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Ubuntu in transition: what’s in store for the popular Linux distro?

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It’s strange – even six months after founder and returning CEO of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, announced that the Unity project was dead – to hear Unity 8 described as a “bad investment” by a Canonical employee.

Will Cooke, desktop manager at Canonical, seemed quite comfortable with the new narrative when we spoke to him on release day, although he preferred to use the term ‘parked’ in relation to Unity 8 rather than closed, which would appear to open the possibility of Unity 8 being reversed out of its ‘parking bay’ in the future.

His initial comment on Mir was quite open-ended as well: “Mir still exists, the display server still exists and is in development and that’s especially interesting to IoT device manufacturers, but for the time-being we’re using Wayland on the desktop now.”

However, given the widespread support for Wayland now, and the Ubuntu desktop team’s own support of Wayland, it seems unlikely that Mir will become the default display server on Ubuntu’s desktop distro. Whatever you think of Gnome 3 returning as the default desktop, Ubuntu 17.10 is a defining fork in the road for the distribution that’s used by millions of Linux users, so for this interview we were mostly concerned with the transition.

Question: Can you tell us how the run-up to 17.10 has gone?

Will Cooke: We decided that Gnome Shell was the right toolkit for our users. We’ve used Unity 7 for six or seven years and all the core set of applications were built around the Gnome desktop, so going to Gnome made the most sense. The transition path between Unity 7 and Gnome on the desktop was hopefully going to be fairly straightforward, quite smooth and it’s turned out to be that way. So now we’ve got the latest Gnome desktop running on Ubuntu.

We’ve put our stamp on it to make sure the users that have been using Unity 7 for the last six or seven years don’t suddenly upgrade one day and find that the desktop that they are used to using, in the way that they have been using it, indeed all of the examples and the screenshots on the internet, are still relevant to the new desktop.

So we’ve added a couple of extensions in there to add the launcher back and a few features that we felt were missing from the desktop that were there in Unity and not in Gnome. [...] All that work was done with the blessing of the Gnome community and with the blessing and support of those extension developers. Any new features we’ve added there or bug fixes, have been done upstream rather than hosting it ourselves and keeping it for Ubuntu only.

The plan is that when you upgrade to 17.10 you’ll see something familiar and something that you feel at home with. Some of the user interactions are a bit different, but we don’t think they are so different that people are going to struggle with Gnome Shell and the initial results say, yes, that is the case, so we’re very pleased that people are able to get it working and use it and don’t feel they have to overcome or learn a new way of working.

Q: You mentioned session-override. Could you explain that for our readers?

WC: All the things that we’ve changed to make it Ubuntu are completely temporary. When you log in, they are applied and when you log out, they are gone. Your settings will continue to be your settings, but all of the tweaks that we make are applied at session time, so there’s no patches to Gnome, or source code, to make stuff work the way that we want it to work. It’s just upstream Gnome with a few tweaks to it. There’s no Ubuntu secret sauce in there: anybody could recreate what we’ve done by taking upstream Gnome code, compiling it and applying our settings.

Will Cooke, desktop manager at Canonical

Q: How was GUADEC in Manchester for you and the team this year?

WC: It was great. We had quite a strong showing there. I think we had six or seven people there. People from Europe and the US and even New Zealand. We sent a good team of people there who have worked with Gnome in the past and have been active members of the Gnome community for a long time, so we know a lot of the guys there and they know us and so we went along without any preconceived ideas about what we were going to do – no real agenda.

We just wanted to go and speak to them and get some ideas from them, hear their input on the way we wanted to do things and what our ultimate goal was and they were extremely welcoming to us.

We had some good conversations during the conference itself and afterwards there’s the unconference for the hacking sessions where people get together and do some code and we stayed for all of that as well. We had plenty of discussions in the hallways and some of the sessions, to talk about the way we wanted to do things, and that’s what led us to be able to ship the Ubuntu-specific code, the Ubuntu session, as a session override.

Rather than having to patch Gnome, we could implement our own stuff: take vanilla Gnome and add our stamp to it without having to patch lots and lots of pieces of software. That was a direct outcome from GUADEC and it worked really well for all of us […].

Q: Was Tim Lunn, Ubuntu Gnome technical lead, walking around with a cheesy grin on his face?

