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!