos also made Ubuntu a community favorite. But unless you were part of that community to begin with, a new user also can choose to go for Linux Mint, an Ubuntu offshoot that has gained considerable following among users due to it's ability to mimic Windows user friendliness experience.
Even with all these things going for Ubuntu, it still was suffering at the hand of retailers who prefer Windows over the free alternative. Clearly, something wasn't going right at that time and screenshots of my own laptop from that time gave an indication of what could happen to Ubuntu at the hand of a user without intent. Gnome was failing to cater and KDE was doing no better. Software alternatives were either not fully developed or not available at all. System stability was at question when users can easily install third party software When Gnome3 came about, Canonical was facing an OS that was in shambles, awesome and yet very nihilistic in nature when every aspect of the system can be changed. The ability to mimic other operating systems was not perfect and often users of more stable operating systems find time to mock the incompleteness of Ubuntu or any other distribution of Linux rather than appreciate the novelty of being free and community driven. With software choices falling short and no community to fill in the missing niches Ubuntu and linux itself was facing bleak a future of dying in obscurity and users who were using it also started to opt it as a back up operating system to save their files in case their preferred OS failed.
Unity happened exactly around this time, when Gnome 3 came out to address some of the pitfalls existing in Gnome 2 and hoping to have giants like Ubuntu pick up and revolutionize the Linux world. When Gnome pushed it's own shell and looks Ubuntu was once again facing the same problem of not being able to distinguish itself among all the Linux distributions that would move to Gnome 3 and have the same shell. Coincident the shell itself can be tweaked to achieve its very own looks as have been done by Linux Mint, but Canonical wanted their own shell and looks, citing fundamental differences in their vision and what Gnome was offering. This proved to be an unpopular choice at the time and there was a time when it can be said that Canonical pushed out it's shell Unity even when it wasn't ready and even before Gnome 3 was officially released with it's shell. This left users wondering whether Ubuntu was going to die from turmoils within, with Gnome hoping Ubuntu to deliver it's shell and Canonical outright rejecting the ideas of the shell. So Unity happened, unstable, slow and cluttered, unfriendly and having to look for a fall back at the beginning when Unity's graphical demands simply cannot be supported. When Unity 2D came as the solution for the later, a lot of dedicated users scratched their heads and wondered where this vision of change was going.
With the stiff relation between Gnome and Canonical slowly ceasing and the bugs in Unity slowly being worked out with every release, users are more acceptable of Unity then they were at its inception. And Unity has worked out some of the problems Ubuntu faced before. Ubuntu now stands out even from a distance, not just based on a logo or a wallpaper but from the interface it comes shipped with. The choice of developing it's own shell have at least made an impact on how retailers and other operating systems are looking at the Linux distribution and it has worked itself up to a point where Gnome-shell has a competitor. GTK3 has two breeds of shells and it just might be that other Linux distributions will have their own shells instead of the default ones.
To draw a comparison of how this is going to be like, lets have a look at one of the success story of Linux. Android has grabbed a considerable market share and one of the features that clearly stands out about android is how it's able to have customized look for each of it's ROMs. If each ROM is a Linux derivative and the launcher app is the shell... we can only hope that the success story of Android can be imitated on the desktop.
How far has Unity gone now? Depending on who you ask, it has become the biggest hassle for users who wanted to pimp their Linux and they would do anything (from installing Gnome-shell to using a different GUI altogether) to avoid it. Or it has become the industry standard for Linux to get work done with an intent driven interface to work on. First time users will be driven hard to learn the Canonical way of doing things that's hard coded into Unity but once they take a swing on the learning curve, it's a smooth ride afterwards. Unity has gone from being buggy and slow to being stable then anything Ubuntu has put forward to date and has started to win over its critics one by one. Concepts such as 'beyond interface' is becoming technical jargon with introduction of Heads Up Display (HUD) which to many is the Ribbon interface of Microsoft done in the way it should have been. With such features already available we could expect more good stuff coming Ubuntu's way. Maybe Compiz will soon support the eye candy it used to.
And how far can Unity go? It's already on the desktop, laptops and in some instances on tablets. The dream for Ubuntu lovers and users would be if it could head to their hand-held smartphones. That need is already being worked out indirectly, with Ubuntu for Android in the works but saying Ubuntu has taken steps to go 'mobile' would be to cheat smart phone users that have a soft spot for penguins in their hearts. Unless Canonical come up with a Unity specially tailored for the touch interface of mobiles in a near future, we are not likely to see Ubuntu running on a phone in the near future. But given how certain features of Unity has been released to the public (like HUD) who knows which stage such a hypothetical project might be behind the closed vaults of Canonical. One thing is certain, Ubuntu, if released to mobiles, has more grounds to catch on than the platform it exists in right now. To top things off a Linux variant is also a direct competitor to the more successful and robust android OS which uses a modified Linux kernel to drive its front end. Some people just might say its better to halt at Ubuntu for Android project and never go ahead with a project doomed to die. But Canonical being the company they are and Ubuntu being the OS it is, I doubt if Ubuntu has reached the pinnacle spot its been going for.