Ubuntu Linux spent the last few months of 2010 dropping bombshells on the Linux world. Founder Mark Shuttleworth is clearly intent on shaking the foundations of his popular Linux distro and pushing it, and Linux at large, in new directions.
Shuttleworth is fast becoming the Steve Jobs of Linux - one man, one vision, one desktop. Like Jobs, Shuttleworth is a polarizing figure, but one thing is clear: Shuttleworth is bringing his vision of the future to Ubuntu whether the world wants it or not.
Ubuntu has long focused on not just making Linux work, but on making it look good. The Ubuntu desktop is already one of the most polished and easy-to-use versions of Linux available. But in 2010, Shuttleworth began turning his back on that desktop and started plans to pursue an even more radical change - the Unity desktop.
The Unity desktop began life in the netbook remix of Ubuntu 10.10, offering a lightweight alternative to the GNOME desktop. Unity was originally designed for netbooks, where small screens and underpowered processors make GNOME cumbersome and slow. Unity is still rough around the edges, but Ubuntu is clearly smitten - so much so that Unity will be the default for the desktop version of Ubuntu from here on out.
Speaking at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in October, Shuttleworth described the switch from GNOME to Unity as the "most significant change ever" for Ubuntu. That's not hyperbole in this case. Abandoning GNOME is no small thing, but with a very single-minded, Apple-like focus, Ubuntu, and Shuttleworth, appear undaunted.
Indeed, while Unity is currently available only in the alpha releases of Ubuntu 11.04, it already has certain Apple-like aspects, such as a left-hand application launcher that quite simply can't be moved (even Apple will let you put the "dock" where you like). Unity also moves application menus out of the window and into the global menu bar, a la OS X (Apple has used this feature since it first launched in 1984).
Fitt's law and other established design patterns are on Ubuntu's side in these changes, but it's tough to ignore the underlying message: Ubuntu has a vision and you're going to get it whether you want it or not.
It's an approach that goes against what many think of as the core principles of Linux. It also sounds a lot like a certain turtleneck-clad, design obsessive in Cupertino, CA.
Of course Shuttleworth is no Steve Jobs - both in the good sense and the bad - and Ubuntu is still an open source distro. For those who want to stick with the existing GNOME desktop, or even try GNOME 3.0, rest assured it will be possible. But you will be part of the past.
It's hard to view these changes without starting to see that Shuttleworth's grand vision isn't Unity on the desktop, it's to abandon the desktop altogether.
Just as some Apple fans fear that iOS will one day replace OS X, Ubuntu fans are rightly worrying that Ubuntu won't be focusing on desktop forever. It's no accident that the innovation in Unity comes from the netbook remix. But netbooks are simply a stepping stone. What Ubuntu seems to aiming for is a unified UI across devices - mobile, tablets, netbooks, laptop and yes, the good old desktop dinosaur.
When viewed in this light, Unity makes more sense. It doesn't have the overhead of supporting legacy devices. It looks and functions well on smaller screens. It isn't tied to the increasingly fragmented GNOME project. It's Shuttleworth's baby that he can guide to where he sees fit.
In fact, Unity appears compelling enough that even Ubuntu competitor Fedora is hoping to support it in future releases.
Unity isn't the only earth-shattering change coming for Ubuntu fans. Shuttleworth plans to eventually migrate away from the venerable X Window System. In its place Ubuntu will use the Wayland display system. The change to Wayland is an even greater transition than the move to Unity and won't happen next year, but again the message is clear: this not your father's Linux. Nor, for that matter, is it the Linux you've known.
Like Unity, Wayland is lighter and more easily extensible. That means it can run on less powerful processors and graphics cards and be adapted to any special hardware that might be on them. One of Wayland's key features again points to mobile and tablet devices - extensive multitouch capabilities.
Don't expect Unity and Wayland to be the last of what looks to be a year of massive overhaul for Ubuntu. Shuttleworth seems to have a clear vision in mind for Ubuntu's future. As with Apple, some will love to come along for the ride, others will scoff, but one thing is for sure - the future of Ubuntu will not be boring. ®