WC: [Laughs] Yeah, he was there. There was some confusion about whether or not Tim worked for Canonical or not, so it was good that we were there to explain the situation. He’s an active member of Ubuntu Gnome and has been for a long time and there was confusion about what was going to happen to the Ubuntu Gnome project – was it going to continue? Was it going to be killed off? Who was working for who now?

And so we were able to explain that Ubuntu Gnome and Ubuntu are now effectively the same project and people working on Ubuntu Gnome would continue to work on the things they were passionate about. It just happens that the fruits of their labour would now be in front of millions and millions of users, so it’s worked well.

Q: Have there been many challenges moving to Wayland from Mir?

WC: Not challenges necessarily. There’s still work to do to get it stable and we’re contributing to that upstream as well. One of the main Wayland developers is out in Taiwan and we went out to meet with him for a week and work on HiDPi fixes and fractional scaling in the shells so you can scale it up by 0.5%, rather than 1% each time.

That gives much more of an ability to work better on various display sizes that support HiDPi, whereas before they were on or off. Now it’s much more fluid and so we started that relationship with Wayland developers and that’s gone really well [...]. We’ve got patches contributed upstream and they’ve helped us to fix a few bugs.

We found a bug yesterday which affected AMD Radeon users. We found out about it at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the day before release and they had to fix really quickly [...]. There’s still work to do to make it better and we’ll do that this cycle.

Q: Is there a transition in terms of software compatibility?

WC: Most of the applications we’re using are all using Gnome GTK toolkit and, of course, that has supported Wayland for a long time. That solves a lot of the problems and for everything else there’s the Xorg. The Xorg stack is still compatible with the majority of applications that are out there. There are a few that don’t work perfectly; a few we’ve had to patch, but on the whole everything is compatible for our core applications, at least.

Q: There’s a belief that moving to the Gnome Shell makes the Ubuntu desktop OS project more manageable. Is that your experience? How big is the desktop team now at Canonical?

WC: Yes, ultimately there’s a much bigger community around Gnome Shell than there ever was around Unity. More people to help on that project overall is a good thing, so I think it’s fine and will be fine. For pure desktop we’ve got 17 people. Still a very sizeable team and we’re mostly Gnome developers now. There are still some Qt and KDE people on staff, but on the desktop we are now primarily a Gnome-focused team and we have been for a long time. We’ve got that depth of knowledge of the entire Gnome stack, which is making things a lot easier.

Q: Leading on from that, what Gnome technologies are you excited about and keen to collaborate on?

WC: Wayland is definitely the future and I think by us testing it front and centre, publicly standing by Wayland and wanting to move it forward. I hope we’ll get that critical mass of adoption which means the development moves forward that much quicker because we’ve got millions and millions of people testing it now on their everyday machines.

Wayland will be the key thing we’ll be contributing to and there’s general usability, tool improvement and stability fixes. Gnome’s pretty stable, but we spot a lot of bugs hidden away in dark corners, so I think just improving the Gnome toolkit and the speed and reliability of it is what I’m excited about this cycle; as it’s an lTS [referring to 18.04], you want everything to be absolutely rock solid. 

Q: It’s always nice to talk about the next release, but how many of the missing default experiences (e.g. lenses and scopes, HUD, global menu, Alt+Tab behaviour) do you think you will want to include for 18.04 LTS, or is it more a question of users diving into Gnome extensions from now on?

WC: We still want to maintain being easily identifiable as Ubuntu. We have a particular style and set of ideas about how we think things should work and our users tell us the way they want to work. I don’t think there will be much friction there. I think the way that we’re setting up the desktop to allow people to install default Gnome or Ubuntu’s version means that everybody can get on board and use it relatively easily.

I don’t think we’re going to go to a default Gnome experience any time soon. We’ve set the bar now: this is what to expect; we will have a launcher, you will have other bits to tweak, but ultimately the Gnome design is going to shine through our changes. We’re not going to try to hide it all away. We want people to get the best of both.

Ubuntu 17.10’s main achievement is managing to avoid a jarring experience for Unity users while developing an Ubuntu session that didn’t require patching the Gnome Shell 

Q: What’s your hot tip when it comes to Gnome extensions? Have you got a favourite?

