Open Source

Unity and convergence are done but Ubuntu will live on

Mark Shuttleworth recently announced that Unity 8, Mir, and convergence are done. Jack Wallen responds and offers up what needs to happen to help bring Ubuntu back to the top.

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Image: Jack Wallen

A few short years ago, Canonical made the announcement that Ubuntu was shifting from the GNOME desktop to their own, in-house, environment called Unity. Many hated the desktop so much, they opted to shift to another Linux distribution altogether. Others remained and grew to appreciate what the developers had created. After a few releases, Unity looked to be an incredibly stable and user-friendly environment, although one that still faced a large amount of detractors.

And then Canonical made an even bigger announcement; they were to develop a mobile platform that would converge with the desktop such that they were one and the same. Over the next few years, it became quite apparent the Ubuntu Phone platform was destined for failure.

By now, you know the story. Mark Shuttleworth announced on his blog the end of the Ubuntu Phone, convergence, and, to the surprise of many, Unity.

That's right. The mobile experiment managed to take down one of the most unique and efficient desktop interfaces available. Although disappointing, this comes as no surprise. The development of Unity 7 was, for the most part, shifted to the back burner for several years now in favor of Unity 8 and Mir. While this was taking place, many pundits, users, and critics called Canonical out for continually shipping boring release after boring release. The evolution of one of the most user-friendly Linux distributions had stalled and its replacement was showing no signs it would ever come to fruition.

Again, that Unity 8/Mir/convergence is now dead-before-arrival is no surprise. What is a surprise is that Ubuntu will be (as of 18.04) shifting back to the GNOME desktop. Mark Shuttleworth said so much in his blog:

"I'm writing to let you know that we will end our investment in Unity8, the phone and convergence shell. We will shift our default Ubuntu desktop back to GNOME for Ubuntu 18.04 LTS."

SEE: How Mark Shuttleworth became the first African in space and launched a software revolution (PDF download) (TechRepublic)

This can be salvaged

From my vantage point, this can be salvaged. First and foremost, it doesn't take much to make GNOME look somewhat like Unity. The addition of the GNOME extension Dash To Dock and a change in wallpaper takes about a minute and you have a somewhat typical Ubuntu-ish desktop (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

GNOME looking Unity-ish.

Although Dash To Dock makes GNOME significantly easier to use, the similarity mostly ends there. With that idea, I would like to address to Mark Shuttleworth to say that this shift could actually bring Ubuntu back to the top of the Linux distribution heap. With just a few easy additions, Ubuntu 18.04 could be game changing.

Let me explain.

First and foremost, Ubuntu still needs to be Ubuntu. It needs to retain its brand. Yes, that orange-y purple-y theme needs to remain. Why? Because people associate them with Ubuntu. They're its school colors, if you will.

Beyond the look, Ubuntu needs to retain the HUD. If you ever used that tool, you know how efficient it is. Having the ability to quickly search an application menu structure for exactly what you need means not having to leave your keyboard to center text or open a bookmark. The HUD was truly revolutionary and Ubuntu 18.04 should somehow manage to keep it. Imagine the GNOME Shell interface (an incredibly well-built desktop) that includes the HUD. That's a big win. Of course, this feature would have to be optional — don't force it on the users. Allow GNOME to be GNOME. Don't get in its way. At the same time, allow GNOME to also be a very Ubuntu-ized flavor of GNOME. This could be a simple option upon first login:

  • Select standard GNOME
  • Select Unity GNOME

The last thing I would do to GNOME is add the minimize button back! For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the designers opted to scrap a button everyone uses. Instead of a single click, I have to click twice to get my windows minimized. And before anyone says, "You can enable that within the GNOME Tweak tool", remember this: most new users aren't going to be aware of that tool. Ubuntu needs to refocus its efforts on reclaiming the title of most user-friendly distribution, and that means tiny tweaks like minimize buttons are important.

Again, let me say that Ubuntu can once again become the siren song calling new users to Linux. That means every single feature for Ubuntu 18.04 needs to be focused on user-friendliness.

And there endeth what I believe needs to be added to GNOME. Seriously, that's all. If you've used one of the latest iterations of GNOME, you know how rock solid that desktop is—even the Evolution groupware suite has come a long way. While the Ubuntu developers were scrambling to make Unity 8/Mir work, the GNOME developers were busy perfecting their desktop; and bravo to them, they certainly succeeded.

Not a failure

I don't see Shuttleworth's announcement so much as a failure, but a realization. The Ubuntu developers did an admirable job with Unity 8/Mir/convergence; there were just too many hurdles in the way. The realization, however, was that Ubuntu is as relevant today as it was before Unity 8 and can be made even more so with the shift back to the desktop that helped bring Ubuntu to life.

Personally, I'm excited about this change. I believe in the GNOME desktop and think Ubuntu can help to make it even better. This could very well be the exact matchup the Linux desktop has needed for a very long time.

We only have a year to wait.

Also see

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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