Ubuntu Abandoning Unity in Favor of GNOME: What This Means

On 5 April 2017, Canonical – the UK-based company that develops Ubuntu – has announced its intentions to shift away from the focus of convergence across different platforms in favor of a cloud- and IoT-centric approach. Within that announcement, they have also said something a bit more controversial: they are abandoning the Unity desktop in favor of GNOME for the 18.04 iteration of the Linux distribution.

For those using other desktop environments like XFCE, LXDE, and MATE, this is basically a “meh” ordeal. The turmoil comes for those who have been bred under the Unity banner, both with and without previous experience using the GNOME environment. What does this mean for Canonical’s long-term strategy, and how does this work for Ubuntu’s comfortable position as one of the most popular Linux distributions?

Why Canonical Is Abandoning Unity


I was present for the Techsylvania 2016 conference in Cluj-Napoca when Mike Shuttleworth came in to speak about exciting new concepts that would govern the direction Ubuntu would take over the next stages in its development. At that point he spoke with enthusiasm about the future of embedded devices and how Ubuntu would become a part of this evolution.

For the uninitiated who only recently started using Ubuntu, Unity first appeared in the netbook edition of version 10.10, released on 10 October 2010. That’s not a joke. They actually released version 10.10 on a date that can be written as 10.10.10.

Unity leapt into the mainstream when Ubuntu 11.04 had its official release on 28 April 2011. This new, sleek desktop environment replaced the old GNOME desktop, giving rise to perhaps the greatest bump in popularity the operating system has received in its short history. (The first version was released in 2005.)

All of this sounds like mumble jumble until you realize that the vast majority of people using Ubuntu today have “grown up” with the Unity desktop during its boost in popularity. After the release of 11.04, Ubuntu became a household name because of Canonical’s focus on usability with “Linux for human beings” being the motto du jour.


The abandonment of Unity represents a shift away from the attempt to converge the Linux environment across multiple devices and towards the desire to affix the operating system to the embedded world. Ubuntu’s blog itself (linked earlier) published in its announcement that it would like to concentrate more on its current dominance in both the IoT and cloud markets where it already has a solid footing. This was a direct result of the less-than-optimal performance Canonical has seen on mobile and tablet adoption, leading Shuttleworth to admit he was misguided in his optimism.

How This Impacts Ubuntu in the Future


With every major decision taken by a developer, there is always a fog of war that prevents us from seeing exactly how it will play out. If I am to make a prediction, it’s that many people may find the reversion to GNOME a disadvantage.

Across forums there is a significant amount of dissent to the decision, with a number of people citing that Unity was the more usable of the two desktop environments. Whitson Gordon of Lifehacker begs to differ, however, claiming in the end that he prefers GNOME for its clean environment and extra features.

The truth is that Ubuntu isn’t likely to bleed users, and even if people who don’t like GNOME happen to make the upgrade, they can simply migrate to another desktop environment. It only takes a few minutes to do for someone relatively experienced with the operating system.

Sure, some hardcore Unity fans might drop off the Canonical train since it will no longer invest in developing the desktop environment, but in that case it’s very likely they’ll seek solace in other popular and highly-supported Linux distributions like Linux Mint, which is also based on Ubuntu.

What I can assert with absolute certainty is that the company will begin putting in more effort into developing its multi-platform “Core” operating system, which Shuttleworth took a significant amount of time exhibiting in the Techsylvania conference back in 2016.

Do you think Ubuntu is making the right decision? How is your experience with the GNOME desktop environment? Tell us in a comment!

Miguel Leiva-Gomez Miguel Leiva-Gomez

Miguel has been a business growth and technology expert for more than a decade and has written software for even longer. From his little castle in Romania, he presents cold and analytical perspectives to things that affect the tech world.


  1. “The turmoil comes for those who have been bred under the Unity banner”
    Boo Hoo Hoo! Life is full of little idiosyncrasies. They should get used to it just as GNOME users had to get used to Unity when Canonical rammed it down their throats. The change from Unity back to GNOME is no more and no less traumatic than the original change from GNOME to Unity. I don’t remember anyone shedding any tears over the original switch. Everybody’s attitude was “WOO HOO! Linux (in the form of Ubuntu) is becoming more like Windows!”

    “Why Canonical Is Abandoning Unity”
    Shuttleworth/Canonical have always tried to impose their vision of Linux on the community. Unfortunately, Linux community, being what it is, did not and does not want to be dictated to. Nobody wants to play with any of Shuttleworth’s toys. There isn’t one Canonical-developed product that has been picked up by the non-Ubuntu community; not Unity, not Mir, not Snaps. So he decided to abandon them.

    “The abandonment of Unity represents a shift away from the attempt to converge the Linux environment across multiple devices”
    Just because a bunch of products belong to the same family, does not mean that they “must” be converged or that they even should be converged. A Mini Cooper and a delivery truck are basically both cars. It is possible to take the engine from the truck and stuff it into the Mini and take the Mini engine and install it in the truck. They can be “converged”. But should they be? Neither setup will work anywhere near optimum. It is possible to physically stuff a fighter jet engine into a 4-seater private plane and install the engine from the private plane into the fighter. They can be “converged”. But of what use would that convergence be?

