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Canonical Quits Unity/Mir/Convergence; My Thoughts

By Andrew Powell, published 06/04/2017 in Editorials

In stunning news, which is apparently NOT a late April Fools joke, Mark Shuttleworth has announced that Canonical will be dumping the Unity, Mir projects and ultimately the goal of 'convergence'. Canonical is also planning to then return to GNOME as the default desktop by the release of Ubuntu 18.04.

In a blog post, Mark Shuttleworth made the stunning announcement that has a fair chunk of the Linux community reeling and coming to terms with these latest developments. The news means Canonical will ultimately quit all plans for convergence and Ubuntu Phones and Tablets as well as dropping the Unity 8 desktop and Mir. By Ubuntu 18.04, the plan is now for Canonical's Linux distribution to be using the GNOME desktop by default and therefore, the Wayland display server instead of Mir.

It should be noted that Mir was never actually specifically mentioned, but with the project that actually uses it being killed off, it is fair enough to assume that Mir will be a dead-end. Plus, GNOME uses Wayland already.

Firstly, disclaimer: I like GNOME. I didn't always, in fact if you're a long time reader of The Linux Rain, you may remember The GNOME Shell Challenge that I took upon myself which actually kickstarted my journey with GNOME and subsequently my now daily use of the desktop. So at the risk of being labeled a GNOME fanboy, I'll make it known that I do like the GNOME desktop and that may seem to influence my following opinion somewhat.

So, with that in mind, I for one welcome this news from Canonical, but for more reasons than simply desktop preferences.

Why it's a good thing

Not only because I quite happily use GNOME and Wayland on my desktops, but for what it hopefully means for free software collaboration and contribution. The reality is Unity 8 and Mir, although seeming to make some good strides in recent times, had lagged behind the development pace of GNOME and Wayland. Unity 8 and Mir had only just become somewhat technically usable on the desktop, although perhaps seriously far from being mainstream usable, while GNOME and Wayland has been usable for some time now. So much so, that Fedora 25 famously shipped with the GNOME on Wayland session as the default desktop, though the session was available experimentally for a couple releases of the distribution prior.

Granted, the folks working on GNOME and Wayland have only really been targeting the desktop (their primary audience, as much as some people would like to label GNOME 3 primarily a smartphone/tablet interface), while Unity 8 and Mir was designed from the outset for that whole convergence thing with desktops, phones and tablets meaning Canonical would understandably have had a bit more on their proverbial plates.

As we all know, Canonical eventually gave up on the Upstart init system and moved to systemd, further standardising the use of that init system, whether you love or hate it. Seemingly we'll get a similar end result here, with GNOME returning as the flagship desktop on Ubuntu and finally cementing Wayland as the true standard next-generation display server on Linux. Personally, I think this is a very good thing. Not that competition and choice isn't a good thing, quite the opposite. It's something we all appreciate about GNU/Linux as a whole. But I would think it would be fair to say that many of us felt Canonical were wasting resources, pouring so much into these projects that didn't seem to be making any or little traction.

With this recent news, it would seem Canonical agrees and more resources can be put into GNOME and in particular, Wayland. This also means the likes of graphics card driver vendors won't have to worry about there being Wayland, Mir AND Xorg, but instead just Wayland and Xorg, with the latter very much deemed to be on the way out eventually anyway.

So while there will be some folks that will be a bit miffed, particularly hardcore Unity fans (I'll touch more on this in a moment) and anyone that was eagerly following Unity 8 and Mir development, I think ultimately this will be a good thing and we'll see Ubuntu returning to fully focusing on producing a polished user friendly desktop with their own spin on looks and feel, combined with the usual Ubuntu apps such as the hardware driver installer and Ubuntu App Store that set the distro apart.

And of course, there is the whole enterprise side of things, which Mark touches on in the linked blog post, but I am mostly talking about the desktop here.

For the Unity fans

Understandably there will be some angry Unity desktop fans out there. If your favourite desktop suddenly died and was abandoned, you too would be a bit cranky I imagine. Having said that, Unity 8 may well be dead and buried, but Unity 7 which has been in 'maintenence' for some time, will be supported for some years yet on the current LTS release of Ubuntu 16.04, all the way until 2021.

Still, Unity really is just a particular layout and shell that is essentially a Compiz plugin, with some underlying GNOME foundations. GNOME, as in the full blown GNOME Shell and all, is well known to be extremely extensible and pretty malleable. With even just a few extensions and a theme change, there's no reason GNOME Shell couldn't look and feel very similar to Unity.

The one exception, at face value, would of course be the lack of the HUD interface. However, HUD doesn't seem to be too fiercely baked into Unity itself. Indeed there's been plugins written in the community for a few years to have HUD work in the likes of KDE or even nifty little standalone programs that pipe HUD search results through a minimalistic program like "dmenu", such as this one.

So it's not beyond the realms of possibility that HUD functionality could be provided by an extension in GNOME Shell. I'm rather surprised there already isn't one, unless I've somehow managed to miss it. But having said that, HUD just doesn't seem to have been generally adopted by any other desktop other than Canonical's Unity, so perhaps the demand just hasn't been there.

Finally, like the forking of GNOME 2 that led to the creation of the excellent MATE desktop, some enthusiastic members of the community may well fork Unity 7 and attempt to keep it living beyond even the version that is on life support in Ubuntu 16.04. But to be honest I can't imagine there would be the same level of support for that effort as there was with MATE.

One thing for sure though, there's some very interesting and intriguing times ahead!

About the author

Andrew Powell is the editor and owner of The Linux Rain who loves all things Linux, gaming and everything in between.

Tags: editorials canonical ubuntu mir gnome wayland
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