Unity and the Drag&Drop way

This new post is about Interaction, focusing on relations between Unity launcher and our files. I’d like to introduce a simple extension to Unity behavior while interacting with files in our systems.

The old way

Before Unity was launched, if you needed to interact with a file you could choose one of this common options: Right click on it to see a list of actions or Drag & drop to move it.
In my opinion, both methods have some disadvantages:

  • It may be hard to find the right menu item inside the “right click menu” if you installed several Nautilus plugins
  • Drag & Drop works only for unmaximized windows
  • Drag & Drop is strictly an application dependent feature

The Unity way

With Unity Ubuntu has introduced a new drag & drop capability in the launcher:

Unity drag & drop system

The current Unity launcher drag & drop feature

If you move a file to Unity, the apps which cannot handle it are shadowed. On the contrary, the ones which are able to do the desired operation remain active. I really love this new feature and I tried to replace both Drag&Drop and Right click with this new method… Unfortunately, my attempts were unsuccessful:

  • This feature works only for apps in the launcher; so that Unity Drag&Drop can’t be a complete replacement for the right click “Open” and “Open with” menu items
  • If you are writing multiple emails and you want to attach a file to a particular email you can’t. Dropping a file to the email client will always open a new email window
  • If you are chatting with some friends and want to send them your fresh downloaded song you can’t.
  • You can’t move files to removable devices even if they are displayed in the launcher (At least not in Ubuntu 11.10)

An alternative recipe: The adaptive Unity launcher

However these are not problems, simply the launcher doesn’t work as I expected. That’s why I studied a possible alternative to the current behavior: a launcher that adapts its content depending on what you move towards it. Let’s explain my idea with an image:

The adaptive Unity launcher for an audio file

The adaptive Unity launcher for a video file

When a music file is moved to the launcher, the latter changes its content and displays:

1All the applications that can handle the file properly. The launcher could be smart enough to list the default applications together with some context related apps. In the audio file example, if you have a blank CD inserted in your CD drive, the launcher should also display the Brasero Burning Tool icon.

2 Emails and IM contacts. In addition to Email and IM client icons (specifically Thunderbird and Empathy) Unity will display thumbnail icons for each person you are chatting and for each email you are writing. This means that you can use drag & drop to attach or send files to a specific person.

3Online accounts actions. In my opinion, Unity needs to be integrated with Online accounts: I’ll discuss this subject in the section below.

4All your devices (removable and cloud) should be visible. As I use Ubuntu 11.10, I cannot be sure whether the latest Ubuntu release has solved this issue. Anyway, why can’t you copy a document to an USB stick or Dropbox share using Unity drag & drop?
As a second improvement I would replace the home directory with a file-type dependent “right” folder: if I drag a video file, the launcher will displays the Video folder (but only if that video isn’t already there). This is also a way to encourage people to use the proper Ubuntu directory structure when organizing contents.

A look at the social world…

An “Online account” menu entry has been recently added to Ubuntu User Indicator. At the time I’m writing, Google account is the only feature supported even if I think that the gnome board is planning to make this the default entry point for all online accounts such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Google and the like. I also imagine that almost all gnome apps will soon be integrated with your social accounts: Thunderbird will automatically add your Gmail profile, Liferea your Google reader feed, Empathy will setup your Facebook and Gtalk accounts while Shotwell will synchronize your Flickr and Facebook galleries etc. Or maybe that’s simply what I hope to see.

Now the question is: “How can the launcher be social and integrate well with online accounts?” I think there are a lot of annoying tasks that often require several steps: uploading a video on Youtube, sharing your new photo album on Flickr, Facebook or Google+, updating your MySpace profiles with the latest songs are a few examples of that. How can we make these tasks faster? At this point, you probably know the answer: Unity Drag & drop can be the solution for your laziness 🙂

A Unity preview mode

While looking for a file preview application I tested several Mac-like preview apps but I’ve never been satisfied with them. That’s why I want to propose a totally new approach: a Unity based preview.

An audio preview example

A video preview example

Dragging a file over the right launcher icon without dropping it displays a Pop-Up with a small preview.

That’s all at the moment, if you want to share your thoughts feel free to post a comment and if you like the idea follow the link below to votes for it on Ubuntu brainstorm.

Alt + Tab and Unity

The time has come for a new article of the series “How to reinvent the wheel”. These posts are about well-designed and functional features. The only purpose I have is to show new ways of using them. Just consider it as a simple “what if” exercise. 🙂

Let’s take a look at the current state of art in the main operating systems.

Without entering the details, we can say Ubuntu, Mac and Windows7 follow, except for small differences, the same concept, which is to show a list of fully-opened apps in small thumbnails in the middle of the screen. Unlikely Windows, Ubuntu gathers the same apps in a single place and explode them when users move the selection over them. This is a simple and helpful implementation.
Now, let’s see my “what if” questions: What if launcher contents can change following users’ actions? Furthermore, What if we can list the apps we launched into the Unity launcher by pressing Alt + Tab keys? The results are shown below:

My Alt + Tab design

Simple Alt + Tab inside Unity launcher


Unity Alt + Tab with preview


Unity Alt + tab preview (multiple windows)

When users press the Alt+Tab combo the launcher only shows the apps you launched. If you select an app a bigger thumbnail of the window is displayed (or more thumbnails if you have more than one window).

My Alt + \ design

Simple Alt + Slash based on Unity


A Unity based Alt + Slash with preview

What do you think about a Unity based Alt+ tab and Alt+ \?