    That is the problem with trying to converge the operating systems of an entire spectrum of computing devices. Each device has its own set of unique requirements that do not apply to other devices.. Some requirements on some devices may overlap but, in general, they are unique. Desktops have different requirements than laptops, than tablets, than phones, than IoT devices. It is possible to write a “unified” O/S to serve all those platforms. But it would be a Frankenstein of O/Ss, both in size and in looks. To make it of a manageable size, compromises would have to be made and like any other compromise, it would not work well on any of the devices.

    1. @dragonmouth once again the Linux genius speaks the truth. Your comparisons are so good and dead on right. I’d like to add another comparison. Like putting an Eldorado or Buick Riviera engine in a Volkswagen Beetle. Sure the Volkswagen would work, but how efficient would it be?

      1. Saul,
        It does not take a genius, Linux or otherwise. It takes common sense. Any two or more objects can be “converged” with the application of sufficient amount of money and/or force, even the proverbial square peg with a round hole.

        It also takes a knowledge of history. To paraphrase Santayana, “Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.” Why didn’t IBM try to “converge” mainframes, minis and PCs when they introduced the IBM-PC? They could have tried to shoehorn MVS or one of their other mainframe or mini computer O/Ss into the PC but instead bought MS-DOS from Bill Gates.

        Speaking of Mr. Bill – He and his merry band up in Redmond tried to create a unified Windows O/S that ran on all personal electronic devices. After some years of effort, M$ management came to the conclusion that a unified O/S was not feasible. Does Mark Shuttleworth and his Canonical bunch think they are smarter than IBM programmers or Mr. Bill and the M$ crew? Or was Shuttleworth trying to show Mr. Bill up?

        ‘Operating system convergence’ idea was born in the feverish minds of marketing weenies, not in the engineering department. It sounds good as a slogan, sort ‘one ring to rule them all.”

        1. @dragonmouth To people like you and me what you said is common sense. But the problem here is even in your own day to day life, over all how many people possess common sense these days? If they did like you do you wouldn’t have had to write what you did. Everything you said is dead on right. As you know I always listen to you and pay attention to what you say. So yes to me you’re a genius. Too bad more people here don’t pay attention to what you say on here. And by the way what you said about Mr. Shuttleworth, I think it’s very possible that he wanted to show up Mr. Bill in Redmond. I never really thought of it until you mentioned it but if you look at overall how people today are especially in big business what you said fits and makes perfect sense

          1. Common sense ain’t so common.

            Having said that, I also must say that ‘common sense’ most of the time is ascribed to the people that agree with us. If they disagree, they ain’t got a lick of ‘common sense’. :-)

    2. “They should get used to it just as GNOME users had to get used to Unity when Canonical rammed it down their throats.”, I would like to dissent… Ubuntu always had the possibility to use Gnome if you didn’t like Unity… now only Gnome… JMHO

  2. I never liked Unity. I was using Xubuntu when Unity was adopted so it didn’t affect me. And I moved on to Mint after that. So I had no real interaction with that DE. Personally, I think it looks ugly but I’ve only tried it for five minutes. All I know is that Unity looks and feels different from traditional DEs so I just ignored it.

    I hoped that Ubuntu would adopt MATE but I guess they can’t let a product developed by a derivative distro to wag the dog. Canonical is a strong proponent of NIH- syndrome.

  3. I see this announcement as having both positives and negatives.

    Positives: I always found unity to be a bit bloated and the lack of interface customisation was a always an annoyance (I use KDE personally) so for those reasons I see the abandonment of Unity as good.

    Negatives: One of the greatest things about Linux is its diversity and the amount of user choice it brings and the loss of Unity is a loss of one of the man diverse DEs available in Linux.

    Also Canonical is abandoning Unity right after I felt they were making some steps in the right direction towards it going from a good DE to a great one (some more interface customisation and Unity 8 looking more and more promising).

    Of course these are my opinions so feel free to disagree.

  4. I tried different variations of Linux before Unity. When Unity came along I thought it was great and kind of liked the desktop bcause it was different. But I found it too difficult to customize even after the Unity tool was added. I was never good at using the command line and Unity became “not quite ready for primetime”. Gnome, Xfce, Mint, Xubuntu were more appealing. I will not miss it.

  5. I think its a good move. I never saw anyone say that Unity was desktop of choice. Most people dealt with it like Win8, just tried to make the best of it. It never had that “ahhh haaa” moment where it made sense. I think Canonical had a moment where they could be up there with MAC and Win but without the backup of the industry it’s hard to get people to see your vision. This phone thing I was completely supportive of, I wish they could do something to really bring out the phone. Convergence was an awesome idea but again Im sure without the support it wasn’t going to get there. Windows right now is claiming it a vision they created. I think maybe try to make it open to the developers maybe they could get it to run. Maybe make it headless with Android and get Amazon to be the apps provider maybe they could make a rom. Amazon did it with FIRE and have the support of Ubuntu maybe you could get people to see your vision. Wishful thinking I guess, oh well. If they did bring out that phone ROM I would have been one of the first people to support it and sell it!

