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Ubuntu's risky leap: Unity on Wayland

Ubuntu Linux will adopt Unity on Wayland in favour of GNOME on X.org.

Future versions of Ubuntu will ship with the Unity interface

Future versions of Ubuntu will ship with the Unity interface

Today Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced on his blog that the Ubuntu distribution will move away from the traditional X.org display environment to Wayland a more modern alternative.

Read Shuttleworth’s blog here.

The news comes only days after Ubuntu announced it would change its default user interface from the GNOME environment to its own Unity, which is better suited to netbooks.

There are a number of possible side effects as a result of moving away from GNOME and X.

Despite all its posturing about how “Ubuntu is not dropping GNOME” and “GNOME is still available” the decision to move away from the mainstream GNOME desktop to its own Unity could be seen as a slap in the face to the rest of the GNOME community developers.

There’s now little reason for these GNOME developers to recommend Ubuntu as an operating system.

By focusing on Unity (on Wayland or X) for Ubuntu, Canonical has essentially forked its own Linux distribution.

I understand Wayland is “compatible” with existing X apps, but the porting work involved may lead to bugs and other inconsistencies Ubuntu can do without.

Even if the mainline Ubuntu distribution offers users the choice of installing the GNOME desktop, it’s only a matter of time before a GNOME-only distribution emerges much like Kubuntu is for KDE.

This GNOME-only Ubuntu distribution could be spearheaded by Canonical or it could be community-driven.

My gut feeling for Canonical moving so aggressively in this direction is the rise of ultra-mobile computing.

Shuttleworth wants a piece of the netbook and tablet PC action and the standard PC interface (GNOME, KDE, Windows, etc) just won’t cut it.

Microsoft has tried to transplant its PC desktop experience onto small, more mobile devices with only mixed results.

The big winners in this race are the ones who dared to redesign the PC interface from the ground up. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android are leading the revolution.

Why might I suggest this? Well if you examine Shuttleworth’s “reasons” for wanting to switch from X to Wayland it revolves around user-experience.

He speaks of “super-smooth graphics and effects” and considering the Android environment.

These are things that modern desktops are less likely to suffer from due to improvements in processing power and display technology. So the impetus lies with portable computing.

Moreover, Shuttleworth doesn’t really give compelling reasons to move away from X, only to say “it’s extremely hard” to get good graphics and effects with it.

Given the mobile phone I’m carrying runs X and its performance is indistinguishable from an iPhone or Android device there isn’t a lot weight behind Shuttleworth’s reasoning.

X might not be as responsive and scalable (down) as it could be, but that doesn’t mean it’s performance is so bad it needs to be turfed out.

I’ve even asked Linus Torvalds the million dollar question of whether Linux needs another type of display environment and he said something along the lines of “it would be silly to replace X”.

I also remember once during a presentation by Rasterman (Aussie open source graphics guru) he said the overhead of using X is not much to worry about either.

Another problem for Ubuntu will arise if Wayland can’t provide the feature set of X people will be forced to look elsewhere.

Ubuntu is definitely navigating uncharted waters here and it’s a one-two punch to its steady ascension to fame.

Sure Ubuntu is being innovative and it deserves credit for that, but I question whether it needed to radically change its desktop and interface for its mainstream distribution.

Just reading over Mark’s blog again I’m waiting for him to write something like “this alternative to the mainstream Ubuntu will be called …buntu”.

Instead he’s jumping over the frying pan and into the fire. He’s prepared to break something that only needed a minimal amount of fixing to be a credible alternative to today’s mainstream desktop operating systems – with the immeasurable advantage of being free – and start again.

I wish Ubuntu every success in its new quest to conquer mobile computers. But as far as the desktop goes it’s a very risky move that could alienate developers and users alike.

In years to come it might look back and wonder why it didn’t focus on making its good distribution even better instead of radically overhauling it.

Rodney Gedda is Editor of TechWorld Australia. Follow Rodney on Twitter at @rodneygedda. Rodney's e-mail address is rodney_gedda@idg.com.au. Follow TechWorld Australia on Twitter at @Techworld_AU.

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