Designing Unity: The Start Menu

Early on when we began to develop Unity for Workstation, we started to look at ways to give users access to the guest’s start menu. This seemed like an easy thing to solve at first. A month later we realized otherwise. We debated for some time and discussed the pros and cons of many approaches before settling on a design.

We had a number of technical and design restrictions we had to consider:

  • The UI should be roughly the same across Windows and Linux hosts.
  • Start menu contents must always be accessible regardless of the desktop environment on Linux.
  • Need to cleanly support start menus from many VMs at once.

Our chosen design

The design we settled on was to have a separate utility window for representing the start menu. This window can auto-hide and dock to any corner of the screen, or remain free-floating, and provides buttons for each VM. The buttons are color-coded to match the Unity window’s border and badge color. When you first go into Unity, the window briefly shows, indicating where it’s docked.

Unity Start Menu Integration

There are many advantages to this design.

  • You don’t have to re-learn how to use it between platforms or even desktop environments.
  • It’s pretty easy to get to and yet stays out of your way when you don’t need it.
  • All the start menus are easily accessible from one place.
  • The start menu buttons are color-coded to match the Unity windows.
  • Users can control whether the window is docked in a corner or free-floats on the desktop.
  • We have a lot of flexibility for feature expansion down the road.

Why not integrate with the Start Menu?

Since the first Workstation 6.5 beta, I’ve been asked why we chose the design we have instead of integrating the start menu into the notification area or into the existing Applications/Start menus. The idea to do so seems kind of obvious at first, but there are many reason we didn’t go that route.

Let’s start with the host’s Applications/Start menus. This seems the most natural place to put applications, as the user is already used to going there. We began going down this route, until we realized the problems associated:

  • On Linux, not everyone runs GNOME, KDE or another desktop environment with an applications menu supporting the .desktop spec correctly or at all. This means we’d be drastically limiting which desktop environments we could even represent applications in.
  • In the case of GNOME, it would add more clicks to get access to any application (Applications ? Virtual Machines ? VM Name ? Applications). This becomes tedious, quickly. Also, from my tests, adding entries three levels deep doesn’t always appear to work reliably across desktops.
  • In Windows, the situation is just as unclear. People tend to think that Windows only has one Start menu, but in reality, we’d have to support three (Classic, XP, and Vista). For quicker access, we’d need to add something to the root menu, and each of these start menus have slight differences in how we can do this. None of the solutions are even particularly good there, as entries may be hidden from the user to make room for other pinned applications.
  • In summary, where you go to access the start menu contents will be different not just on each OS, but across desktop environments and even different modes of the same environment (on Windows).

What about the notification area/system tray?

Another possibility that has been brought up is to use the notification area and to tie the start menu to an icon there. While this would generally work, it wouldn’t work too well.

  • On Linux, it’s frowned upon to put persistent entries in the notification area. A panel applet could work, but users would have to manually add it, and it would be GNOME or KDE-specific.
  • There’s no guarantee there even is a notification area or even a panel in Linux desktops.
  • On Windows, the icon may be automatically hidden in the system tray to make room for other icons.
  • The icon is such a small area to click on, making it annoying to launch applications quickly.
  • The icon is generally not too discoverable.

Tips and future improvements

While we’ll probably keep our current model, there are definitely improvements I’d personally like to make in some future release. One such possible example is to allow dragging an entry off onto the panel or desktop to create a shortcut/launcher. If you frequently access certain applications, you’d be able to put them wherever you want them for quick access. Clicking them while the VM is powered off would power the VM back on in the background and then run the application.

A lot of this exists already. While there is no automatic launcher creation, you can create your own that run:

vmware-unity-helper --run /path/to/vmx C:pathtoapplication parameters

This is not a supported feature at this time and may have bugs, but in the general case it should work just fine.

VMware Workstation 6.5 released!

I wanted to come up with some witty introduction here, but after a year of hard work on Workstation 6.5, I’m just too tired to come up with anything.

Workstation 6.5 is the latest release yet of our Workstation product, and continues in the fine tradition of being an awesome program. It’s also the first version to introduce Unity, a feature I’ve spent a lot of time on and will be blogging about in more detail soon.

So why should you upgrade to Workstation 6.5? Well, if you’re a Workstation 6.0 user, it’s free, which is a pretty good incentive. It also comes with a bunch of new and improved features.

Unity

Unity is a feature I’m particularly proud of, because it’s pretty much the only thing I worked on for Workstation 6.5.