  6. dragonmouth is correct, it is a matter of common sense but only if users have a common intelligence. An interface for chimpanzees cannot be the same as that for humans, and marketeers who drove convergence (Canonical, Microsoft) know this. They looked at millennial snowflakes between 14 and 35 and discovered they are so dumbed down that they are unable to navigate Gmail. The only interface they can cope with now is Failbook.

    Canonical was obviously controlled by marketing types.

    About Unity on a Desktop, I tried it and really liked it, but because it was unavailable for Arch Linux without a massive hack, I did not use it for everyday purpose. Desktop Unity was the best interface for everyday Linux usage.

    Canonical should drop phone development and leave Unity Desktop in place – it is far better than Gnome 3 – a very bad product dictated by out of touch marketing types.

    1. ” Desktop Unity was the best interface for everyday Linux usage.”
      I think there are millions of Linux users that would disagree. :-)
      The best interface for Linux, or any other O/S for that matter, is the one you like and are used to. Discussing the ‘best interface’ is as fruitful as discussing the ‘best O/S’ or the ‘best BBQ’ or the ‘best pizza’. Everybody has their own favorite and their mind will not be changed.

  7. @dragonmouth
    I did not use the term “best interface”, I used the term “best interface for everyday Linux usage.” This constrains the field to predominantly business usage and average computer power.

    Obviously people have differing opinions about all subjects but I think you will find, if you did an OBJECTIVE scorecard of the interfaces available for everyday usage Unity and KDE would rate highest. Ignoring aesthetics and “more is less” interface propaganda , we would have:

    Access to common controls
    Access to configuration
    Innovative interface features (Unity had a significant few)

    If tests were done on a properly controlled group of independent testers I maintain that Unity would be the best interface for everyday Linux usage. I am not an aficionado Ubuntu or Unity and have never run them for more than a few hours, but I give credit where credit is due.

    1. Now you’re trying to split hairs. The ‘best interface for everyday Linux usage’ IS the same as ‘best interface for Linux’ unless you claim that most of Linux users are dilettantes who use Linux only occasionally. There are over 75 different desktop environments and window managers (i.e. interfaces) for Linux in daily usage. Granted, some of them are used by more people than others but that does not signify that they are better than others. If the number in use indicated what is ‘best’, then Windows would be the ‘best’ O/S and the Win8.x/Win 10 interface would be the ‘best’ interface.

      The entire concept of ‘best, worst, not as good as’ is inherently flawed. They are all based on personal opinions, not on strict parameters. Best for what, for whom, under what circumstances? What is ‘best’ for you may, and probably is not ‘best’ for me and many others.

      ” properly controlled group of independent testers”
      If a group of testers is controlled, they can no longer be considered independent. A ‘properly controlled group’ could be considered ‘rigged’ to achieve a particular result. :-)
      Even in head to head competitions for the ‘best’ the results cannot be replicated with any regularity, unless the competition is ‘properly controlled’.

      Don’t get me wrong. I AM NOT saying that Unity is ‘no good’. What I AM saying is there is no factual basis for anointing it as the ‘best desktop for everyday Linux usage’.

  8. Personally, I’ll be dancing on Mir’s grave – Linux needs unity(ha) in its diversity, not fragmentation. Hopefully now we can focus on Wayland and ditch X for good…

      1. The whole point of Linux is for everyone to find a distro to suit their specific needs. Personally, I think choice is good as long as there’s interoperability, but yeah, right now everyone is a bit distracted..

  9. Ok, I have something to say: after 15 years using linux desktop, I love Unity.

    I understand why people have problems to change: I have co-workers in my company using Windows that has difficulties to use a linux: because it is not Windows. It’s the only reason.

    Change is a difficulty: people using Linux or Windows has difficulties (2 days to 1 week) to adapt to using Mac (Hey… there is not apt :-/).

    Unity adapts perfectly to my needs and, I know I’m absolutely lonely, it’s a very bad news that Canonical is abandoning it.

    In my opinion there is other things that are changing the desktop in a very bad way: html based apps (chromium based). Hight memory, low loading times, terrible integration APIs, impossible to work remotelly using remote desktop systems (because HTML content is transfered as images and not as native control changes)… but we prefer to say “Unity sucks” wen Unity is really beautiful.

    Good morning everybody.

  10. When Ubuntu adopted unity, I abandoned Ubuntu.
    Now that Ubuntu has abandoned unity, I’ve adopted Ubuntu.
    This is a win.

    If you’re tech savvy, every DE out there is fairly usable, with the exception of Win8, OS X, and Unity.

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