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Canonical axing X Windows: What will it mean for the next version of Ubuntu?

Mark Shuttleworth makes yet another bold announcement for his popular Linux distribution. Find out about the move away from X Windows and Jack Wallen's reaction to the news.

In yet another recent announcement that had the Linux community looking like the proverbial "deer in headlights," Canonical has announced that in an iteration of Ubuntu it might very well drop X Windows in favor of Wayland. This comes on the heels of Mark Shuttleworth's recent announcement that 11.04 would see Ubuntu leave behind the GNOME Shell in favor of Ubuntu Unity. That was a tiny drop in the bucket compared to this latest consideration.

Think about it - X Windows. How long has X Windows driven the desktop for Linux? Maybe since Linux had a desktop? This is HUGE! The very thought of a Linux without X Windows is staggering considering that nearly every application will have to be rewritten. Is the next announcement to be that Canonical is no longer going to ship with current Linux applications, but is instead going to develop applications on their own?

  • Ubuntu Web browser.
  • Ubuntu Email client.
  • Ubuntu Graphics editor.
  • Ubuntu Office suite.
  • Ubuntu Shell.

The list goes on and on and on.

I could understand Shuttleworth's previous announcement. He's obviously making a grab for an interface that will be more in line with the future of the desktops - specifically multi-touch and tablet PCs. That's all good. I respect that. But Wayland in favor of X Windows?

"What is Wayland?" you ask?

Wayland is a display server for Linux desktops that was created by one of Intel's open source technologists. Wayland's stated goal is "every frame is perfect, by which I mean that applications will be able to control the rendering enough that we'll never see tearing, lag, redrawing or flicker". But if you dig further, you find that Wayland is actually "a protocol for a compositor to talk to its clients as well as a C library implementation of that protocol. The compositor can be a standalone display server running on Linux kernel modesetting and evdev input devices, an X application, or a Wayland client itself. The clients can be traditional applications, X servers (rootless or fullscreen) or other display servers."

The key in the above text (taken from the Wayland web site) is compositor. If the Unity/Ubuntu marriage is going to be as much of a success as Shuttleworth needs it to be, it is going to need a strong compositor built in to the system. The last thing this marriage needs is to require a third party compositor. That would blow the lid off Shuttleworth's plan for ease of support for manufacturers. With a compositor built into the X Server, things ease up quite a bit on the technical support front.

Remember, one of the reasons Shuttleworth made the move to Unity was so that PC manufacturers like Dell would have an easier time supporting Linux. With a similar desktop interface across the board, companies wouldn't have to worry about GNOME, KDE, Enlightenment, etc. Instead there would be Unity and that's it.

I suspect that Shuttleworth has some grand plans with Wayland that will unfold for the average eye in the months leading up to the release of 11.04.

My initial reaction from this announcement was quite the eye-opening shock. After all, X Windows has been the driving force behind the Linux desktop since Linux had a desktop. But it has been my opinion that Mark Shuttleworth has had the Midas Touch with Linux and you can't shun his ideas until they are proven wrong (if ever they are).

Canonical has made some seriously bold steps in recent weeks. These bold steps will hopefully take Linux (at least Ubuntu Linux) to heights it has never seen before. I applaud Shuttleworth for these actions. Whether you like them or not, they speak volumes for the dedication that Canonical has for the Linux operating system.

About

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 getjackd.net.

102 comments
bogidu
bogidu

I saw the s at the end of XWindow.

iceman52
iceman52

Corporate computing in the early 80s were overrun by MS-DOS and later MS-Windows because while everyone is a comsumer, not everyone is a business. economies of scale eventually made using MS in business less expensive than using traditional proprietary systems. something similar is likely now with the juggernaut growth of Android. while very few (comparatively) users are using Linux of any kind, let alone Ubuntu, Android is becoming an appliance to huge numbers of cell phone users and will likely migrate to non-MS tablets in 2011. these tablets will eliminate the need for notebooks and desktops, reducing deployments of Linux and MS to servers and embedded devices. once that's on momentum, IT groups will demand cross-platform standardization for back-end systems. THAT - leaves Unity out in the cold.