Unity breaks down the walls between the host computer and the virtual machine. With the click of a button, application windows from the VM pop out onto the host desktop, allowing you to put your host and guest applications side-by-side. If you’re a Linux user but you need to use Outlook for work, this feature will let you just simply run Outlook alongside your other windows.

Unity isn’t just a Workstation feature on Linux or Windows. The free Player product can also run your VMs in Unity!

Unity works best with Windows guests right now but does support Linux guests as well. Linux guests are more experimental and I strongly recommend using a recent version of Metacity in the guest. For Linux hosts, you’ll have best results with Compiz, Metacity or KDE.

It’s a complicated feature and, while not perfect, is still pretty great. I’ve written a little about it (see Working outside the box with Unity and Workstation 6.5 Beta 1 – Now with 100% more Unity!).

In the coming weeks, I plan to write a small series of blog entries about the development of this feature, including some of the complications involved and design decisions we made.

Record/Replay

Workstation 6.0 introduced Interrupt Record and Replay, a feature enabling users to record on the CPU level everything that’s happening for a range of time in a virtual machine for later playback. This is a powerful feature for development and debugging, as one can record a session during the testing of an application and forever capture that annoying 1-in-100 crash.

Workstation 6.5 improves upon this by providing a much more flexible UI with the ability to skip around a recording, adding checkpoints for quick navigation, and just generally bringing the feature into a more mature state.

Improved Linux Installer

One of the main grumble points that users (and ourselves) have had with past Workstation for Linux releases is that the installation process wasn’t very smooth, and the vmware-config.pl script had to be re-run after any kernel upgrade.

We’ve fixed these issues by providing a new GTK-based installer that walks the user through the installation process, and by handling kernel configuration (if needed) during Workstation startup. The days of running a shell script to get Workstation running are over. Finally.

Virtual Machine Streaming

Ever want to preview a downloadable virtual machine without having to grab the entire zip file or tarball? VMs can be quite big and it’s a pain to download one only to find out that it doesn’t meet your needs.

The new VM Streaming feature gives users the ability to point Player or Workstation to a remote VM (if provided in the proper format). It will then download the bits as needed, and allow users to pause or restart the stream. It’s important to note that this will be slow at first until it has enough data to smoothly run files off the disk. When finished with the VM, the user can choose to keep what they have, or delete the cached VM from disk.

3D Acceleration with DirectX 9

Our hard-working team of 3D Code Monkeys have been working to bring support for DirectX 9 in the guest, supporting up to Shader Model 2.0. This means many more games are now playable, including one of my favorites, Portal.

Easier VM Creation

We’ve revamped the New VM wizard to provide a more streamlined VM creation process, complete with our new Easy Install feature. Simply put your installation CD in the drive or point the wizard to your ISO file and it will automatically determine the guest OS and default settings.

And lots more…

That’s just scratching the surface. We’ve made plenty of other improvements, listed in our release notes.

Some of us developers will be providing some support in the forums, and if you have a Linux Unity question, feel free to contact me directly.

Love,

Christian

Workstation 6.5 Beta 1 – Now with 100% more Unity!

I talked a little while ago about working outside the box with Unity. At that time I gave a sneak peak into what I’ve been working here at VMware the past few months. Well, now everyone can see.

We just announced VMware Workstation 6.5 beta 1, the first public beta for Workstation 6.5. Among many other awesome features is Unity, a feature we introduced in our Fusion product (for MacOS X) which allows you to run your applications from your virtual machine on your desktop without needing to be confined to a big box representing the VM’s monitor.

Unity is available in both our Linux and Windows releases of Workstation 6.5 beta 1, and there’s currently support for Windows guests (Windows 2000 and up). However, it’s a beta so you can expect some problems. To help people get started, here’s a rundown on what you can expect from Unity in beta 1.

Features Overview:

  • Shaped windows
  • Guest mouse cursors
  • Proper window types for most windows (Menu, Dialog, Tooltip, etc.)
  • Special effects with Compiz
  • Virtual desktops
  • Copy and paste between host and guest
  • Start menu integration
  • Window borders and badges

Seamless window integration

With the press of a button, the applications in your virtual machine will pop out and appear on your desktop, intermixed with all your native applications. These windows can stack in any order along with your native windows and will maximize, minimize, and close as you’d expect any normal window to. They’ll appear just like they would in the guest, aside from any borders or badges you have set to help identify the guest windows (more on that in a minute).

