Canonical's latest endeavour, somewhat confusingly called Ubuntu Light, is an instantly-on-and-connected netbook and desktop solution. Its new "Unity" UI sports many of the features Mac users have come to know and love, built for easy browsing and window management.
Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu project, presented the new OS and UI on his blog today. Ubuntu Light is completely different from Ubuntu Netbook Remix - it's even more condensed, the goal being to get you up and running in your browser as fast as possible. Furthermore, instead of being one's primary OS, like Netbook Remix would be, Ubuntu Light aims to be the second partition on your hard drive, for those situations in which you need to be up and running as fast as possible. Ubuntu Light will be distributed as a secondary OS, in a dual-boot format on computers that use Windows as their primary OS. Not only does this make things a bit easier in those situations where users don't need a full-fledged OS, but it also helps Linux tap into the Windows-using population, without requiring them to switch full time. While its focus seems to be on netbooks, Shuttleworth makes a point of saying that this is just as viable a solution for desktop computers as well.
One of the main features of Ubuntu Light is the new Unity UI for GNOME. Unity is clearly optimised for netbooks, featuring a dock on the left side of the screen from which you can launch applications and browse your computer's file system. In addition, the title bars of windows will be on the menu bar instead of on the window itself, Mac OS X-style. These types of tweaks are designed to maximise vertical space for browsing, in a world where widescreen monitors are the new norm (especially on netbooks, where screen real estate is precious). Note that the screenshots above do not portray this feature because Unity is not quite finished yet (more on this later), but it is planned for the final release.
The Dock is very similar to OS X's. As you mouse over icons, you can see the applications' name, and you can add, remove and change the order of applications on it by dragging them around. Apps do not minimise to the dock, though, which is strange, but you can bring them back with Unity's new Exposé-like window listing feature, accessed by clicking the Ubuntu logo in the corner of the menu bar. You can also list windows for just one of your running apps by right clicking its dock icon.
There doesn't seem to be an easy application launcher outside of the dock itself. If you want to launch something not pinned to your dock, you can use the dock's built-in shortcut to your Applications folder, which brings up the folder in a Nautilus window, from which you can browse all your applications at once (without any type of organisation or splitting by category as you may be used to). It seems strange, but this does exemplify the idea that Ubuntu Light isn't meant to be anyone's primary OS. In Canonical's mind, you don't really need to run anything beyond the few apps in your dock. If you did, you'd be in Windows (or a full version of Ubuntu) instead.
Unity is currently available as a prototype for testing on Ubuntu 10.04, but it isn't ready for primetime use (or part-time use, as the situation may be). It's quite unfinished, hence the lack of some of the aforementioned features in our screenshots — and, at least in my testing, it was unbearably slow. It certainly is an exciting project, though, and one we'll want to keep an eye on, so consider this a sneak peek of things to come.