jc2it
jc2it

There sure is alot of FUD in the comments above. Why don't you read through the architecture of Wayland, before you bloviate about Shuttleworth's motivation. http://wayland.freedesktop.org/architecture.html I do not agree with all of what ubuntu does, but I will say that X Windows is a bloated cow of a piece of software, and if you have ever had to modify X to fit your environment you will probably agree.

zhuatclfk
zhuatclfk

First of all, there is no direct quote from Shuttleworth here. Go read his blog post: http://www.markshuttleworth.com/archives/551. One of the first things he says is there will still be compatibility with X11 clients, so sensationalizing that "This is HUGE! ...every application will have to be rewritten" is completely bogus. If Canononical did that they'd be very foolish indeed. Now having said that, there is very little point to this article now is there?

jgmsys@yahoo.com
jgmsys@yahoo.com

that Shuttleworth chooses to call the shell Unity. Then to move in the direction of Wayland and away from X Windows? Isn't this really going to cause disunity, as far as the Linux community goes? And I tend to agree that if a project like this requires a third party to build the compositor, even further fragmentation could result. It does certainly have the feel of a move to a proprietary system. I wonder if it might be time to think about going back to Fedora.

jprigot
jprigot

I could see if he went for one or the other initiative, but not both. Each of these constitutes a major change that needs to be tested by the community. Doing them together risks both of them failing.

Maarek
Maarek

I would like to take a look at this, but one thing that does bother me is that will all applications work or will you have to rebuild them all? Most applictions that are available for download that is not in Ubuntu's library are either built for Ubuntu/Debian systems in DEB packages or RPMs for SUSE & RedHat. If I were to install Ubuntu 11.04, can I install an application built for X-Windows?

jkameleon
jkameleon

I'm using Microsoft primarily because it always made superior development tools. As far as I can tell, Visual Studio is far better than anything else, especially for someone, who makes a living by writing programs. On my newest box I've bought about 1 month ago, however, I've made dual boot with Ubuntu, for the old time sake (I started my career programming Unix & Microware's OS-9 machines), out of curiosity, and a couple of other reasons of geekish nature, like owing Nokia's smarphone. I simply hate owing suff I'm not able to program, and Nokia's development tools don't install well on Windows. Here are my 1st impressions. The bad ones: - The major source of frustration were hibernation issues with Ubuntu 10.10. Lack of hibernation is a pain in the ass on dual boot machine. Haven't solved that yet. Well, but, then again... Windows 7 needs about 5 minutes to enter hibernation. Pretty useless as well. - KDE was pretty much a dissapointment. I might take time and get used to it's new UI if it wouldn't be that buggy. It totally trashed my installation, or so it seems. Since my installation was still fresh at the time, I decided not to waste time with that, simply formatted the Ubuntu partition, installed everything anew, and forgot about KDE. - Another frustrating thing is this Qt4's bug http://ubuntuforums.org/showthread.php?t=1210355 . If you install something, and it just doesn't work... well... that really doesn't make sense now, does it. Luckily, the Qt installation provided by Nokia seems to be working. OK, and now the good stuff: - The thing I like the most is the price ;) - Gnome desktop is very usable, simple, very intuitive, very easy to learn. I like it. - Compiz & Cairo look absolutely great. Nothing on Windows 7 can match that. - Software for CD & DVD burning is far better than anything I've ever seen on Windows. That alone is good enough reason to keep using Ubuntu. The same goes for the applications for video & audio editing. There's lots of other apps that seem pretty useful as well. Now... about that X Windows/Gnome/KDE thing... that, and the lack of productive development tools was the main reason I haven't used Linux until now. For the time being, I intend to play with Qt a little bit. I hate going back to C++, C# is far better, but Mono... I don't know... it somehow doesn't feel right. IMHO, Gnome/KDE divide is the worst thing that could possibly happened to Linux. From the user's perspective, the tottering between Gnome & KDE is totally needles, to say the least. Whichever desktop you choose, you know that you will be able to use only about half of the apps out there. On the other hand, it's pretty dishartening to write apps for particular desktop knowing that only about half of Linux users will be using them. It's almost like having two OS-es instead of one. I'd start using Linux much sooner, if there was only one, well defined desktop, with one and only set of development tools and applications. Having this in mind, I'm firmly convinced, that by cutting the X/Gnome/KDE Gordian knot, Canonical made the step in the right direction.

