Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Why Unity is good for the future of Ubuntu, Gnome, Canonical, etc.

Desktop and windows manager

A few month ago I already blogged about "the end of the (Linux) desktop as we know it." I will not blatantly repost this entry but draw some conclusions linked to the recent adoption of Unity for the default Ubuntu desktop.

My conclusion was the following : "At a certain level, one can say that the battle is already lost : the current desktop environments can not really fight this war as they don't own the key technology : the browser. As a consequence, the risk, for them (Gnome, KDE, etc.) is to be a tool that will launch a browser. A (relatively) simple tool that can be easily changed with almost no user impact..."

The recent announcement at UDS confirm that this road is the one chosen by Ubuntu. Now the question is why and what benefits for the key players here : Canonical, Ubuntu, Gnome and, of course, the users.

Mobile Internet Devices (MID) = application delivery

The new hardware platforms (most of them ARM based, touch-screen based, with small screen and no keyboards) rely extensively on the cloud/web based application and deploy specific small size applications on every connected MID.

The "desktop" on those platforms is very different from the one on your regular  "old-school" computer : it consists mainly of giant dock with widgets and your most used apps and a task-bar that informs you about communications (tweet, email, voice mail, etc.) and the MID status (wifi, phone, battery, etc.).

Most of the regular desktop applications are barely usable on such a device : do you think that Open Office user experience will be great on a 640x480 screen with no keyboard ? All those applications are now somehow "legacy" and given the specific user interaction with the MID and the MID capabilities (touch screen, multi-touch, accelerometer, low computing power, etc.) can not be used, with a great user experience, on those devices. Even the most "cross-platform" software, the browser, is specific to the MID device and every major player rolled out a specific version (lighter, snappier, etc.) for those platform.

So can we use the legacy application, yes. Will they succeed "as is" on those MID : I don't think so.

Can a MID platform succeed on the desktop ?

Well, this is the interesting question. Ubuntu/Canonical decided to bet on it. In fact, instead of synchronizing your desktop to your MID, why not consider your desktop as ... a very large MID ?

Apple did it the other way around, Microsoft as well bu they both come from the old desktop world. Google did it from Android for MID to a hypothetical GoogleOS that will certainly be very similar to your Android experience.

Ubuntu/Canonical is betting on the fact that users will follow them from the MID market to the desktop market. This is an interesting challenge and a really disruptive choice : let's break compatibility with the past and embrace this new way of delivering applications.

Will it succeed : only time, users and the market can tell ;-)

Impact on key players : gnome, Ubuntu/Debian, Canonical, users

Well, as I announced it in my precedent post, the legacy of the desktop environment out there is too cumbersome to carry on this new trendy market. Nokia (QT, Symbian, Meego) , Google (Android), Apple and Canonical came to the same conclusion : they can not build on top of those legacy windows environment (most of the time : because they have to serve a community of developers and users that care only about the "old" desktop model) : they had to start from scratch for the user interface. However, they kept some very useful and precious components like the kernel, basic OS, etc..

In this context, Ubuntu/Canonical is more conservative than Apple and Google that decided to dump X altogether. I'm not sure the X environment is fitted for next millennium challenges : once again, time will tell.

Gnome : I think this is a great news. Leveraging the tools, library and previous applications, a new "shell" can be developed that will be perfectly suited for MID. This, I can imagine that innovation can flow more freely from Desktop to MID and vice versa. Will Gnome developers embrace this change ? Will it provoke a community meltdown ? This is more an ego risk than a technological or business one. FLOSS is famous for its ego war and this may be the greatest risk for this key-player.

Ubuntu/Debian : Well, this really open another market for this distribution. A strong differentiator compared to RedHat, Novell. Competition on this market is called Android. Not an easy one to take on...

Canonical : As far as I know, the OEM division will have another great product to sell ! Just look at sales figures from Apple and Android device. This look very interesting to me. As the third or fourth player (Apple, RIM, Google, ...), becoming leader in this market will be a real challenge. Two very closed platform, two very open platforms. A huge and very fast growing market.

Users : Choice is always beneficial to some degree. As the default desktop environment will change, we will see the adoption rate but I expect it to be quite large in the Ubuntu community. This is a well known tactics (anyone remember Microsoft embedding IE into the desktop ?) that has worked well in the past. Also, it will help "convergence", namely the unification of your desktop and MID environment ... through the cloud services that will be offered on this platform (Music, More content, Storage, Contact, Preferences, ...).


All in all, I think this is great news for the future of Linux and all the involved party (Gnome, Ubuntu/Debian, Canonical and Mr. User). My only concerns are linked to some possible ego-war into the Gnome community and the fact that this will "only" be a tertiary platform in term of applications and content delivery : RIM seems in trouble, Apple the clear gorilla and Android the strong challenger. Will the great marketing and community/viral effect of Ubuntu be able to modify the race results ?


