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Ubuntu republic riven by damaging civil wars

Can the Linux Jedi hold things together?

By Liam Proven, 8 Nov 2011

Analysis There's a popular misconception about open source: that it's democratic, that all users have a vote over its direction and development or even the running of the community around it.

The users of Ubuntu, arguably the world's most popular Linux distro these days, are currently discovering that this is not how it works. The result is making a lot of people very angry, but it might result in some interesting new developments for Linux – as well as maybe pointing the way towards the UIs of the next generation of PC.

Ubuntu started with the same broad goals as Bruce Perens' stillborn UserLinux distro from 2003: to be a simple, all-in-one OS for desktop and laptop PCs, with all the standard tools you need included: Internet clients, basic productivity software and so on and nothing much else. One CD, no awkward questions about what to install – just bung it in, point it at an empty bit of disk, give it your name and you're in business.

Both Perens and Ubuntu chose the GNOME desktop, for two main reasons – firstly, it was completely free, unlike GNOME's principal rival, KDE, based on the at-the-time-non-GPL Qt toolkit. Secondly, GNOME is simpler than KDE. Although there's not much difference in ease of use, KDE has many more options and settings to twiddle.

As soon as the first release of Ubuntu appeared in October 2004, the arguments started. KDE's many fans immediately rebelled at the terrible injustice of GNOME being chosen over their preferred desktop and promptly started to assemble a KDE version of Ubuntu.

The result, "Kubuntu", appeared simultaneously with Ubuntu's second release in April 2005. It was the first of many "remixes": tweaks and rebuilds of Ubuntu, whose creators actively encourage this sort of activity. Until recently, though, most of the remixes have remained relatively marginal… but this is changing.

This year, Ubuntu's fans have been in uproar again, and once again, the choice of desktop is the reason.

GNOME version 2 was released in June 2002, and the first version of Ubuntu – 4.10, known as "Warty Warthog" – used GNOME 2.8, the then-current version. (Ubuntu version numbers are just the year and month of release, so "4.10" denotes the October '04 version.) Since then, each successive release of Ubuntu has used the latest version of GNOME. But what few of Ubuntu's admirers realised was that the writing was on the wall for their chosen desktop. A new version of GNOME was looming, meaning end-of-life for the familiar interface. Ubuntu had to choose something else.

GNOME 3 and the GNOME Shell

Years in the making, GNOME 3 is a major new release with a radically different interface: GNOME Shell. After years of quietly aping Windows and in some respects Mac OS, GNOME Shell boldly strikes out in a new and idiosyncratic direction, not quite like any other GUI. The familiar top and bottom panels have gone. There is a bar across the top of the screen, but it's no longer very customisable – it just holds, from left to right, a pane labelled "Activities", the name of the current app blended strangely into a version of its icon, a curiously centred clock and some status icons. There are no application menus, quick-launch icons or customisable widgets. The desktop has no other panels, no specific task or window switcher tools whatsoever. App status icons, such as chat programs, float at the bottom right corner of the primary screen, along with an icon for notification messages.

Down the left hand edge of the screen is a "favourites bar" to which you can add your most-often-used programs. A faint background glow shows if an app is running, but not how many windows; it's not really meant for switching between programs. This is a keyboard operation – Alt-tab still works, and Alt-` (the key directly above tab) to switch between documents. The developers seemed to envision that the way to keep apps separate would be to put them on different virtual desktops. A virtual-desktop-switcher bar occupies the right edge of the primary screen, and there's an indefinite number of virtual desktops available – always one more than you're using.

The only way to navigate between windows with the mouse is an overall, Apple Exposé-like thumbnail view. So, if you have lots of windows, all on your first virtual desktop, the overview will be indistinct. The old hierarchical application menus have been replaced with a full-screen search-driven app-picker. Even windows' minimise or maximise buttons are gone.

GNOME Shell is like nothing else – which is brave, but confusing. It's a huge shift, and its developers weren't interested in Ubuntu's offers of contributions and suggestions, so Ubuntu chose a different route.

Unity, Son of Netbook Remix

For some years, Ubuntu had been developing its own "netbook launcher," originally intended to be an easy, simple, single-click sort of interface for small screens and low-spec systems.

