Hey, Ubuntu users: If you haven’t heard yet, Canonical killed off any hopes of releasing Unity 8 with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS next year. Instead, Ubuntu will release 18.04 with the GNOME desktop. While some die-hard Ubuntu fans may have a case of inconsolable angst, this is actually not as bad of a thing as it may seem.
A brief history of Ubuntu desktops
A long time ago (in internet time anyway), the Ubuntu OS shipped with the GNOME 2 desktop environment, which was beloved at the time. During that era, only a handful desktop environments were widely used. GNOME and KDE took the lion’s share of users, while the lighter-weight XFCE and LXDE desktops catered to users who wanted a speedier desktop and less pizzazz.
When Ubuntu first shipped the Unity desktop in 2010, it was meant to cater to netbooks. (I still have my Eee PC from back then.) As netbooks were supplanted by the rise of tablets, Chromebooks, and ultrabooks, Unity stayed with the OS. If you wanted the old GNOME desktop, there was a distro for you: Ubuntu GNOME. Like Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE), Ubuntu GNOME was essentially the same OS, but with the GNOME desktop instead of Unity.
When the GNOME desktop hit version 3.0, the desktop experience was split yet again. The MATE project is basically a fork of the old GNOME 2 desktop, which resulted in the Ubuntu MATE desktop. Ubuntu GNOME, meanwhile, stuck with the GNOME project’s trajectory and offered up the GNOME 3 desktop for Ubuntu users who wanted it.
Why the move is a good thing
Ubuntu has been a leading distribution in the desktop Linux scene. It’s reasonably easy to install, you can find .deb software packages everywhere, and the user experience has one of the lower learning curves of any Linux distribution. Since it has such a large user base, what Ubuntu does on the desktop has a significant impact on the Linux desktop across distributions.
The abandonment of Unity signifies a reversal for Canonical, the company that produces Ubuntu. Canonical had drawn criticism for going its own way with Unity and reinventing the wheel instead of making existing projects better. By giving up on Unity, Canonical frees up resources to work on other projects.
In a blog post announcing Unity’s demise, the company's founder Mark Shuttleworth mentioned that Canonical would actively work on the future of the desktop. “We will continue to produce the most usable open-source desktop in the world, to maintain the existing LTS releases, to work with our commercial partners to distribute that desktop, to support our corporate customers who rely on it, and to delight the millions of IoT and cloud developers who innovate on top of it,” Shuttleworth said.
Contributors who want to work on the Ubuntu desktop can now contribute to the GNOME project. The GNOME project doesn’t require the contributor to sign a contributor’s license agreement, which has been a key issue for many of Canonical’s critics. Additionally, the added attention the GNOME project will receive by virtue of an increased user base will ultimately make the GNOME desktop better. With more people using the desktop comes increased demand for features and bugfixes, as well as more people to submit bug reports.
If you’re a desktop user, it means that the future versions of Ubuntu’s desktop will be more consistent with other distributions of Linux, and that the Linux community at large will likely benefit.
What’s not so great about all this
The first thing to die along with Unity is Canonical’s goal of convergence between desktops and mobile devices. The death of Unity means that, like Firefox OS before it, Ubuntu-based tablets and phones ultimately get the ax. As someone who’s wanted an alternative to iOS, Android, and Windows, this represents a reduction in choice for the consumer.
It also means that if you’re a privacy nut who’s not exactly ecstatic about iOS or giving personal data to Google by using Android, you’re pretty much hosed.
The big unknown in all of this is the development of Mir. Mir is pretty much Canonical’s Wayland, which is a replacement for the aging X.org video server. In case I just lost you, X.org, Wayland, or Mir would be the part of the OS that actually draws the pixels of the graphical environment on the screen. Without X.org, Wayland, or Mir, you only have a text console.
Since Mir was meant to be the underlying video server for Unity 8, it really has lost its raison d’être. Shuttleworth makes no mention of Mir in his blog post, but it may be safe to assume that Mir will also cease to be. Without Unity 8 and the convergence it promised, there’s no reason to use Mir instead of Wayland.
What Ubuntu users can expect
In the next LTS release, Ubuntu GNOME will effectively be merged into the main desktop release of Ubuntu. If you’re using Ubuntu now on Unity, there will be a few changes in the desktop itself, but the apps you use will largely be the same.
For all of its differences, Unity actually borrows a lot from the GNOME project. Applications are drawn using other GTK 3 framework, just like apps on the GNOME 3 desktop. In fact, most of the settings in Ubuntu (like apps that alter screen colors or power settings) are the exact same applications.
The GNOME desktop differs from the Unity desktop in a couple ways, however. First, the dash on the left side of the screen is not present in the default view in GNOME. The dash is available in the Activities view (you can move the cursor to the upper-left of the screen or tap the Super/Windows key to open it). With the Activities view open, you can see open windows, launch apps from the quick-launch bar, or start typing the name of an application, file, or web search.
If you’re used to searching for applications and files in Unity, the process is quite similar in GNOME. That means that even though it might take a little time to get used to, the learning curve won’t be as steep as you think.
With the death of Unity, Ubuntu is ultimately rejoining the pack when it comes to desktop environments. If you’ve never used Ubuntu without Unity, this will feel like a big change. But for those who have used the OS since before Unity was a glimmer in Canonical’s eye, the move may feel more like Ubuntu is returning to its roots.