WC: Well, Dash to Dock is the one that I find the most useful. Having that launcher there and having that quick access to all the applications is the thing that makes my workflow so much smoother. I don’t know whether that’s because I’ve been using Unity for so long and I’m stuck in my ways or if it’s an easier way to get at the things I need to get at. I think it’s probably a bit of both, to be fair.

Q: With Ubuntu flipping back to GTK+, what’s Ubuntu’s position on Qt now?

WC: We’re still fully supportive of the Qt project. We have a good relationship with the KDE guys. They have just announced that their preferred packaging will be snap and they have a whole load of snap builds [...]. I think we’re still a member of the advisory board and we see a lot of Qt in the IoT area, it’s a bit more standard than Gnome in ioT – things like in-car entertainment and those kind of things. It’s still definitely the predominant technology.

Q: How do you see the Ubuntu desktop OS changing over the next five years?

WC: We’re not going to see a sudden flurry of people adopting Ubuntu or Linux on their desktop. What’s interesting is the speed in which services are moving entirely online via a web browser and the way that things are going, the concept of making applications is becoming less and less important and everything you can do, you can do through a web browser. At which point why do you need to run Windows, for example, if you’re literally using it to run a browser?

At that point, Ubuntu and Linux general becomes a much more attractive and viable operating system of choice for the vast majority of people, I think. If what they are doing is sitting down on an evening and getting a laptop out and going on the web and learning stuff [...] and chatting with people [...] then why pay money for an operating system when you could get one for free, but also have something that is more secure and reliable?

Q: Given the focus on profitability at Canonical, does it concern you that the desktop OS doesn’t make any cash for the firm? Or is that a misconception?

WC: Sure, so we see Dell shipping laptops pre-installed and we see other OEMS shipping Ubuntu preinstalled on their machines. The work that we do on the desktop is sometimes directly applicable to the server and the more people that are running server in their cloud, the more chance they are going to want to run it on their laptop because they can test whatever it is they are going to deploy to the cloud. They can test with the exact same software, on their laptop on the train, for example, before they get to work as they would do in the cloud.

So Ubuntu desktop is popular, particularly with the likes of Dell. It generates revenue and using the same platform for your day-to-day development and testing as you do in your deployed environment is a very compelling story to developers.

Q: What are you particularly proud of in this release?

WC: It’s a bit low-level, but what we’re proud of is the fact that all the customisations that we’ve done on the desktop do not impair the ability to run a vanilla Gnome desktop session on there. We haven’t said it’s the Ubuntu desktop or nothing [...]. None of our settings and extensions and that kind of thing affects that session at all. If you want a very pure upstream experience, we’ve made that very easy to get.

I think that’s good for us to show that we’re not trying to block Gnome’s design decisions out of Ubuntu at all. They are there. We have a slightly different view, but the two can co-exist perfectly. I think that’s a good metaphor for our relationship.

To coincide with the release of 17.10, Canonical has opened a new community hub which, Will Cooke says, is a way to make it easier for people to engage with Ubuntu: “We’ve got loads of different places for people to get involved with forums, ask Ubuntu and launchpad and all the subreddits, but what we wanted to do was put something front and centre that people know is the place to start.”

The hope is that its more contemporary design will make it easier for people to get involved in projects and find other folks interested in working on similar things.

Ubuntu has a stylish new community hub to go with its 17.10 release

Once the hub becomes established, Cooke says, they are planning various community events: “For instance, we want to do a community-driven theme for 18.04. Our own theme will be the default, but we’d like to also ship a community-derived theme and we’ve got our design team ready to offer consultancy and assistance to the team we hope will form around the new theme via the hub.” At the time of writing, the theme was yet to be officially announced.

“We’ll also start finding community champions to help flag bugs we think are relatively easy to fix,” says Cooke, in a rerun of the popular 100 cuts initiative that focused on minor bugs that the community could help to fix.

Canonical will help people get on board, explaining how to run the project in launchpad, where to upload their code and get those patches in: “We’ll be upstreaming as many patches as we can,” says Cooke. “It’s in our interests to have all these fixes upstream in the product rather than trying to maintain hundreds of patches and then every time a new version comes out we have to port those patches and make sure they still work. That’s hard, complicated and tricky work.”

(This interview was first published in issue 185 of Linux User & Developer).

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