Canonical’s vision of convergence—a single, highly adaptive environment that spans mobile and desktop uses—has been delayed yet again. The Unity 8 desktop and Mir display server, which are key to that vision, won’t be used by default in Ubuntu 16.10, according to discussion in the Ubuntu Online Summit.
The state of Unity 8 in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS
With the recent release of Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, Ubuntu’s developers delivered an excellent Linux desktop based on Unity 7 and X.org. But all of its polish doesn't change the fact that it's still a traditional desktop that does nothing to advance Canonical’s convergence goals.
According to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu 16.04 LTS was once supposed to offer two different variants—a traditional Ubuntu desktop environment and an “Ubuntu Personal” desktop based on the converged Unity 8 and Mir software. This didn’t happen. While you can go out of your way to install the Unity 8 desktop on Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, it’s just not ready for the average Linux PC yet. It’s shipping on Bq’s Ubuntu tablet and Ubuntu phones, but that’s it.
What's more, those new Snap packages that are a major feature in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS were actually designed for the Unity 8 desktop. The fact that they're instead running on Unity 7 means that Ubuntu’s Snappy security promises just aren’t accurate, as Snap packages aren’t capable of providing the full security benefit on the older X11-based X.org server.
Convergence is on track for Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, hopefully
Ideally, Ubuntu’s vision of a converged desktop will arrive, fully baked, in Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, just under two years from now. The Unity 8 session will be available in Ubuntu 16.10, but only as an option. It might finally reach default status by 17.04—maybe. People who want the traditional desktop can and should just stick with Ubuntu 16.04 LTS, anyway.
It's interesting to look back at a 2014 blog post from Will Cooke, Canonical’s Desktop Team manager. In it, he predicts that Ubuntu 14.04 LTS would provide Unity 8 as an option, and that Unity 8 would become the default desktop environment in Ubuntu 16.04 LTS. Two years later, it seems we’re still looking at the same projected development cycle. For Ubuntu fans who have seen Windows 10 beat Ubuntu to convergence in the form of Continuum—despite Mark Shuttleworth’s attempt to race Microsoft—it’s a disappointment.