Ubuntu wants to become its own brand

A 'go it alone' approach only works if the result is brilliant

Ubuntu wants to become its own brand

Recently I've found that I have a problem with Ubuntu, but it's not a simple one to explain.

You don't expect a distribution at the top of the popularity charts to risk its user base and its wider community standing by making big changes in a single release, yet this is exactly what Canonical has done with Ubuntu 11.04.

It has opted to replace the standard Gnome desktop with something of its own creation – a desktop shell it calls Unity. Technically Unity is only sitting on top of the same old GTK desktop, but new users won't know this and old users aren't going to find the road to familiarity an easy one.

What's worse, Canonical has done this while the Gnome team has been working on an almost identical technology (Gnome Shell), and both releases have occurred within the same quarter of the same year, despite many years of effort going into both.

The problem I have with this is that neither Gnome Shell nor Unity alone is good enough to warrant a separate project. They both have their own faults and foibles, and will probably take a couple of serious updates to realise some of their potential. Both could have easily benefited from each other's contribution, were the two projects aligned.

A renegade 'go it alone' approach only works if the end result is blindingly brilliant and could never have been achieved by a larger team. If you try Unity and Gnome Shell side by side, you realise that each project has been working on the same wheel, which is a waste of time.

Losing the baggage

I suspect there's a good reason why Canonical has taken this risk, and I don't think it has anything to do with Linux. Nor does it have anything to do with Linux users, or trying to create a distribution to compete with the likes of Fedora and OpenSUSE. I think this is all about new horizons and new opportunities, and to do that, Ubuntu needs to lose some of its Linux baggage.

It seems Ubuntu wants to become its own brand, where its Linux heritage is only secondary to the user experience it offers. And it can only do this if it has complete control of the desktop, where it can make as many changes as it wants without upsetting upstream developers or other projects that rely on the same code. That is what it's done with Unity, and it's not a bad idea in principle.

Ubuntu is already a viable alternative for something like OS X, and both Unity and Gnome Shell take plenty of inspiration from Apple's desktop. OS X requires expensive hardware to run, and Canonical could probably make a good business case for selling an operating system with similar usability goals but without the exclusive hardware requirements.

With Unity, Canonical is attempting to distance itself from Linux and make its product more attractive to OEMs who care little about the inspiration and politics behind free software.

A couple of recent conversations with Canonical, for instance, has revealed that the company wants people to use Ubuntu because of what it calls a superior user experience. But I think it means 'superior to Windows', not other Linux distributions.

Following Android

Canonical isn't interested in whether Unity only further confuses the melee of Gnome 3.0, KDE 4.6 and XFCE 3.8. It's about having control. And there's another company that's done exactly the same thing and, and as a result, made itself the market leader - Google with Android.

Android could be the model for the next generation of Ubuntu releases. Despite it being built on Linux, this fact is never mentioned. Instead, Google has created its own ecosystem for running and installing applications, and for accessing simple desktop functionality, first on phones and now on tablets.

Unity is the first step towards a similar goal for Canonical, and applications will need to be tweaked and repacked to make best use of its features, which won't be transferable to other desktops.

Alongside the new desktop, Ubuntu already has an app store, and Unity makes the installation process as painless as possible. If it can attract small commercial projects to its store, and a few high-profile games, Ubuntu becomes an increasingly attractive one-stop solution for low cost hardware vendors.

As with Android, the Linux component might become an afterthought, and sometimes, even an apology. That's the best way I can think of explaining my problem. Unity might be the first step on a road that takes Ubuntu from the Linux stable that nurtured it, and puts it on a path of independent control.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 309. Read PC Plus on PC, Mac and iPad

Liked this? Then check out Ubuntu 11.04 explored: a new dawn for Linux?

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