rpnadal08
rpnadal08

Boy! Windows 7 now this, Brave new world is taking place. Ubuntu is one of my favorite OS and it was about time for the change. Getting away from mirroring windows and going unique, original is always good

spage
spage

If Ubuntu is going to be the primary source for most or even all of the software in the Ubuntu distribution, could this be considered an attempt by Shuttleworth to close the source? What about security? One of the major strengths of Ubuntu was its cooperation with the Linux community. Code was made stronger by cross-pollinating with code from other distros. Is this a trend toward a more monolithic corporate model--like Microsoft? Your thoughts.

cjc5447
cjc5447

Actually the window server has changed before, from XFree86 to Xorg, but the architecture has basically remained the same. It may have seemed like a good way to do things 20 years ago, and XFree86/Xorg are basically clones of the original X Windows, but it's showing its age now. Even in the latest Ubuntu 10.10 I see occaisional hesitation and screen flickers, and this is on a fairly recent PC, 2.2Ghz AMD, 2GB RAM, nVidia PCIe video. Does anyone remember a student research project some years back about an X server replacement called "Y Windows"? That was supposed to fix problems with X Windows. Kudos to Mark Shuttleworth for having the stones to do this and advance Linux.

stevesr0
stevesr0

Is Wayland related to "micro-X"? Micro-X seemed to be another alternative to Xwindows without as much incompatibility concerns.

jmhalloy
jmhalloy

Implementing a common environment for desktop linux could decide the developpers to start writing end user software for that platform. That is still the power of the M$ Windows operating system, go to the store, buy a software, install it and... it works, no worry about specific drivers, they are included. I sincerely hope this will not fail.

archieh
archieh

If success is defined as not seeing anything different then why are you changing. Is there something lacking in X, that risking loosing a lot of apps is worth. For me the beauty of Linux is the ease of use and the apps. If it is not making me more productive then I really don't want it. I am probably a minority but glitz for the sake of glitz is not what I am interested in.

Kim SJ
Kim SJ

Yes, X is past its sell-by date. Anyone who has ever tried to configure displays knows how frustrating and difficult it can be. But that is also partly because of one of X's strengths: its power and flexibility. If you fight long enough and hard enough, you can do pretty much anything you want to, display-wise. We've used Linux servers with displays on low-end set-top boxes, for example. And then there's all the multi-user box folk. And the dial-up sessions. And folk who run some apps on remote machines. And so on. Not to mention the legacy kit compatibility. I hope that Canonical won't throw out the power and flexibility baby with the bloated and unstable bathwater.

mabovo
mabovo

As a wider pool of video devices becomes more unmanegeable complexity for X Window system, the announcement of this goal is remarkable to Ubuntu achieve.

jhenkins
jhenkins

This is potentially a big win for the Open Source desktop in general, not only for Ubuntu, or even Linux. It is a fact that X is this huge, over-engineered, clunky, over-engined system (it's got a V16 where only 4 cilinders with a turbo would do a lot better) with functionality that is never used. Who needs the remote display option for X? It's such a security risk that it is actually switched off by default. :-) As much as we owe to X (yes, if it wasn't for X we would not have a desktop at all!), it is time to change to a far more modern, lightweight approach. If we can find a way where it is actually easier to create device drivers, we have to grab it and run with it. I believe that Wayland can be such a platform, it certainly has the design. The backwards-compatibility for X-based programs and systems does indeed make the migration path a lot smoother. It is obviously too early to tell what exactly will happen, so all we can do is to surmise and hypothesise. I find the near religious "anti" sentiments I see on places like Slashdot and other places very puzzling. Yes, it is radical and shocking, but stop a moment and think beyond what you see (sorry, could not resist the Lion King angle! :-). The positive possibilities should be clear.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Yeah. Right. CAD operators, data entry personnel, 3D modelers, gamers; they're sure to abandon their faster processors, full-sized keyboards with keypads, larger screens, and hard-wired connectivity.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

