Ubuntu is the most widely used GNU/Linux based operating system in the world. It is evolving from a server/desktop OS to one that will run the same codebase across devices such as TVs, desktops, tablets and smartphones.
To better understand this transition and get an idea what Ubuntu would look like in future I spoke with Will Cooke, Ubuntu Desktop Engineering Manager.
Codebase of Ubuntu, Unity
Unity 8 is at the heart of Ubuntu’s convergence story and that’s where the company and the community are investing the majority of their resources.
Canonical is offering installable ISO images of Unity 8-based desktop, which they call “Ubuntu Desktop Next”. When you install the daily images you see the typical tablet or phone interface. That worries users.
There is no need to worry though: A great deal of work is happening at a deeper level that may not have yet surfaced. It will surface eventually, however. Cooke clarifies: “We are trying to make it clear that Unity 8 desktop will look like the traditional desktop and will behave like a normal desktop. We are very aware that our users expect a normal desktop there.”
Unity 8 will offer the traditional desktop interface when it detects a desktop. The same OS will switch to a touch-based interface on touch-based devices such as tablets and smartphones.
Mir is docking with GTK
Unity 8 is tightly coupled with Mir, the display server Canonical is building. A lot of engineering work is going on to make the GTK (GIMP Toolkit) back end work with Mir. This will enable traditional desktop applications like Gedit to run on Mir.
One of the challenges the Ubuntu teams are facing is windowing. A traditional desktop is able to have multiple windows open, while a smartphone or tablet runs one app at a time in full screen mode. The problem is that the GTK application’s toolbar is its own window so the Ubuntu desktop team has to consider such user cases for Unity 8 and Mir.
Cooke expects that we will see Gnome apps running smoothly on Desktop Next before Ubuntu 15.04.
Security in Unity
Unity 8 is going to change security on Linux forever. Currently different desktop applications are able to talk to each other and access whatever they want. That makes the spread of malware easy.
Cooke explains that Unity 8 and Mir will offer a much better way to lock down these applications so they can’t talk to each other with wrappers around them. That will make it even more difficult for viruses to spread across a system because they won’t be able to access anything outside the compromised application’s domain.
No more spyware
Richard M Stallman, the founder of FSF (Free Software Foundation) and EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) criticized Canonical when they started offering Amazon-affiliated advertisements for products in Dash.
That is going to change with Unity 8. Michael Hall, a Canonical developer, told me that the ‘Home’ scope that used to pull Amazon ads is gone and ‘Applications’ will become the default scope. The only online activity will be to search for apps available to download from the Click app store in addition to your locally installed apps.
Support by hardware vendors
One of the greater challenges ahead for Ubuntu on Desktop is the support for Mir by graphics vendors.
Players like AMD, Nvidia and Intel have been supporting X11 for a decade or more. Since Wayland is being developed by the same developers as the successor of X.Org Server, there may be the least resistance by hardware vendors to adopt it.
The case of Mir is a bit different as it is considered a competitor of Wayland and had some conflict with Wayland developers initially. I assume that eventually Mir will get support from hardware vendors purely due to its popularity and huge use-base.
After a discussion with Cooke, I came to the conclusion that if graphic vendors such as Intel, Nvidia and AMD want to support Linux in the future they will need to support the libraries used by Mir. Being open source projects, both Mir and Wayland rely on the same libraries so if a vendor provides drivers with support for one display server, they should work on the other. Cooke says, “They [hardware vendors] won’t have to do twice as much work in order to support MIR and Wayland if they support one then we will get the other for free.”
The flip side of the coin is that users may not be able to run Unity on Wayland because Unity 8 is tightly integrated with Mir. But other Ubuntu flavors running desktops like Xfce, Plasma or Gnome will be able to run on Wayland, depending on the work done by the developers of those DEs on Wayland. Both Gnome and KDE have put their weight behind Wayland so users of Ubuntu flavors, such as Gnome Ubuntu, Kubuntu or Xubuntu need not worry.
The picture is getting clearer
The vision for Ubuntu in the near future is very appealing. It will bring the ‘pure’ Linux experience to smartphones and tablets while keeping the desktop relevant.
KDE does have Plasma Active for phones and tablets, but there is no concrete road-map. Major distributions like openSUSE or Fedora are indifferent to smart devices.
There is Firefox OS, but it can’t run traditional desktop apps like Gedit. Sailfish OS by Jolla can, but it has a lot of proprietary components. Not much is happening with Tizen outside of Samsung.
Ubuntu is our greatest hope.
It’s nice to see Canonical is walking the path that not many are capable, or willing, to tread.