Ubuntu: A New Style of Linux

I know just yesterday I wrote that I would not be updating my blog for a bit, but with two recent announcements in the Ubuntu-sphere, I felt obligated to chime in with my own two cents. For those who haven’t heard the news, Ubuntu last week announced that it would be shipping version 11.04 with its Unity interface, dropping the traditional GNOME shell that it has used for… ever.

Following up, just two days ago Mark Shuttleworth made the announcement they would be dropping X.org server in future versions of Ubuntu, possibly as early as version 11.10. Canonical, for the moment, has thrown its weight behind a new project, announced by Phoronix two years ago, known as Wayland.

These two changes represent to me an only-increasing conviction on the part of Canonical that there is space for a third path on personal computers, aside from Macintosh and Windows. I never quite believed them, thinking that in reality they would be happy to be niche-kings like Red Hat, but it seems that they are willing to take big steps to become truly competitive.

Both X and GNOME are mainstays of various Linux-based OS communities, however neither of them is particularly lean, and each has it’s own desktop-computing-oriented failings. X is just plain difficult to work with for a normal user, and is more suited for different circumstances such as networked display serving than for playing the latest 3D games (for posterity, here’s an old but hilarious PDF from the UNIX Haters Handbook on X). GNOME itself has embraced slow, steady, progress at a time when Macintosh, KDE and even Windows Aero are trying to introduce new GUI paradigms.

X problems alone have always been the main reason I am hesitant to introduce “normal” computer users to Linux-based operating systems. It’s only been in recent versions of Ubuntu, as Canonical has seemingly abstracted away a lot of X problems, and open source video driver teams (both community and corporate) have been hacking like mad to create decent drivers, that I have felt comfortable switching normal users to Ubuntu.

Personally, I have not had many issues with GNOME, but the writing has been on the wall for months. With delays in GNOME 3, increasing uptake of KDE 4, and heavy QT marketing on the part of Nokia, it would make the most sense for Ubuntu to jump ship with the parts they like. Besides, it won’t be long before the little “code contribution” scandal starts pissing people off and Canonical becomes a black sheep in the open source community. If you are going to be a black sheep, you should at least have your own pasture to graze in so that the other sheep don’t have the opportunity to mock you every day.

Where does all of this put Ubuntu? It puts it in the same arena as the likes of webOS, Android, and, here you go, Macintosh OS X. Let’s handle this last one first. When Mac OS X was announced, it was disclosed that Apple would not be bringing in an engineering team to make X server work for the new environment. Instead, they maintained their underlying POSIX compatibility goal, but dropped X for a slew of in-house-developed rendering technologies that have evolved over time. And though their system is far from flawless, I would much rather be working with it than X any day of the week.

webOS and Android are also Linux-based operating systems that have shed the cruft of X in favor of their own systems. This is not to mention the hoards of embedded Linux systems that also do not include X, and subsequently GNOME. In many of these cases, they do not even mention that they are Linux at all, as some claim the term Linux itself has become an anathema for marketing teams.

Canonical is stepping in a direction more akin to Apple, who has embraced certain open source technologies to build their own software (and subsequently recirculated their work to great success in the community). Having worked with a tried and true model for years, Canonical is ready to step off on their own, and they don’t feel obligated to drag everyone else along kicking and screaming. It will certainly be interesting to watch, and won’t surprise me if people begin to forgo the age old question of, “Is Linux ready for the desktop?” and instead begin to wonder, “Is Ubuntu ready for the desktop?” I personally have some high hopes, particularly considering I have wanted an alternative ecosystem, and Haiku is just not cutting it right now.  Of course, this could all just go the way of Be.


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