"these tablets will eliminate the need for notebooks and desktops, reducing deployments of Linux and MS to servers and embedded devices. once that's on momentum, IT groups will demand cross-platform standardization for back-end systems. THAT - leaves Unity out in the cold." I do think tablets will have there place and work along side bigger systems but it's not going to usher in an overnight era without desktops and laptops. They will have there uses but the only way I can see them replacing laptop/desktop form factors is as a removable storage unit. When in cradle, it's just a hard drive with heavy graphics/proc/inputs being provided externally. When out of cradle, it provides it's reduced processing resources for the onboard storage. Before tablets can completely replace/eradicate the desktop/laptop concepts, human input interfaces will have to evolve beyond the keyboard (which hasn't happened since the keyboard's inception)

munsch
munsch

"X as a Wayland Client Wayland is a complete window system in itself, but even so, if we're migrating away from X, it makes sense to have a good backwards compatibility story. With a few changes, the Xorg server can be modified to use wayland input devices for input and forward either the root window or individual top-level windows as wayland surfaces." It seems that this is a non-emergency.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

X11 can be installed longside/under Wayland as a service. Programs that require X hit the X service while everything else talks directly to Wayland.

jkameleon
jkameleon

... and it looks like hibernation works now. That's what I like about Linux in general, and Ubuntu in particular: Things get fixed fast.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I have Gnome apps running under KDE. I have KDE apps running under Gnome. I have KDE and Gnome apps running under Enlightenment and LXCD. What KDE apps are you not able to run under Gnome?

binaryme
binaryme

Interesting perspective. I have never much liked KDE. Tried it a few times but always went back to gnome. Being a relatively new (returning) linux user, have you tried Mint? I don't see the Gnome/KDE devide in quite the same way you do... You can intall both environmets (automatically) and simply run KDE apps on gmome. I've yet to come accross any apps that won't work this way.

pgit
pgit

Very true. But then is ubuntu "Linux" any more after this?

Bob Wya
Bob Wya

I don't doubt that X-Windows is a mess but I wish someone would sort out the audio interface/API to the kernel drivers :-) Canonical need to commercialise Ubuntu as much as possible by getting it pre-installed on notebooks and netbooks by OEMs. I can appreciate that is hard when Microsoft are willing to bankroll their way to a monopoly. As long as the X-Windows replacement is open source than it can only strengthen the community in the longer term...

pgit
pgit

I have been saying for years that Linux could benefit (so far as market reach) from a bit more of a monolithic development environment. But this is not what I had in mind. In fact foremost in my thinking has been development of X. It suffers and hasn't moved much in a long while because from a developer's view it isn't sexy. Far more fun writing wibbly-wobbly windows effects for a compositor, being on the team putting out the killer app of the day, integrating new toys with existing code, higher profile and more glamorous stuff. X on the other hand is a nightmare. It's like being tasked with beautifying a 100 acre dump. You can either dig through it all, sort it, keep the good bits, recycle what you can and haul of the rest to dump elsewhere... or you can plant a few trees around the edges. Shuttleworth is saying "what dump...?" I've hoped the degree of fragmentation would come down a bit by agreeing to pursue fewer options, which would put more hands on whatever direction the community at large decides to take open source. This move is exactly the opposite. Why am I not surprised?

betomiller
betomiller

I tend to agree that the move to Unity will make Ubuntu appear to be a proprietary platform with software becoming sole-sourced. Didn't we see this with Apple and OS2? Nonetheless, Ubuntu claims it's just a matter of changing the interface and nothing more, that the underlying code will remain as before. Hmmm. Shuttleworth apparently hopes that any distribution based on Ubuntu will follow suit. I'm not convinced, at least not without seeing it. But nonetheless I'm having second thoughts about remaining with Ubuntu at this point.

pgit
pgit

Last I heard Y was looking like a complete rewrite from the ground up. It went the way of "why reinvent the wheel?" with "and beat yourself over the head with a stick while at it" tacked on.

techrepublic@
techrepublic@

I frequently use remote X sessions (or just an application or two) over ssh tunnels. it is a very safe setup, and better than RDP or VNC.

snideley59
snideley59

Most of my customers use hard core Finite Element Analysis apps such as Abaqus and LS-DYNA to generate complex models which they run on my compute cluster and then post process on their desktops. No tablet is going to replace the high end workstations that these guys need to render their results.

