The view from the top of IT with TechWorld Editor Rodney Gedda
Last week I commented on Ubuntu’s recent decisions to move its default user interface away from GNOME and X to Unity on Wayland.
The move sparked a mixed response within the Linux community and I labelled it as being “risky” for reasons I will elaborate on here.
Firstly, to attempt to explain the “why” behind such a move, I can’t go past the reason that Ubuntu is shifting its focus from the desktop to the mobile device, be it a phone or tablet PC.
The fact that Shuttleworth mentioned Android in the same blog as the move to Wayland indicates he wants Ubuntu to head in that direction.
Android is creeping up from phones to tablets (as expected), but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a threat to Ubuntu on the desktop any time soon.
What Linux distributors need to remain wary of is all these new fancy operating systems popping up on mobile devices are still generally unsuitable for desktop computers.
Thanks to Windows, people are used to a large degree of flexibility and application support on the desktop.
The same way shrinking a desktop environment to fit on a mobile device doesn’t work, scaling up a mobile device environment to a desktop isn’t a sure bet.
Apple did scale up its iPod Touch/iPhone interface for the iPad, but I think it would be too restrictive on a desktop. It would be like using a glorified information kiosk.
So for Ubuntu to concentrate on netbooks, tablets and other mobile devices with Unity and Wayland might be a positive step forward for the distribution – there’s no doubting the market opportunity – but the risk lies in losing its reputation on the desktop.
Is computer use changing? Of course it is. People spend more of their computing time with a mobile device today than a desktop, but that doesn’t mean the desktop will suddenly become irrelevant, or even marginalised.
The same way the rise of commodity notebooks and netbooks did not do away with desktops, mobile phones and tablets won’t either.
Secondly, let’s not forget Ubuntu still has to make its new interface work well enough for people to have an acceptable user experience.
I’ve used Ubuntu since its inception and I’ll be the first person to say it has done a great job in simplifying the Linux user experience, but it’s still not perfect.
There are a number of Ubuntu-based distributions that take the “final” Ubuntu releases and do more software packaging and integration work to improve the user experience.
And one of the most annoying things about Ubuntu is its aggressive six-month release cycle often results in “regressions”, or working functionality that gets broken after an upgrade.
I’m not just talking about whether an application will be “compatible” with the new Ubuntu stack, I’m talking about whether all the pieces will fit together.
Shuttleworth seems to be more confident this will be achieved than many other Ubuntu users and observers.
While Ubuntu might be being “innovative” it still has to get on top of application integration as well.
I wish Ubuntu every success with its new direction and hope it finds itself running on many more mobile devices than desktops in the near future.
But my greater wish is for a desktop Linux distribution that’s obsessed with providing an integrated application stack and seamless user experience in the long run.
Until that happens Windows and Mac OS X will continue to dominate the desktop.