Ubuntu’s Window Buttons Are Moving Back to the Right After All That “Innovation”

Do you ever feel like software is just changing back and forth for no good reason? Windows 8 dropped the Start button, then Windows 8.1 brought it back—both decisions being touted as big improvements. Windows 7 brought Aero transparency before Windows 8 dumped the transparency, and both decisions were proclaimed design improvements at the time. Now, Microsoft is bringing transparency back again with Fluent Design.

Open-source software isn’t immune to this temptation. Ubuntu moved its window control buttons—you know, the minimize, maximize, and close buttons—from the right side to the left side of window title bars in 2010. This was supposed to foster “innovation” that never really happened. Now, as Ubuntu gives up on Unity, window title bar buttons are moving back to the right.

This isn’t a criticism, really—moving the buttons back to the right makes sense. In fact, they arguably never should have been on the left in the first place.

Why the Move to the Left?

The default Ubuntu 16.04 LTS desktop featuring Unity 7, which will be discontinued.

Traditionally, Linux desktops had window title bar buttons on the right side of windows—just like on Windows. In 2010, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, officially known as the “self-appointed benevolent dictator for life” of the project, decided this should change. The buttons would now be on the left side of the window title bar, like on Macs.

Ending a discussion about this on Ubuntu’s Launchpad issue tracking project, Shuttleworth explained: “Our intent is to encourage innovation, discussion, and design with the right of the window title bar. We have some ideas, and others are already springing up in the community.”

Eventually, as the Unity project evolved, it became impossible for users to even change the side of the window management buttons through hidden settings. That was just the way Unity was designed to work.

What Happened to All That “Innovation and Design”?

If you’ve used Ubuntu at all since 2010, it’s easy to wonder what that “innovation” is all about. It never really went anywhere, and it’s hard to picture how having the window buttons at the left side of the screen has improved the desktop experience.

However, one of Mark Shuttleworth’s blog posts from 2010 explains what was supposed to happen. Unity already has “desktop indicators”, which appear on the panel at the top right corner of the screen. These act like little notification icons, and it’s the closest thing the Unity desktop has to the system tray on Windows.

Unity was supposed to gain “window indicators“, or “windicators”, that appeared at the top right corner of each window title bar. As an effort to “banish the status bar”, status information and options would appear at the top right corner of the window.

When you maximized a window, the window indicators would merge with the desktop-wide indicators on the main panel.

An early mock-up shared by Mark Shuttleworth in 2010.

This is a really interesting idea, and it would definitely have justified Ubuntu’s choice here. However, like many other big promised features that have now been cancelled, it never happened. An Ubuntu wiki post about the plan was last updated in 2011. The difficulty of getting a bunch of applications that run on a variety of Linux distributions and desktop environments to implement Ubuntu-only features was surely a part of the problem.

Technically, this was just one idea that could have happened—but it didn’t, and no other plans for the right side of the window title bar ever took hold.

Why Does Ubuntu Say They’re Moving Back?

But that’s the past, and a lot of things have happened since now. It’s 2017, and the Ubuntu project has given up on Ubuntu phones, Ubuntu tablets, Ubuntu TVs, and that whole “converged” desktop experience. Unity 8 and the Mir display server are dead and will never see the light of day on desktops. Unity 7 is being phased out and will be replaced with a more standard GNOME Shell desktop on Ubuntu desktops. Canonical is focusing more on Ubuntu for servers and the cloud—the stuff that actually makes it money.

As Ubuntu’s developers work on moving over to GNOME Shell, they’ve now decided to move the buttons back to the right. A user survey narrowly expressed a preference for the right. Ubuntu developer Didier Roche explains that Ubuntu 17.10 will have an always-visible dock on the left, and the window buttons will be on the right. “This vision is more compatible with having a dock always visible by default, while following more closely GNOME design for button placement,” he writes.

That’s really hard to make sense of. Ubuntu’s Unity desktop always had a visible launcher on the left, too. So how is using what’s basically the same layout as Unity justify moving the buttons to the right?

Why Are They Really Moving Back?

GNOME Shell on Fedora Workstation 26.

The real answer is simpler. Ubuntu’s developers want to minimize the changes they have to make to GNOME, and for good reason. Any big changes mean more ongoing work for Ubuntu developers to patch their changes whenever GNOME updates.

And this would be a big change. The real reason this is happening is thanks to something called “client-side decorations“. Applications (clients) draw their own window title bars and buttons. This was previously handled by the window manager. Thanks to this change, Ubuntu’s developers would have to modify a bunch of applications and then keep patching them as they were updated.

That’s crazy when Ubuntu is trying to stop doing so much desktop work on its own, and it makes sense for Ubuntu to go with the flow and stick with what GNOME and the rest of the Linux desktop world is doing. When Ubuntu decided to abandon Unity and switch to GNOME, this decision became inevitable.

Don’t worry, though—there’s no real downside to moving window management buttons back to the right. All that promised innovation never happened, anyway. Ubuntu users will have to become familiar with having the buttons on the right again, and that’s it.

Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.