RipVan
RipVan

I can't understand a lot of the other back and forth (I should be embarrassed to say), but then again, I shouldn't admit to being lost on Gnome, either... But I appreciate the viewpoints on KDE/Gnome and I just don't know where to find anything in Gnome and I find it unfriendly. I also don't like the new KDE all that much, but at least I know where to find things. As far as backward compatibility, at some point you have to drop it all and start something new. Computing has changed far too much. I think it can advance more without all the baggage of the past.

jkameleon
jkameleon

I can't test everything, and learn everything immediatelly. If the specification says "This is KDE application/development tool", I'd imagine it's intended for KDE, not Gnome (and vice versa). Otherwise, it shouldn't be specified which desktop the application or development tool is intended for. If every application works works on both desktops- what's the point in dividing the apps between Gnome & KDE ones then? It's stupid. It should go without saying, that every app works on every desktop, and every IDE produces apps that work on every desktop. It shouldn't matter what's in the guts of the desktop- X windows, Y windows, or Zhongwen Windows.

jkameleon
jkameleon

run into some problems, and abandoned it. I don't want to lose too much time fiddling with the OS, I got other things to do. That's the reason I went straight to Ubuntu, without trying to find the best distribution out there. It's good enough, it has big user base, which usually means it's well supported. I'm therefore not bothered too much with that hibernation problem. I believe it will be resolved soon enough.

pgit
pgit

I was not considering the technical reality, rather the community approach, the spirit of the program, interoperability, the human aspect of the move. Of course it remains "Linux" or "ubuntu," but will this come to conjure the same image and spirit as saying "windows" or "Microsoft?" I should have been more specific. We're 'NASCAR North' around here, and when they introduced the truck series not a few die hards exclaimed "that ain't racin'!" Of course it is, but these folks weren't talking about the facts.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

Ever heard of 'New Coke'? Olestra? The DeLorean?

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

A graphic stack doesn't make the difference, it's still using the Linux kernel. It's still "Linux" or properly "Ubuntu Linux". Is a headless server not "Linux" because it doesn't have X installed? Are embedded systems not "Linux" because they don't have X or may use a different graphic stack between kernel/GUI? Is osX suddenly Linux because the user chose to install X11 from the osX optional software? In the end, it's one distribution and it's a year or more away.

pinjoh541
pinjoh541

Of course it is. As long as the kernel is Linux, then ubuntu will be Linux. All Linux distributions are a collection of applications, tools and utilities on top of a Linux kernel. This applies if it's ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, Maemo, Android and so on. Now if ubuntu changed the kernel, say to BSD, then it wouldn't be Linux anymore, it'd be BSD, but I doubt that will happen.

snideley59
snideley59

Has always been my friend, well, at least as long as it's been an option

pgit
pgit

Yep. X apps over ssh, can't beat the speed. I use a remote app at least twice a day on average. Forget VNC, rdp or even NX, just having one app to updating video over the line consumes a lot of bandwidth... but a heck of a lot less than the other options. Plus the X server is actually on the machine I'm sitting at, X is an interesting thing, the server is local and the client remote... but because of this the remote doesn't even have to have a graphical environment installed. Talk about security. Once the initial windowing is set up all you're transferring is the variable data for which you are using the application in the first place. Depending on the app, running it over X is visibly 6 to 10 times faster than VNC, and it's all encrypted over ssh. I don't like ubuntu but I do have to support it. I hope this move doesn't isolate ubuntu with the rest of the Linux universe. If there's no compatibility this would be the end of calling ubuntu "Linux" in my book.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Before I switched to KDE full desktop, I ran a bunch of KDE apps under Enlightenment. Whichever desktop environment works.

jkameleon
jkameleon

Canonical is definitely doing the right thing here. It's about time to axe this mess. The way I see it, it's similar to Microsoft's axing of VB6 & COM+. It is huge, it will be painful, Ubuntu/Linux users will probably have to deal with a lot of bugs, but it has to be done, there's no other way.

jkameleon
jkameleon

I installed KDE, and machine somehow didn't worked as it should. I don't know whether it's KDE's fault or not, because I was fiddling with dual monitor & NVIDIA drivers at the same time. At some point, I decided to simply scratch the KDE. I don't like its new UI anyway. Too much gadgetry. I prefer Gnome/Compiz/Cairo combination. Very elegant!