We do our best to set the window types on these windows to best reflect their type in the guest. This means that a tooltip from the guest will look and act like a tooltip in the host, as will a dialog, menu, etc. This is important for supporting the special effects provided by a window manager.

Special effects

If your window manager has any special effects set for the windows, they’ll apply to guest windows. For example, users of Compiz will be glad to know that their wobbly windows will work for such applications as Office 2008 or Minesweeper, and your guest menus will still burst into flames when they appear.

There are a few cases where the effect isn’t as strong as with native windows. Due to the way we receive window updates and events, the display of a window will often update before we receive open, close or minimize events. We plan to make this work better for some event types in the next beta, but for now, I recommend choosing special effects that modify a window in-place (fire, fade-in, etc.) instead of one that zooms a window to a location for opening/closing windows.

Wobbly Windows

Virtual desktops

Windows may not natively have virtual desktop support, but Linux does, so we felt it was important to make virtual desktops with Unity just work. You can place your guest applications across your virtual desktops. Maximize Office on one desktop, play a game of Solitaire on another, and reserve a third for your Internet Explorer debugging session.

Unity with Virtual Desktops

Copy and paste

Copy and paste is an important part of any user’s daily work. We currently have support for copying and pasting text between host and guest. You can’t yet copy and paste images or other data, though.

Start menu integration

Helper’s Head

A desktop environment isn’t useful without the ability to get to your programs. We provide a little tool called Unity Helper that runs automatically and provides start menu integration. Simply move your mouse to the top-left corner of your primary monitor and the menu will pop down, providing a start button for each of your VMs in Unity. Click the button and your start menu’s contents will appear.

The start button will match the color of the Unity badges and borders that are set to help you quickly identify your VM.

This functionality is pretty new so there are some kinks to work out. For example, if you don’t have a top panel or your top panel is larger than 24 pixels, you might notice the window in a wrong location. This is a bug that will be fixed in beta 2. We’re also hoping to add more options for the location of this window.

Applications Menu

Another useful tip is that you can use Unity Helper to launch applications in a guest via the panel or command line. Simply run:

 $ vmware-unity-helper --run /path/to/vm.vmx c:\path\to\program.exe arguments

This only works if your VM is currently powered on and in Unity or if the VM is not open anywhere. It’s not a supported feature at this point.

Borders and badges

In order to help identify a window belonging to a particular VM, we have color-coded badges and borders on the Unity windows. The border goes around the window and fades from corner to corner, and the badge is a little VMware logo sitting on your titlebar. Both are purely decorative and optional. You can turn them on or off in VM Settings or change the color. The color will also match the start button.

Badges and Borders

Known bugs (and workarounds)

As with any beta, there are of course bugs that you may hit. Pay special attention to the first item on the list.

  • Start menu problems after a crash. If there’s a crash, sometimes the start menu integration won’t work the next session. The trick is to exit Workstation (leave the VM running in the background), delete /tmp/vmware-$USER/unity-helper-ipc-*, and bring Workstation back up.
  • Occasionally Unity may crash. This is a known bug when a guest window changes its type when we don’t expect it. If you hit this, don’t worry! Your VM is still running in the background. Just re-launch Workstation or Player and go back into Unity mode.
  • Graphics glitches. Sometimes you’ll notice the background appearing when you close or minimize a window. We hope to fix this up for the next beta.
  • Multiple monitors are not supported in beta 1.
  • Drag and drop is not supported in beta 1.
  • Due to a recent regression just before beta 1, there are graphical glitches for applications not on the current desktop.
  • Some applications behave badly. Photoshop and Flash (the creation program, not the plugin) (ab)use windows all over the place, and so you’ll see windows where you wouldn’t expect them. Sometimes they don’t even get proper updates, making the UI unusable. We’re looking into solutions for this.

There’s more, but those are the main ones I can think of that people may hit.

Give it a try and feel free to report bugs in the user forums.

Working outside the box with Unity

A Brief History of Boxes

In the days of old, working on your computer meant working inside a limited contained box. You could run programs but only one at a time, because running two at the same time would require two computers. This was the status quo for years. It’s just how computers worked.

Then a new technology changed everything. Multitasking. Now you could buy one computer and your operating system would allow you to run multiple programs at once. No longer were you tied to one box at a time. You could have one for your word processor, one for your spreadsheet, and one for solitaire. It was a spectacular invention, one that we quickly took for granted. Relatively few computer users today even know what it’s like to use a computer without this ability.

