Ubuntu: Innovative or reckless?

It’s been almost a year since Mark Shuttleworth relinquished the reins at Canonical, stepping down as CEO to take a more hands-on approach in the company that is the backer of the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Judging by the various sharp turns Ubuntu has taken in the past year his steerage is starting to have an effect.

Eighteen months before he took on his new role as technical and community director, Shuttleworth had already started pushing for greater design changes on the Linux desktop, urging developers to make Ubuntu good enough to “blow right past Apple“. Gradually Ubuntu started to show signs of being more design and user focused: new fonts; new window designs; new login screens; and a design community focused exclusively on improving the usability and attractiveness of the Ubuntu desktop.

Not all of those changes were well received by Ubuntu users but they are nothing compared to what Shuttleworth now has planned for Ubuntu.

Starting with the next release of Ubuntu, Shuttleworth has declared Unity, the Ubuntu Netbook Remix interface, to be the default desktop environment for users. The Unity interface is significantly different to that of Gnome, the traditional Ubuntu interface.

Not only that, but Ubuntu will also be adopting a new graphics system for its desktop. In place of the long-standing X Server and X Windows system for displaying desktop graphics, Ubuntu is opting for the new, leaner Wayland graphics system, essentially chucking out the tried-and-tested and replacing it with something completely new, and mostly untested.

Either one of these decisions on their own could have been expected to raise a user firestorm. The debates have been long and furious. Naturally many users have questioned the sanity of Shuttleworth’s decisions.

For my part I think Shuttleworth has taken a bold step, one that pushes Ubuntu in the right direction. I also think that the months following the implementation of these decisions are going to be rocky.

The Unity interface is nice enough. It’s not stunning but it’s adequate. What it does do is free Ubuntu to become its own entity. Traditionally Ubuntu used Gnome as its default desktop environment and so do most other Linux releases. This means that barring a small tweak here and a little graphical flair there, Ubuntu looks a lot like every other Linux release. It also means that Ubuntu is mostly beholden to the pace of development of the Gnome team. Right now, with more than a couple of delays under their belt for the release of the new Gnome 3.0, the Gnome team is looking like more of a hindrance than an advantage.

Stepping away from Gnome gives Ubuntu a great deal more autonomy, better control over its appearance and the chance to stand out from the crowd. It’s not a complete break with Gnome as most of the technology underlying Unity is still Gnome-based, but it is enough to create a distinctive look.

Wayland is a slightly different story as most Linux distributions will also eventually also switch to it in preference to the X Window system – Fedora has already announced plans to do so. By pushing for Wayland so early on, Ubuntu is hoping to get a head start on other distributions.

The X Window system dates back to the early 1980s and while it has been under constant development it is still home to many legacy technologies which are in some cases useful to certain users but in general are not deemed cutting edge. Wayland is new, it’s fresh and it’s pretty much on the bleeding edge of development.

There is a risk that Wayland is not really ready for general use and the whole of Ubuntu will come tumbling down because of it – but somehow I doubt it.

I think Shuttleworth and Ubuntu are taking some big risks. There are a lot of users that won’t tolerate things that are too different, or too experimental, or too new. I respect the fact that Shuttleworth has the confidence to push Ubuntu into new things; things that could well make it a great operating system. I also like the fact that so much work in the Ubuntu community is going into making an operating system that is really user-focused while still pushing forward.

Perhaps it is a sign that Shuttleworth now feels Ubuntu is big enough strike out on its own. I hope so, because I am looking forward to the next couple of releases from his team.

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Ubuntu: Innovative or reckless?