Canonical kills Unity, MIR and Ubuntu phones

Ubuntu is going back to Gnome and will adopt Wayland.

Ubuntu winner
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

In a surprising move, Canonical announced that it is pulling the plug on Unity, its in-house shell, and is going back to Gnome.

Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical and Ubuntu wrote about the move in a blog post:

I’m writing to let you know that we will end our investment in Unity8, the phone and convergence shell. We will shift our default Ubuntu desktop back to GNOME for Ubuntu 18.04 LTS.

The company is also withdrawing from its in-house display server Mir and Ubuntu phones, tablets and smart TVs.

What does this mean?

Right move at the right time

Unity, convergence, Mir, SDK were all about only one thing: Canonical's ambitions in the lucrative smartphone, tablet and TV market. Android created an opportunity for companies to offer their operating systems to hardware vendors and create a differentiating product. Google’s open hardware enabled companies like Canonical and Mozilla to load their OSes on it and to put it in the hands of developers and users.

But it didn’t work out as expected. Canonical was not alone in trying to crack the smartphone market. Mozilla and Jolla also tried and failed, as did Microsoft, despite its deep pockets.

The thing is: No one cares about operating systems because no one uses operating systems. People use devices to get work done and it’s the apps and services that get it done. If your platform doesn’t have the applications and services that people need, no one is going to use it. Canonical knew that and tried to make deals with app developers. And they tried wrapping websites as applications the way Mozilla did, but they didn’t offer the same level of integration that native applications provide. Lack of commercial and popular apps left these companies with no chance of competing with iOS and Android.

I am glad to see Canonical moving out of that market. No one needs a phone where you can use the command line to install software.

Canonical is now shifting its focus where it can not only survive but thrive. Canonical was bleeding money into all of these projects that did return any profits. I think Canonical made the right decision.

Win-win situation

What does it mean? It means Canonical is going to offer what made Ubuntu a household name, a desktop loved by everyone (I used to be an Ubuntu user, before Unity happened).

Gnome has matured a lot lately. Despite being a hardcore KDE Plasma fan, I have been using Gnome on my Dell Precision 5520. With Ubuntu's return, Gnome will gain the massive market share that they lost with the arrival of Unity. It also means more users, more feedback, more developers from both side of the aisle — Gnome users improving Ubuntu and Ubuntu users improving Gnome. Gnome is going to get even better, which will make Ubuntu even better.

What about Ubuntu Gnome, the official flavor of Ubuntu? Canonical may hire the developers of the project to work on Ubuntu. They have already hired Martin Wimpress, the maintainer of Ubuntu Mate.

Going back to Gnome also means ditching Mir and adopting Wayland, the successor of the Xorg display server. Canonical was contributing to Wayland before they launched Mir, and now we can expect that Canonical will dedicate developer resources to Wayland.

Wayland is already being shipped with many distributions and I give Canonical credit for that. They pushed the lumbering Xorg community to wake up and start working on Wayland, a project that was frozen in time.

Though Canonical has not mentioned the future of Snap, I wouldn’t be surprised if they adopt Flatpak for desktop and drop Snap. The only area of conflict will be IoT/cloud where Canonical may want a more lean and fast app delivery mechanism, compared to Flatpak that’s essentially targeted at desktop.

The tricky question is whether Flatpak and Canonical are willing to work together and make compromises that benefit both projects and, more importantly, benefit users.

No, Ubuntu desktop is not going away

In the blog post announcing the changes, Shuttleworth emphasized his commitment to "the Ubuntu desktop that millions rely on," saying the company plans to "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."

After looking at Shuttleworth's 'commitment' to phones, Mir and Unity, his "commitment" to the desktop will be taken with a grain of salt. Some community members think Canonical may eventually ditch the Ubuntu desktop, as the company is not monetizing it. I don't see that happening. There are practical and technical reasons that Ubuntu desktop won't go away. Canonical needs Ubuntu desktop as much as Red Hat needs Fedora and SUSE needs openSUSE.

Even if Canonical doesn't made a dime from millions of users running Ubuntu, they do care about these users. In a previous conversation, Mark Shuttleworth told me that desktop is critical to Canonical as people are using it as a development platform. I go to a lot of open source events and I see only two operating systems on stage: macOS and Ubuntu. Even Microsoft presenters were using Ubuntu, along with Windows 10, during Microsoft Connect.

Canonical needs mindshare and Ubuntu gives them that mindshare. In addition, Ubuntu is the heart of Canonical's IoT and cloud business; they need a massive developer and contributor base to continue to use and improve the platform. Ubuntu Desktop allows Canonical to gain access to that massive developer base.

IoT and cloud are the future

Ubuntu is already winning the cloud; it's the dominant operating system in the public cloud. Even Microsoft picked Ubuntu to bring Linux utilities and tools to Windows 10. Canonical already has a lot of investment in the cloud and has a powerful product portfolio for cloud infrastructure.

Cloud and IoT go hand in hand. IoT is the front-end and cloud is the backend. I think IoT is the future of personal computing. A caveat: when I say IoT, I don’t mean smart fridges or smart doorbells, I mean devices like AirPods and mixed reality headsets that will replace ‘desktop’ PCs.

IoT, despite the immense possibilities, is a security nightmare. We have seen that even companies like Samsung are incapable of offering secure IoT devices. It’s about time these companies stop writing their own substandard software and adopt Ubuntu Snappy Core that’s designed to keep these devices updated.

By shedding the weight of Unity, Mir and smartphones, Canonical might be able to tighten its focus on IoT and make some deals with leading IoT vendors.

Trying is winning

It takes some courage to start something ambitious, but it takes real courage to pull the plug on those ambitious projects.

Canonical saw an opportunity in the consumer space and unlike many other players, it was willing to take risks, it was willing to give it a try. In the end, while many may see that Canonical lost these battles, I see them coming out as a winner.

You don't lose by trying something new, you win.

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