Open Source

Is Mir and convergent desktop hampering the development of Ubuntu?

Jack Wallen offers up a theory as to why the latest Ubuntu releases have been surrounded by little hype and much silence.

Ubuntu

I want to preface this by saying I have been happily using Ubuntu Unity since its inception. I still use it and will continue using what I consider to be the most professional and efficient desktop I've ever tried.

That being said...

Usually, around this time of year, anyone who blogs, talks, or tweets about Linux and Ubuntu is on fire with speculation and feature lists for the latest-greatest Ubuntu release. It's about as close to an Apple product release as Linux can get. With Utopic Unicorn on the way (14.10 — October 23, 2014) things are eerily quiet. This strikes me as strange, considering what is supposedly on the way from Canonical and Ubuntu.

Yes, I'm talking about the Ubuntu Phone and vaporware that is the convergent desktop.

What gives? I have a theory. Let me explain.

The next evolution of Ubuntu is supposed to center around convergence. In order for that to happen, both Mir and Unity 8 must be ready for production environments. They aren't. Period. In fact, the closest thing you can get to even trying the Mir/Unity 8 combination is a special ISO build called Ubuntu Desktop Next.

I recently fired up the latest release of Ubuntu Desktop Next. My experience was less than outstanding. When I first booted the ISO, I had to drop into a virtual console and change the password for the default user — just to log in. The default password for the ubuntu-desktop-next user was supposed to be blank (it failed every time). Once logged in, it becomes very clear this take on Ubuntu is primarily targeted for smartphone devices. Not only do you see Cellular listed in the networks, you also see Reset phone in the settings window. Add to those interesting elements the fact that, without a touchscreen, the interface (although very clean and impeccably designed) is incredibly challenging to use.

For something that was supposed to be the default interface two major releases ago to be in this state makes it very clear why Ubuntu seems to be at a massive standstill. With each of the latest releases, there haven't been any killer features. This is the same with 14.10. So, this tells me that Canonical (and the Ubuntu developers) are phoning it in until they can finally release Unity 8 and Mir. While that is certainly a worthy goal, it's causing the Ubuntu desktop to lose a bit of steam.

Why is that important, especially when Ubuntu and Unity are already an outstanding combination for the desktop? Regardless of the state of Unity, the vast majority of consumers and users live in a "what have you done for me lately" frame of mind. They want bigger, better, faster at every turn. It's why companies like Apple must turn it up to 11 once a year. Without that gold and crystal dog and pony show, Apple would lose precious ground.

Unfortunately, I think that's what's happening to Ubuntu. Because they're so focused on bringing Unity 8 and Mir to life — and because it's taking them such a long time to do so — they're losing traction. No matter how much you focus on the next iteration of the Ubuntu desktop, innovation should not stagnate on the one that actually works... and Unity works quite well. Placing all your eggs in the basket named Mir could seriously backfire.

  • What if the Ubuntu Phone fails?
  • What if Mir doesn't play well with modern chipsets?
  • What if the majority of users don't want to work with touchscreens?

So many questions. None of which can be answered at the moment. Who can know if the Ubuntu Phone will succeed or fail? Very few are able to test Mir, which makes it hard to tell how well the server works on cutting edge chipsets. And then there are touchscreens. I would venture to say an overwhelming majority of Linux users are fairly well wired to the standard desktop/laptop metaphor. That doesn't mean, of course, that touchscreens aren't the future of computing. Personally, I have an outstanding laptop with a great touchscreen that I rarely (if ever) use.

After using the "Next" desktop, I feel seriously disappointed. I was expecting to be blown away by at least something. That's not the case. Yes, I can see where they're going with this interface... but I'm not sure that I'm a fan.

Of course, I can't predict the future. If I could, what I might see is Canonical continuing to face an uphill battle with Unity 8 and Mir and having to push the release of the next major iteration of their desktop back again and again. I don't want this to happen. I want Ubuntu Unity to be celebrated as one of the finest desktops available. Unfortunately, I've grown a bit skeptical about Unity 8 and Mir.

What about you? Have you tried the Next Desktop from Ubuntu? Do you think it could reinvent the wheel of the desktop, or do you think it'll spell the demise of Ubuntu? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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