  1. Judging by what I have seen in reviews of Unity it has a long, long way to go before it is usable. I just don't think now is the right time for pushing this new environment on desktop computers. Even if you don't like Gnome Shell (I certainly don't!) it seems safer to stick with the final version of the classic gnome environment. Or stick with Xfce as I do. I just don't think Unity is going to be ready.

  2. The beauty of Linux is you have a choice, use what ever desk top you want, period. To the authors discredit, he forgot that we did not have a choice about seeing IE on every desktop. Please remember as well Europe took lawful offense to the issue; issuing some pretty heft fines at M$. Maybe it is my naivety or my willingness to try new and/or different things until I find the combination that fits what I need and I like. I just do not see the big deal. Again, this is not M$, the beauty of the open source project is end user choice!
    Stop beating it to death, it is nothing!

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  4. @Zona : Well, I think that usability is already way better on netbooks like devices with small screen size than a regular Linux desktop. A regular Linux desktop is barely usable on touchscreen devices and I guess this is the main reason why Unity and note default Gnome.

    The big decision here is to have Unity as the default environment for everybody. It will provoke a major QA effort and community effort to improve the user experience but ... will it be ready for next release.

  5. @Anonymous I think lots of Ubuntu users go with the default install and that's why this is a major change for the Ubuntu community.

    This is a very personal and empirical statistic but I believe that less than 5% of Ubuntu users somehow customize it extensively (ex; change the default windows manager).

  6. I develop (my job) using Qt and I'm quite thrilled by QML which fits what you are saying. If people don't know what it is think along the lines of producing your GUI in a browser using SVG and Javascript. But it's actually tidier to do.

    So all new things I produce can be used easily on my desktop and on my N900 phone (since its update to have QML this week).

  7. Thanks for your comment. QML sounds great and looks like a great way to make sure that the various capabilities of the target devices (touch screen, keyboard, screen size, etc.) are used correctly by the application.

    My only "concern" is that the popularity/success of those type of frameworks is not proven (yet): namely, a "native" developer will prefer the "native" development tools. I think this will be strong for the RIM/iPhone platform for instance.

    Nonetheless, I really think that this project and the fact that QT is really widely used on mobile platforms is one of the compelling reasons why Canonical/Ubuntu is looking at this framework.

    This being said, like "Unity and Gnome", using QT is not using KDE and it somehow show that the problems of the "regular" desktop environment & application (i.e. : Gnome, KDE, etc.) are shared by the various technology and that leveraging the technology is the path chosen by the various open source technology integrator (Android, Nokia, Canonical, etc ?).

  8. I don't think the traditional desktop is going anywhere. Mobile devices are for convenience and information consumption. People still work at desks and in offices and will continue to do so. So there is still a need for the traditional desktop for development, publishing, etc. As a developer, I'm do not want to do those types of activities with a small form factor, simplified/restrictive, touch interface or soft keyboard. The mobile revolution is occurring due to hardware advances, but I think it is being over-hyped much like the move (or some would say return) to cloud (centralized) computing. They have a place, but are not going to completely replace older paradigms. Unlike Apple, MS has made the mistake of shoe-horning Windows into every form factor. I hope Ubuntu doesn't do the same thing, only with a small form factor interface. I guess we'll see...

  9. imo the cell phone metaphor is fine... for a cell phone.

  10. Well, I'm not sure either of the Desktop future but part of the evolution seems to be more "accessible" devices that we can carry with us all the time. Futurology extract here :

    Once again, I don't think "regular" desktop application will be usable with this type of device. Which platform will dominate : not sure it is the desktop as we know it. Multi-touch devices are especially interesting and affect deeply the UI of the application.

    I share your conclusion : let's hope that Unity will not become a poor MID interface ... for the desktop. In this context, the strong (at this time) affiliation with the gnome project is a clear advantage...

  11. I hope it's a success. I agree that egos will be problem as the vocal voices in the Linux world are resistant to change and will criticize Canonical/Ubuntu from all angle. I agree with this bold and will support it. Change is what Linux needs but few a willing to stick their necks out, so I applaud Canonical for this.

  12. The analogy is similar to cross-platform development. You can use a cross-platform toolkit like QT or WxWidgets, but there will inevitably be compromises vs. developing something directly in the native API (e.g., Win32 or Cocoa). In theory, it all sounds great, but in practice there are compromises. I'm skeptical that a one-desktop-fits-all approach will work. Sure it would be convenient to only have to interface for various devices, but I think it will involve compromises since the form-factors and activities performed in different desktops can be quite different.

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