nwallette
nwallette

Many apps are written with dual-fluency. For e.g., there are packages in Gentoo for which you can specify some combination of USE flags like "X", "gnome", or "kde". This will build the application with UI elements derived from plain X or GTK, or the fancy-pants WM of your choice. It's fairly easy to use alternate C/CPP files or #IFDEFs to separate your "work" code from your "interface" code. They do it all the time for applications that compile from the same source on Linux, OSX, Windows, BSD.... Interestingly, I've found KDE apps look OK on Gnome. Gnome apps don't inherit all of the chrome from KDE and so they look out of place. GTK apps look even worse. The Powers That Be could stand to work on the integration aspect some, but the apps work regardless.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The short answer: yes, it works unless you are installing part of the Gnome or KDE desktop environment. K3B will install and work fine under Gnome but KDE's Control Panel won't be of much use without KDE. The longer answer: Windows has a win32.dll and a win16.dll and a win64.dll (for purposes of example). If you run a 32 bit app it talks to win32.dll. If your missing win32.dll and try to run a 32 bit app then it does't run. KDE and Gnome apps are similar in concept. By default you don't have both KDE.DLL and Gnome.DLL installed but they are available in the repository. If you run Gnome then you already have Gnome.DLL installed since it's required for the desktop environment and other Gnome apps but you don't have KDE.DLL installed by default. When you try to install a KDE application, the package manager will recognize this and automatically install KDE.DLL. So, now you have Gnome desktop environment over top of Gnome.DLL runing a KDE application with it's required KDE.DLL now in place. If you pop open a VM or try installing a Korganizer or K3B on your Gnome system, you should see a popup or message asking if you want to also include a bunch of additional packages; these are the dependencies.

pgit
pgit

*ahem* ...all I'll say is when they come here to Watkins Glen the Crown Royal team hangs around a local liquor store nearby and I get to chat them up... Ironically, the man set to take the truck series (again) this year is a local boy. The Bodine family started out here, built a race track that's still going strong and despite having to move to ground zero (North Carolina) still have strong ties to the area. I have no problem with the truck series a'tall. It's actually the local NASCAR contingent (who run, and run AT Bodine's track) that have the sour grapes attitude. And that's what I think it is. There's a dozen very active tracks around here with maybe two that could serve as any kind of proving ground for truck series-oriented drivers. Meaning to get into the truck series you basically have to make it up through the stock ranks, then switch over. So the locals see 'inventing' this truck series as (here we go compounding analogies) a parallel NFL that only gets it's players from the NFL, college kids need not apply. Sort of a 'made up market' as a playground for the already successful players. I think they are suffering sour grapes. Anyway, I don't think ubuntu has yet broken away from the spirit of the rest of the open source community. But it appears as though their public moves are laying groundwork for the day they WILL make some kind of jump into isolation and exclusivity. No one really calls OS X "BSD" these days. The skeptic in me sees a scenario where ubuntu announces they have a whole new branch of a system, not quite a Linux kernel any more, but real close. And when they release this, lo it turns out they have *also* developed a holy grail-load of universal drivers to go with it. Every class of hardware covered, it'll work out of the box with anything you can throw at it. A complete OS package they have taken freely from the open source developers but now are unwilling to give back. Ubuntu appears to be guiding a large volume of development, but nothing that you can point to, really, other than packaging the product. If they are working on core open source projects they must be incompetent, because the contrib count has been exceedingly low for the apparent amount of labor they have been applying to it. Or maybe they're keeping some cards close to the chest?

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

The Truck series is closer to the 'old school' style of stock car racing typical before the 1990s. Those 'die hards' should give it a try; once the get past the body style, they may prefer it over today's semi-sterilized Cup racing. Just one NASCAR fan's opinion. How 'bout that 17 car last week!

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It seems ubuntu already became the Windows among *nix based distributions. It's the most successfully marketed and popular but not the best quality distribution available. I'm already sensing the negative connotations from the folk who stuck with other distributions (and some of the folk that made the Ubuntu change only now to look back at other options).