As time went on, new operating systems began to develop substantial user bases. The competition between them grew, and most applications were tied to a particular operating system. You were limited to one operating system at a time, and if you wanted to run two at once you would need two computers.

Then came modern virtualization, which shattered this barrier. Now you could have one or more giant boxes on your computer containing a full operating system, each with different applications running. These boxes could sit side by side. Some people are already taking it for granted. Soon grade school children will be using virtualization without even knowing that there was a world before it.

But up until now, working in a virtualized environment meant working in a big box on your screen. Sure you could have several going at once, but you realistically could only interact with one at a time. These boxes represented screens, and you can only fit so many screens on a single screen at once before you start feeling really cramped.

Shattering the box

Earlier this year, we released VMware Fusion 1.0 for the Macintosh. This was our first virtualization product for the Mac and it has been met with high praise. And jealousy. VMware Fusion managed to change how users thought about virtualization. Thanks to Unity, you were no longer forced into having a big box on your screen. With the click of a button, the applications inside your virtual machine would appear outside of the box, sitting alongside your other applications. The Mac users loved this and Windows and Linux users were left feeling like they missed out.

I can’t recall how many times I’ve been asked if Workstation is going to include Unity in Workstation.

Unity
The answer is yes. Well, eventually.

I’m working on adding Unity support to the Linux codebase, which may in time be part of Workstation or Player. This will allow your Windows and Linux programs to intermingle with the click of a button. As of right now, here are the current state of things:

Unity Today

Unity today works in Linux on my system. It’s known to work in Metacity but hasn’t been thoroughly tested in other window managers yet. The basic things you’d expect all work for the most part. The rest will come later.

What I have working today

So far, the very basic window management works today, for the most part. It’s usable just enough to go “Oh neat” and to play a game of solitaire.

Many things do not work today, though.

  • Virtual desktops do not work. If you move windows to other desktops, you’ll have problems.
  • Multiple monitors might work but probably won’t.
  • Alt-dragging or otherwise moving a window in a way other than by using the titlebar will cause us to get out of sync.
  • If you attempt to drag a window off-screen, the window manager may block it, but the events will still be sent to the guest. This could cause the window to get “stuck.”
  • Minimizing a window using the taskbar may cause visual oddities.
  • Partially obscured windows may look wrong when in Compiz’s Expose mode or similar modes where all windows are displayed at once.
  • There’s no proper start menu integration. Exit Unity mode to launch new applications or press the Windows key or Control-escape while in a guest application to bring up the guest start menu.

These issues are being addressed. In many cases where windows become “stuck,” simply leaving Unity and then going back into it should fix the problem.

Going forward…

There’s a lot we have in the works for Unity, and while I cannot yet talk about it all, the end result should be just awesome. I’m hoping to have a video demoing it at some point.

P.S. For those who notice the borders and VMware logo badges on the Windows windows in the screenshot and find them annoying, you will be able to disable them. The idea is to allow you to easily determine the guest windows from the host windows when the OS and theme are the same.

Unity is now “real” – VMware Fusion Beta 4 released

Yesterday I briefly wrote about the new feature in VMware Fusion called Unity and linked to a video demonstrating what it can do. The buzz we got from that has been a lot of fun. Some people commented on various sites saying it was fake, even, which I found pretty funny having watched this thing being developed. I personally didn’t work on this feature, but I work with those who did, and they’ve sure looked sleep-deprived lately trying to get this feature and the next VMware Fusion beta ready.

They can finally sleep peacefully. We just put out VMware Fusion Beta 4. I want to issue a public congratulations to the developers who have put in a huge amount of time into this product. They’re not done yet, but I think they’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Regis Duchesne, one of the developers of Fusion, talks briefly about where things stand and where things are going.

So again, congrats guys. I think I’m finally going to have to buy myself a Mac.

Unity

I remember the day I interviewed at VMware. I was asked what I would do to improve Workstation, and one of the things I said was that it would be nice to make a VM go rootless. That is, pull application windows out of the VM and make them integrate well with the operating system.

I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people wanted this type of feature. It’s been discussed for years, but it’s always been hard to find the manpower to do it. But competition is good, and we finally got some people on this feature. And it turned out spectacularly.

Check it out.

Kudos to the people who have spent many nights practically living here. They’ve pulled off an amazing feature. And we’re not done yet.

I know I’m going to be asked if we’re doing this on Linux or Windows. It’s too early to say what our feature list is like for the next major product. So feel free to just speculate 😉

Update: They moved the link on Digg, so updated my link.