Over several releases, this evolved from a full-screen menu-cum-file-manager to a simple panel down the side of the screen which combined the functions of program launcher and task switcher. All programs ran maximised to fill the screen, so as to make best use of 1024×600 netbook screens.

Now, though, the humble netbook launcher has evolved further, into a fully-fledged desktop for general-purpose PCs: Unity. And in April this year, Ubuntu switched the default desktop of version 11.04 of its eponymous flagship OS to the new GUI.

Like the old netbook remix, the Unity desktop has a Launcher down the left edge of the screen – an efficient use of space, now that most people are switching to widescreen monitors. To get at apps not in the Launcher, there's the "dashboard," another full-screen search-driven app and document picker, rather like that of iOS and Android – or GNOME Shell, come to that. The dash also shows apps that can be installed from Ubuntu's online repositories, which is a little confusing but makes software installation easy and even tempting for novices.

Along with the status icons at top right, the top panel now houses a very Mac-like global menu bar, rather than menus being inside applications' windows. Bizarrely, though, Unity hides the menus from sight until you mouse over them, which is poorly discoverable to say the least. What's more, apps which don't use the GNOME libraries don't get the single menu bar; their menus appear inside their windows, the old way – which jars somewhat. A prime example is the bundled office suite, LibreOffice. If you maximise a window, its title bar also merges into the panel, replaced by the menus on mouseover – all in the pursuit of preserving vertical space, so precious on 16:9 widescreen displays. The Dash replaces the old app menus and the Launcher replaces the quick-launch icons and bottom panel.

Overall, it's strongly reminiscent of Mac OS X. The Launcher is much like Apple's Dock – its icons not only start apps but are used to switch between them. Just like the Dock, a small indicator glows next to the icon to indicate that a program is running. Like in Windows 7's taskbar, there's only one icon per app, rather than one button per window as in GNOME 2 and KDE – but Unity helpfully gives you one indicator per instance, so you can see at a glance how many windows you have open. If you have multiple windows open, clicking the icon presents a list, and if they're all minimised, it restores the latest one (in the current, 11.10 release). If that wasn't the instance you wanted, click the launcher icon again and you get the list. Middle-click the icon to open extra instances of that app.

Overall, though, apart from the replacement of the panels and menus with the launcher and dash, Unity is still GNOME underneath. It has the same file manager, Nautilus, the same suite of applications, the same window controls in the same places – even the same visual theme. Once you get used to the Launcher and the menus, it's not all that different. GNOME Shell is a much bigger wrench.

Some people, your humble scribe included, rather like Unity's new look. In particular, it's no stretch if you're familiar with Mac OS X. However, Ubuntu is primarily a PC OS: its users tend to be migrants from Windows and some are staunch Mac-haters. For these, the new, distinctly un-Windows-like look is a step too far.

Even before Unity's launch back in April, Ubuntu's "Sounder" mailing list – the place for the community to discuss whatever ailed them – was full of people bemoaning the change and criticising the new desktop. As threads on the Internet will, some of the discussions became long and involved and wondered off-topic – one even drifted into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of the state of Israel.

The response of the Ubuntu Community Council was simple: the Sounder list was promptly shut down. Many of its members – including yours truly – have adjourned to a new, open, public list, the Bike Shed, but it was a salutary reminder that Ubuntu and its community only exist at the good-humoured tolerance of its founder and sponsor, Mark Shuttleworth. He pays Ubuntu's bills, and as such, he and his staff call the tune. Indeed, he jokingly refers to himself as the Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life or "SABDFL".

Some Unity-averse users are staying with older releases. Until the April 2012 release – the next long-term-support version – the current LTS edition, 10.04, is Unity-free. Those wanting more current software have the option of the last GNOME 2-based release, 10.10, or the just-superseded 11.04, where reverting to the old GNOME 2 desktop is just a matter of picking "classic" on the login screen.

But not any more.

