In my earlier article, Make Ubuntu Look and Feel like Mac OS X, I discussed in very general terms how you can make your Ubuntu desktop look like a Mac OS X desktop. In this article, I’m going to go into some more specifics, and tell you from personal experience how I’ve been able to emulate the best features of Mac desktops on my Ubuntu machine.
You’ll note that I didn’t say that I made my Ubuntu desktop look exactly like a Mac desktop. This is in fact possible, by using Apple’s graphical assets, and a lot of people have done it. It isn’t my personal goal, however. I think that there’s room for more than one style of design, and I don’t mind exploring the possibilities and seeing what I can make my Ubuntu desktop look like. Mac users pay money for programs like Shapeshifter to customize their Mac OS X desktops, and if I can customize my Ubuntu desktop’s looks for free, then why not?
What I want to copy isn’t just brushed metal and Aqua shininess, but the Zen-like workflow of a Mac OS X desktop. I want to be able to do things without thinking about them. I want a serene, visually uncluttered desktop, with simple apps that do what I tell them to do and don’t complain about it. That means a unified desktop appearance throughout all the apps that I use, and it means Mac innovations like the object dock at the bottom, and the menu bar at the top of the screen. Here’s how I learned how to put these things on my Ubuntu desktop, and how you can put them on yours!
Gnome Do / Docky
Docky’s a fun name to say out loud. It’s also one of the themes available for the latest release of Gnome Do, one of the most powerful Mac-like apps for your Ubuntu desktop. Using Gnome Do, you can streamline your workflow so much that you might be able to get rid of the Ubuntu menus at the top of the screen! (Which is good, because we need that space for each application’s menus.)
Gnome Do works like (and was inspired by) Quicksilver, the legendary Mac launcher app that shows up on every list of must-have Mac software I’ve seen. Just press a couple of keys in succession, then type the first couple letters of anything … an app, or even a music album or a file on your hard drive, if you have the right plugins. Gnome Do will find whatever you’re looking for instantly, and let you take whatever action you like … launching an app, loading a Firefox bookmark, adding an album to your playlist, or whatever! It’s very fast, and very intuitive.
But that’s not all. With the latest release of Gnome Do, you can use the Docky theme to turn Gnome Do into an object dock! I’ve tried object docks like AWN before, and while AWN was technically an object dock it was a pain to set up. Docky works as intuitively as Gnome Do itself does — just drag an app from the menu onto the dock, and it’ll be right there for you. It’s the best object dock I’ve ever used for my Ubuntu desktop, and you can still use it as normal Gnome Do to launch other apps.
Docky isn’t in the Ubuntu repositories as of the time of this writing. It hopefully will be in 9.04, though, and that’s out in only a week or two, so by the time you read this you should be able to install the Docky version of Gnome Do from Add/Remove Programs. Then go to Gnome Do’s properties menu, and just change the theme to Docky and tell it to start on login. (You may want to get rid of the bottom panel for Docky, but that’s okay, because it’ll keep track of your running programs just fine! You can add other applets to the top panel to make up for anything else.) If it’s not out yet, though, then uninstall the old version with Add/Remove Programs, and then go here for detailed instructions for how to install the latest version of Gnome Do.
Global Menu Bar
According to Fitt’s Law, the Mac OS X menu bar at the top of the screen is more usable than the Windows-style menu bar at the top of each app. This is because being at the top of the screen gives it infinite height; you can just fling your mouse to the top-left corner, and you’ll be at the menu bar. This post on downloadsquad.com explains the theory in more detail!
Ubuntu’s Gnome desktop has its own global menu bar, which you can check out at http://code.google.com/p/gnome2-globalmenu/. They have installation instructions there and everything. Note that it’s not in the official repositories … yet! You can install it automatically using Tweak Ubuntu’s special Add/Remove Programs, however.
The Gnome Desktop itself
That sounds kind of like a cop-out, but it really is one of the essential ingredients to making your Ubuntu desktop work like a Mac OS X desktop. Gnome is much more Mac-like and usable than KDE or XFCE, the other two desktop environments available for Ubuntu (in KUbuntu and XUbuntu respectively). Its human interface guidelines emphasize streamlined simplicity above all else, and sane defaults over KDE-level customization. Is it any wonder that I’m recommending it in this guide?
Well, yes, you say, but you had that already. So how does this do you any good? Easy: By installing and using only Gnome apps, you can perfect your Mac OS X-style desktop Zen. Just look for apps in Add/Remove Programs that have the “foot” icon; this is the Gnome logo, and it indicates programs that “integrate well with the Gnome desktop.” Unlike KDE apps, they’ll be affected by whatever global styles you apply … like brushed metal and Aqua styling, and like the Gnome Global Menu Bar.
It’s possible to create a desktop experience like Mac OS X’s in KUbuntu, I’m sure. But the KDE design philosophy, of allowing maximum customization at the expense of simplicity and usability, is at odds with the Apple (and Gnome) philosophy of doing things the other way around. You could probably pare down the options that KDE gives you, and select the best options manually, but it’d be an uphill struggle. And at any rate, by using KDE apps you’d be giving up the unified desktop appearance that’s so central to Mac OS X’s approach … unless, of course, you were using only KDE apps on KUbuntu itself.
There’s one thing that Ubuntu can’t replicate yet, and that is the fact that in Mac OS X all of these things are put together and conveniently packaged for you. We Ubuntu users have to dig through separate repositories and add GPG keys to our Software Sources, while Mac users get it all handed to them with their new Macs. Adding injury to insult, somethings things don’t even work like they should for Ubuntu users. Gnome’s Global Menu Bar doesn’t (at the time of this writing) let you use Alt-(A-Z) to select the different menu tabs, and it doesn’t work with Firefox or OpenOffice — essentials for nearly all Ubuntu users, but not real Gnome / GTK apps. And Docky still has a few quirks, like not letting you select your own icons manually yet.
Mac OS X’s convenience comes at a price, however. The “free” copy of Mac OS X that comes with all new Macs is not Free / Open Source, and as such it doesn’t belong to Mac owners — it belongs to Apple. Any real improvements to it, like the “300 new features” in Leopard, have to come from Apple, not from the Mac community. And the same goes for Quicksilver, and Shapeshifter, and nearly all of the most popular Mac applications. They belong to their developers, not to the users who “buy” or download them.
As more Ubuntu users make Mac OS X-style simplicity a priority, and make their voices heard through bug reports and software recommendations, more Ubuntu developers will take up their cause and make the software that’s needed. Already, some distros based on Ubuntu use object docks by default … and Ubuntu itself uses the Gnome desktop, which is very Mac-like and simple.
Ubuntu may not be all the way there yet, but its inherent advantages and killer features make it a compelling choice over any other operating system. Having Mac-like apps and Mac-like simplicity is only the icing on the cake, and the crown on the jewel of Free Software. It’s something that we can all have, and that we can help each other with. And it’s only a matter of time before it becomes as easy to make your Ubuntu desktop like Mac OS X as it already is to install Ubuntu on a Mac or a Windows PC.
Whatever route you take to having your perfect computer desktop, good luck! And don’t forget to have fun with it!