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Hey, Ubuntu users: if you haven’t heard yet, Canon­i­cal killed off any hopes of re­leas­ing Unity 8 with Ubuntu 18.04 LTS next year. In­stead, Ubuntu will re­lease 18.04 with the GNOME desk­top. While some die-hard Ubuntu fans may have a case of in­con­solable angst, this is not as bad of a thing as it may seem.

A brief his­tory of Ubuntu desk­tops

A long time ago (in in­ter­net time any­way), the Ubuntu OS shipped with the GNOME 2 desk­top en­vi­ron­ment, which was beloved at the time. Dur­ing that era, only a hand­ful desk­top en­vi­ron­ments were widely used. GNOME and KDE took the lion’s share of users, while the lighter-weight XFCE and LXDE desk­tops catered to users who wanted a speed­ier desk­top and less piz­zazz.

When Ubuntu first shipped the Unity desk­top in 2010, it was meant to cater to net­books. (I still have my Eee PC from back then.) As net­books were sup­planted by the rise of tablets, Chrome­books, and ul­tra­books, Unity stayed with the OS. If you wanted the old GNOME desk­top, there was a dis­tro for you: Ubuntu GNOME. Like Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE), Ubuntu GNOME was es­sen­tially the same OS, but with the GNOME desk­top in­stead of Unity.

When the GNOME desk­top hit ver­sion 3.0, the desk­top ex­pe­ri­ence was split yet again. The MATE project is ba­si­cally a fork of the old GNOME 2 desk­top, which re­sulted in the Ubuntu MATE desk­top. Ubuntu GNOME, mean­while, stuck with the GNOME project’s tra­jec­tory and of­fered up the GNOME 3 desk­top for Ubuntu users who wanted it.

Why the move is a good thing

Ubuntu has been a lead­ing dis­tri­bu­tion in the desk­top Linux scene. It’s rea­son­ably easy to in­stall, you can find .deb soft­ware pack­ages ev­ery­where, and the user ex­pe­ri­ence has one of the lower learn­ing curves of any Linux dis­tri­bu­tion. Since it has such a large user base, what Ubuntu does on the desk­top has a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the Linux desk­top across dis­tri­bu­tions.

The aban­don­ment of Unity sig­ni­fies a re­ver­sal for Canon­i­cal, the com­pany that pro­duces Ubuntu. Canon­i­cal had drawn crit­i­cism for go­ing its own way with Unity and rein­vent­ing the wheel in­stead of mak­ing ex­ist­ing projects bet­ter. By giv­ing

up on Unity, Canon­i­cal frees up re­sources to work on other projects.

In a blog post an­nounc­ing Unity’s demise, the com­pany’s founder Mark Shut­tle­worth men­tioned that Canon­i­cal would ac­tively work on the fu­ture of the desk­top. “We will con­tinue to pro­duce the most us­able open-source desk­top in the world, to main­tain the ex­ist­ing LTS re­leases, to work with our com­mer­cial part­ners to dis­trib­ute that desk­top, to sup­port our cor­po­rate cus­tomers who rely on it, and to de­light the mil­lions of IoT and cloud de­vel­op­ers who in­no­vate on top of it,” he said.

Con­trib­u­tors who want to work on the Ubuntu desk­top can now con­trib­ute to the GNOME project. It doesn’t re­quire the con­trib­u­tor to sign a con­trib­u­tor’s li­cense agree­ment, which has been a key is­sue for many of Canon­i­cal’s crit­ics. Ad­di­tion­ally, the added at­ten­tion the GNOME project will re­ceive by virtue of an in­creased user base will ul­ti­mately make the GNOME desk­top bet­ter. With more peo­ple us­ing the desk­top comes in­creased de­mand for fea­tures and bug fixes, as well as more peo­ple to sub­mit bug re­ports.

If you’re a desk­top user, it means that the fu­ture ver­sions of Ubuntu’s desk­top will be more con­sis­tent with other dis­tri­bu­tions of Linux, and that the Linux com­mu­nity at large will likely ben­e­fit.

What’s not so great about all this

The first thing to die along with Unity is Canon­i­cal’s goal of con­ver­gence be­tween desk­tops and mo­bile de­vices. The death of Unity means that, like Fire­fox OS be­fore it, Ubuntu-based tablets and phones ul­ti­mately get the axe. As some­one who’s wanted an al­ter­na­tive to iOS, An­droid, and Win­dows, this rep­re­sents a re­duc­tion in choice for the con­sumer.

The big un­known in all of this is the devel­op­ment of Mir. Mir is pretty much Canon­i­cal’s Way­land, which is a re­place­ment for the ag­ing X.org video server. In case I just lost you, X.org, Way­land or Mir would be the part of the OS that ac­tu­ally draws the pix­els of the graph­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment on the screen. With­out X.org, Way­land, or Mir, you only have a text con­sole.

Since Mir was meant to be the un­der­ly­ing video server for Unity 8, it re­ally has lost its rai­son d’être. Shut­tle­worth makes no men­tion of Mir in his blog post, but it may be safe to as­sume that Mir will also cease to be. With­out Unity 8 and the con­ver­gence it promised, there’s no rea­son to use Mir in­stead of Way­land.

What Ubuntu users can ex­pect

In the next LTS re­lease, Ubuntu GNOME will ef­fec­tively be merged into the main desk­top re­lease of Ubuntu. If you’re us­ing Ubuntu now on Unity, there will be a few changes in the desk­top it­self, but the apps you use will largely be the same.

For all of its dif­fer­ences, Unity ac­tu­ally bor­rows a lot from the GNOME project. Ap­pli­ca­tions are drawn us­ing other GTK 3 frame­work, just like apps on the GNOME 3 desk­top. In fact, most of the set­tings in Ubuntu are the ex­act same ap­pli­ca­tions.

The GNOME desk­top dif­fers from the Unity desk­top in a cou­ple ways, how­ever. First, the dash on the left side of the screen is not present in the de­fault view in GNOME. The dash is avail­able in the Ac­tiv­i­ties view (you can move the cur­sor to the up­per-left of the screen or tap the Su­per/Win­dows key to open it). With the Ac­tiv­i­ties view open, you can see open win­dows, launch apps from the quick-launch bar, or start typ­ing the name of an ap­pli­ca­tion, file, or web search.

If you’re used to search­ing for apps and files in Unity, the process is sim­i­lar in GNOME. That means that even though it might take a lit­tle time to get used to, the learn­ing curve won’t be as steep as you think.


With the death of Unity, Ubuntu is re­join­ing the pack when it comes to desk­top en­vi­ron­ments. If you’ve never used Ubuntu with­out Unity, this will feel like a big change. But for those who have used the op­er­at­ing sys­tem since be­fore Unity was a glim­mer in Canon­i­cal’s eye, the move may feel more like Ubuntu is re­turn­ing to its roots.

The Fe­dora 25 desk­top run­ning GNOME’s Soft­ware and Nau­tilus ap­pli­ca­tions

GNOME 3’s uni­ver­sal search helps you find apps, files, and con­tacts

GNOME 3’s Ac­tiv­i­ties panel shows open win­dows and a dock for launch­ing apps quickly

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