“Change my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon…”
That’s a quote from the 6th Doctor in British Sci-Fi series Doctor Who, and it’s a rather fitting for the transition Ubuntu finds itself moving through.
‘Ubuntu had to make some kind of change to keep pace with wider technology trends’
Like everyone else, I was shocked when Canonical decided to drop Unity and move back to using the GNOME desktop by default.
But, unlike others, I d not consider that bombshell news to be a giant negative. Now, I’m not saying I am stoked to see all the work on Unity shuttered — it is a shame — but I do accept that Ubuntu, as a platform, had to make some kind of change to keep pace with wider technology trends.
No-one likes change — especially when it’s forced — but the Ubuntu desktop is not dying. Rather like The Doctor, it’s simply regenerating.
Change Was Coming One Way or Another…
Ubuntu 18.04 LTS is the next long-term support release (i.e the one Canonical advises you download on its website), and the one the majority of Ubuntu’s 22 million desktop users will run.
Change was coming to Ubuntu next year, regardless.
From 2012 until April of this year Canonical was investing in a vision of ‘convergence’. This unification of mobile and personal computing technologies would span devices and use cases, intelligently adapting based on input and output capabilities.
The aim was to ship this new, converged Unity 8 desktop and Mir display server by default as soon as possible. A Unity 8 preview first appeared in Ubuntu 13.10 and, in each successive release, it …Limped along.
‘Unity 8 was never going to be ready to ship in Ubuntu 18.04 LTS’
Virtually all the development effort on Unity 8 and Mir was solely down to Canonical. There was no army of community developers chipping in, contributing bug fixes, proposing patches; there was no major open-source love or good will for these ‘NIH’ projects; it was all on Canonical to deliver its vision.
And thus it was only Canonical that could tell how much more time, effort, manpower and money was going to be needed to get Unity 8 (and Mir) in to a state where the company could confidently upgrade 22 million desktop users (plus the millions more in enterprise, mission-critical, educational situations) to this new technology stack and feel able to continue supporting this frozen snapshot of code for five years.
Clearly Unity 8 wasn’t going to be — and was never going to be — ready to ship in Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, the next major release of Ubuntu.
Unity 7 Isn’t Heaven
The alternative, you may think, would be to stick with Unity 7. After all, it’s the desktop that most Ubuntu users are running already.
‘In 2018 the Unity 7 code will have been in maintenance mode for five years’
But there’s a fly in that ointment too.
In 2018 the Unity 7 code will have been (largely) in maintenance mode for five years. That’s five years with no real new features, no major work to leverage modern technologies like Wayland, no new APIs or UX changes, and no real benefit to running it on modern hardware.
Want to know what the biggest planned feature for Unity 7 in Ubuntu 17.10 was going to be? A low-gfx mode toggle in the System Settings app.
Had Unity 7 stayed default desktop for the next LTS it would’ve meant users in 2023 would be using a desktop that was last updated in 2013 — a decade ago! They’d also be stuck using an old display server (Xorg) and window manager (Compiz) — neither of which are in rude health.
So while some have taken the drop of Unity 7 as some sort of admission of defeat from Canonical, or as a sign that it is abandoning the user desktop, the reality is less dramatic and more pragmatic. Dropping the Unity desktops (yup, plural) was the only decision it could make in order to continue providing a user desktop.
Remember: Ubuntu Is More Than Unity
Unity may be the current face of Ubuntu but the distro is far more than simply a Compiz plugin.
There’s the stability; the Q&A testing; the Ubuntu Linux kernel; on going security updates and bug fixes; new apps, and so on.
There were five years of Ubuntu before Unity, and I’m almost certain they’ll be at least another 5 years after it.
And those who don’t want to use Ubuntu with GNOME do have plenty of choices.
Entire Linux distributions have risen up solely to maintain legacy experiences that people want to stick with — like Ubuntu MATE and Linux Mint — but it’s unfair to expect Ubuntu to stick with Unity just because some users don’t like change.
Technology moves on, user expectations change, and needs change. Besides, all the old stuff people love is still there, waiting to be loved.
‘The Trouble with Regeneration…’
Ubuntu 17.10 will look different than before and work different than before but is still the same OS as before.
Regeneration is never a clean or easy process. It can be bumpy, dramatic and unpredictable. The personality that emerges at the end is temporarily confused and uncertain, not sure how the new face fits.
When Ubuntu regenerates into a flagship GNOME desktop the rough edges will be apparent. Not everyone will instantly like it, and a period of adjustment is needed.
But as the newly regenerated Ubuntu pushes on through the initial unease it will find its footing; It will work out who it is this time and carve out a new, definable identity.
Ubuntu 17.10 will look different than before and work different than before but it is still the same OS as before.
The next incarnation of Ubuntu will, like the show in this analogy, lose fans because of the change. But equally, it’s going to win a new generation of them too.
In October the Ubuntu desktop will fling its arms wide, look to the sky, and explode in a burst of orange..
‘The Ubuntu desktop team is still the same size as before Unity was axed’
And if nothing else in this post reassures you that Ubuntu desktop is abandoned, dead or decaying let it be this: the Ubuntu desktop team is the same size it was before Unity was dropped.
Yup, the people responsible for creating, integrating and polishing the final, finished article that you download, install and use are still there, doing what they’ve always done. That’s a full-time team whose sole job is to make the Ubuntu desktop.
This is not the end of Ubuntu. It’s simply a new beginning.