In order to support people with lower-spec machines that don't provide the hardware OpenGL 3D acceleration that Unity (and the GNOME Shell, come to that) require to function, Canonical has developed a simpler, 2D version of its new desktop, imaginatively called Unity-2D. Ironically, it's based on the same Qt libraries that caused all the KDE ruckus back at the start of the century. And now, Unity-2D is, indirectly, new cause for complaint.

As of October's release of Ubuntu 11.10, to the dismay of many previously-loyal Ubuntu fans, GNOME 2 is history. The obsolete, or if you prefer, "classic" desktop has been removed; the new version is based on the now-current GNOME libraries: i.e., GNOME 3, but minus GNOME Shell. If you have 3D hardware, you get Unity; if you don't, you get Unity-2D. There's no way to downgrade to GNOME 2; the only option is to install GNOME 3 and use Fallback Mode, or switch to a different desktop altogether.

And 11.10 is the last release before the next Long Term Support release in April 2012, so it sets the pattern for 12.04 – which is the only direct upgrade path for people still on the current LTS release, 10.04.

After Sounder was closed, the signal-to-noise ratio on the main Ubuntu community support mailing list dropped noticeably. With no official place for off-topic conversations, those on Ubuntu-Users quickly grew more discursive. This has, inevitably, included a fair amount of discussion of, and complaining about, Unity – especially now that people are realising that they have no choice.

The rumour is that Shuttleworth is not happy about this and would be happy to see Ubuntu-Users closed down, too.

This would leave only the regional lists in each country running – worldwide, Ubuntu users seeking community support would have to use Web fora or IRC instead.

Some are interpreting these signs – the growing discontent and the subsequent closure of one and maybe two of the main online communities – as the beginning of the end for Ubuntu.

But if so, where are its disgruntled users going to go?

If they hope to stay with GNOME 2, they're in for disappointment. It's looking pretty dead. Two forks were announced soon after GNOME 3 appeared: EXDE and Mate, of which the former seems to have already ground to a halt. The KDE community had a similar response when KDE 4 appeared in 2008 – so many preferred KDE 3 that it was forked to create the Trinity project. It's still alive, but despite considerable dissatisfaction with KDE 4.0, most KDE users just kept using KDE 3.5.10 until KDE 4 was stable and then moved to the new version.

The same might happen with GNOME. GNOME 3 users whose PC's graphic card isn't up to snuff for the GNOME Shell get Fallback Mode instead, which looks very much like the classic GNOME 2 two-panel desktop – but the resemblance is only skin-deep. Fallback Mode is meant just as an emergency standby and it's a lot less flexible or customisable than GNOME 2 was. But still, one option for frustrated Unity-haters will be to install GNOME 3 and choose Fallback Mode.

If they head off for other distributions, they're in for a disappointment. The biggest rival to the Ubuntu family is Red Hat's Fedora, but it is a major supporter of GNOME 3, so along with a strange new packaging system and a different community and approach, they will find a desktop even more unfamiliar than Unity. OpenSUSE is one of the few distributions shipping the last-ever release of GNOME 2, version 2.32 – but its future plans include GNOME 3. Both mean getting to grips with the alien RPM packaging system instead of Ubuntu's Debian-derived one, too.

Then there's Debian itself, the distribution upon which Ubuntu is based. Debian 6.03, the current version, still uses GNOME 2.30 – but Debian 6 doesn't include any non-free drivers, so getting your hardware working is significantly harder than on Ubuntu. It's improved a lot in recent years, but Debian is still substantially less friendly than Ubuntu.

Which brings us back to the welter of Ubuntu remix editions. Following in the footsteps of Kubuntu there have been hundreds of tweaked versions of Ubuntu. A handful have been officially taken under the company's wing and share the prestige of being official editions. The original remix, Kubuntu, the KDE-based version, was the first. Accompanying it are three special-purpose derivatives: the education-focused Edubuntu and Ubuntu Studio for media creators, both using the GNOME 2 desktop, and Mythbuntu, designed for building a Linux-based PVR.

Then there is Xubuntu, which uses the Xfce desktop. Xubuntu has been around since the first LTS release of Ubuntu, 6.06, but it stands to receive a lot more attention in the near future. Xfce is ostensibly a slightly lighter-weight desktop than GNOME, but the difference isn't dramatic. However, it's straightforward to configure Xubuntu to look and work very much like classic GNOME 2-based Ubuntu, and this is already attracting Unity-phobes.

