Canonical drops several Ubuntu-related projects and shelves Unity desktop

In a move that has completely shocked the Linux community, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth has announced that the company is dropping several big projects that they had been working on for close on a decade. This includes projects like Ubuntu Phone, the Mir desktop display server, several convergence projects, and the Unity desktop. Ubuntu’s biggest draw through the years has been their alternative offerings that are completely different to the rest of the market, and it seems that Canonical, in a bid to help end fragmentation of the Linux ecosystem, is stepping things back a bit.

In the blog post titled “Growing Ubuntu for cloud and IoT, rather than phone and convergence”, Shuttleworth notes that the company reassesses the viability of projects at the end of every quarter, and they took the difficult decision to drop several projects related to the Ubuntu desktop and their mobile platform in order to save resources and money.

“I took the view that, if convergence was the future and we could deliver it as free software, that would be widely appreciated both in the free software community and in the technology industry, where there is substantial frustration with the existing, closed, alternatives available to manufacturers. I was wrong on both counts,” said Shuttleworth.

“In the community, our efforts were seen fragmentation not innovation. And industry has not rallied to the possibility, instead taking a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to those form factors, or investing in home-grown platforms. What the Unity8 team has delivered so far is beautiful, usable and solid, but I respect that markets, and community, ultimately decide which products grow and which disappear,” he adds.

This marks a significant turning point for the company again. In 2011, Canonical took the executive decision to switch from the Gnome desktop environment to Unity starting with Ubuntu 11.04, and it’s been there ever since. That switch preceded many others which sought to make Ubuntu a unique offering, whether it was using a different compositor for the desktop, or more recently using different display managers, different portable application packaging, or forking old versions of Gnome to keep application compatibility for applications that relied on those old forks.

Ubuntu is a unique OS, but the way in which this was done led to further fragmentation in the Linux community, and allowed for the rise of other distros like Arch Linux, Solus Project, Elementary OS, and even the resurgence of Fedora. Unity 8, intended to ship with Ubuntu 18.04 and the Mir display server, also looks and acts a lot like the Windows 10 desktop experience. It’s also possible that Shuttleworth saw this, and eventually decided that he didn’t want to try compete directly with Microsoft, or emulate their work.

There’s also the level of integration to be concerned about. Unity 8 was only designed to work with the Mir display server. It is so tightly integrated with Mir, that one project relies deeply on the other’s continued existence. It wouldn’t be possible to port Mir to other non-Ubuntu distros either.

Moving forward, Canonical will concentrate their efforts on projects which target the real growth markets that Ubuntu services, like the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, machine learning, or cloud server infrastructure. Shuttleworth outlines some of these opportunities in his conclusion.

“The choice, ultimately, is to invest in the areas which are contributing to the growth of the company. Those are Ubuntu itself, for desktops, servers and VMs, our cloud infrastructure products (OpenStack and Kubernetes) our cloud operations capabilities (MAAS, LXD, Juju, BootStack), and our IoT story in Snaps and Ubuntu Core.”

How much this affects other related projects remains to be seen. Ubuntu has something called Snaps, which is a packaging method for making portable applications that have no dependencies and require little tinkering to install properly. However, Snaps does the same thing as Flatpak, in the same way that Mir does the same thing as Wayland, and both of those projects have more support across the community than Snaps and Mir do.

As things stand, dropping Unity and Mir allows developers to target one display server and one desktop environment at a minimum for their applications. This is great news for app developers and gamers, and the Gnome team will soon see their desktop environment become the dominant one in the Linux ecosystem.


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