Joining the stable as of the 11.10 release is the relatively new Lubuntu, which aims to be very lightweight and uses the rather Windows-XP-like Lightweight X11 Desktop Environment, LXDE. Lubuntu has been around since 10.10 but it's only now gained official approval.

The vast majority of remixes remain outside of the official project, such as Bodhi, based on the graphically-sophisticated Enlightenment desktop.

Inevitably, there's already a GNOME 3-based flavour: UGR, the Ubuntu GNOME Remix. Beware, though; in their own words, "this project is very experimental and unstable."

By far the biggest Ubuntu spin-off of all is Linux Mint, which is already attracting emigrants from Ubuntu – earlier this year, for the first time, Mint got more page views than its progenitor on Distrowatch. Although it also offers its own KDE, Xfce and LXDE-based flavours, the mainline Mint favours GNOME 2 – although it rearranges GNOME's two panels into a more Windows-XP-like one. Mint also adds in multimedia codecs, Flash, Java, DVD playback support and other common proprietary additions as standard for a smoother experience.

It also increasingly diverges from Ubuntu's choice of components, for instance retaining the Pidgin chat client that Ubuntu replaced with Empathy as of 9.10. Interestingly, the latest Ubuntu has movied to Mint's preferred Mozilla Thunderbird as its email client, rather than the Outlook-like Evolution.

But of course, Mint too faces moving on from GNOME 2. Mint 13, which should be out this November, will be based on a customised version of GNOME 3.2, but not Fallback Mode. As its maintainer, Clem Lefebvre, says:

"Gnome Fallback Mode is basically an adaptation of gnome-panel, which looks like Gnome 2 but is based on GTK3 and is incompatible with Bonobo and panel applets.

"So the first thing to consider is this: Panel applets need a rewrite to work in Gnome Fallback Mode. MintMenu, for instance, works in Gnome 2, but it doesn’t work in Gnome Fallback or in Gnome Shell. We can make it work in Gnome Fallback and we can make it work in Gnome Shell, but we then need a rewrite.

"The second thing to consider is that Gnome Fallback isn’t here to stay. The Gnome devs don’t want it there and people who like Gnome 2 don’t like it anyway. Eventually you’ll see Gnome Shell gain compatibility with less powerful graphics card and Shell will be the only way to run Gnome 3. It’s not a bad thing, since Gnome Fallback Mode, from a usability point of view, really isn’t an interesting desktop. So going forward, we’ve got Gnome3/GTK3 being actively developed and improved, we’ve got Gnome2/GTK still there for us to use but not gaining new features, and we’ve got something called Gnome Fallback Mode which is just that, a 2D fallback mode, and which is going to disappear."

The issues facing Mint are a microcosm of those facing Ubuntu in general. Even if it wasn't Ubuntu's fault that GNOME 2 is dead and gone, it was Ubuntu's problem – and that of every other GNOME-based distro. Everyone else seems to be just going with GNOME 3 and hoping that, like KDE 4 did, it overcomes its initial teething troubles.

The future for Ubuntu has never looked less certain. Although the simple, colourful Unity desktop appeals to novice Linux users, it's alienating existing users. Although Shuttleworth himself says that the Unity shell is perfectly suitable for power users, many are unhappy at having to relearn a new desktop when they were happy with the old one. Even if they desert to remixes such Xubuntu, these depend for their existence on their upstream distribution – Ubuntu itself. Less-technical users might find Mint inviting, while the more adept could go to Debian, which offers a wealth of alternative desktops. Indeed, Mint itself has a still-experimental version based directly off Debian, which bears the warning: "Debian is a less user-friendly/desktop-ready base than Ubuntu. Expect some rough edges."

Ubuntu is gambling that Unity will attract floods of new Linux users in such numbers as to outweigh those abandoning it for its spin-offs and rivals. If it's correct, then Ubuntu will continue its rise to near-total dominance of the Linux desktop. But if it's wrong, it will leave the Linux world more fragmented than ever. ®