Return Home and Unify: My Case for Unity 8

I've used Ubuntu since 2004/2005 and consider myself one of its biggest fans. Ubuntu introduced me to Linux in such a way that it wasn't daunting, it was simple and easy. I was able to accomplish my normal computing tasks, and I was just a freshman in High School - not a seasoned developer or bearded systems administrator. This positive first experience shaped my future in a substantial way, I stuck with Linux and eventually turned it into my career - first as a sysadmin and finally as Community Manager at Ubuntu computer manufacturer System76.

Back when I began using Ubuntu, the desktop environment that shipped with the Linux distribution was GNOME 2. In fact, it was Ubuntu's release cadence, that stuck with that of GNOME, that was what made the Debian derivative so popular. The idea was to make Linux easy, a "Linux for human beings". This was fantastic, but there were still many barriers to entry, and the year that the Linux desktop would usurp the very popular Windows desktop operating system in marketshare never came.

The desktop environment that would come to be known as Unity began on netbooks, a device that, looking back, could be considered a stepping stone to the more portable smartphones and tablets that would follow. The intention of Unity was to make an easy desktop environment to use, and one that would capitalize on the small space available on netbook screens. But Unity would grow into much more.

Unity 7 was a good move at a bad time. Both GNOME 3 and Unity 7 suffered early on when it came to stability and a cohesive experience. They were adopted and dubbed "stable" before they had received any real polish. I remember using both and complaining about a different set of problems whilst jumping between them. But in 2011/2012 I would land primarily on Unity, with a spare box booting into the new hotness (distro-hopping), which kept me up-to-date on how GNOME development was going.

Fast-forward to the announcement of Unity 8, Mir, and the Ubuntu Phone and my excitement was at its peak. "It's all coming together," I thought, "convergence is the future and Canonical/Ubuntu should can bring it to us." Ubuntu was gaining mindshare with techies the world over, and was continuing to gain momentum. The Android and iOS platforms were somewhat mature, but the TV and other devices, that would later be dubbed "IoT", were in a spot where they would need a solid underlying platform.

But the Ubuntu TV project would quickly be abandoned (mistake), and the Ubuntu Touch OS would ship with partners who seemingly weren't interested in the long-term goals of the project. Ultimately, convergence has remained always present but just beyond our grasp. Nearing the end of 2016, it would seem as though Canonical Founder, Mark Shuttleworth's dream was being realized as a half-baked reality.

A pause on innovation in the Unity 7 desktop would be the biggest casualty of the convergence dream. I moved most of my computers to elementary OS, as they offered an experience with interactive notifications and dynamic workspaces. I was watching, hoping to see these features make it into Unity 7. But, alas, they wouldn't come. Conversations with contributors led me to believe that there would be little interest from maintainers in adding these features. Unity 7 was now stable, and all innovation was to be diverted to Unity 8. Which I was concerned might never ship.

Then it started getting interesting. Snaps, the universal packaging standard for applications, began receiving a lot of focus from Canonical developers. The entire marketing apparatus of the company began to push Snaps as the future of distributing applications on Linux. I was skeptical until I started talking with ISVs (Independent software vendors), who seemed genuinely interested in the standard - hoping it would make targeting Linux, as a platform, simpler. On top of the simplicity of having your application self-contained, submitting a Snap to Canonical would result in it being available in the app store. I was excited for what this meant for software availability in Ubuntu (and the wider Linux ecosystem).

Next, I tried out a tablet running the latest version of Ubuntu touch, and the core experience was a good one. I switched between tablet mode and desktop mode (connecting a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard for the latter), and it was an honestly good experience. Reading the New York Times in tablet mode on my couch and then converting to desktop mode to write a blog post was really exciting.

The tablet (from BQ) was running the Click-based Ubuntu Touch image of the OS. At the end of last year it was announced that Ubuntu would switch to completely Snap based, and devices running the Click version would only receive security updates (although there is a Snap based image for the BQ tablet). This was a positive move, but it rendered existing devices in the field obsolete forever on, which is not exactly a reassuring move for hardware vendors. But I could see the direction that the project was going and it was finally clear. I finally felt genuinely engaged and interested again.

Why Unity 8/Ubuntu is the platform we need

Modern, up-to-date applications are important. Whether proprietary or open source, we use these applications every day to complete our work, entertain ourselves, and communicate with others. We need a solid platform that developers can target, that users can navigate, and people behind that effort that care about the desktop (consumer devices) and are willing to invest time and money into its success.

My first piece of advice for Canonical is this, you have a fantastic opportunity to engage fans and potential contributors now. The feeling in the community is not what it once was, there isn't the same energy. And Ubuntu feels more like Canonical these days, rather than "All of us together" making something beautiful. If you bring us back in, we'll help create something amazing. Show us you all that you want to play with us and that you want us to participate.

Another related piece of feedback for Canonical is that your developer portal needs to be updated, it reflects the state of development for the platform circa 15.04. Update the pages and tutorials to reflect the conception of an app to its deployment on the platform. I tried to develop to Ubuntu apps using Qt and felt lost the whole time. "Is this right? Is this still the vision? And why are some of the examples broken?" were my thoughts.

To users, I think that we have a project that is focused on polishing and creating something stable that we can hold up as a solid platform and example of Linux success in the desktop arena. But it needs our help and constant feedback to succeed. This doesn't mean forsaking the projects you love, it means giving Ubuntu the chance to succeed. Showing support when they do something great. I don't see the same dedication to spreading the Linux desktop from the most profitable Linux company in the world (Red Hat). Canonical is still here, playing ball.

Also, finally, just because it's a schtick of mine. Let's make Electron a first class citizen in Unity 8. Let's contribute to make sure it plays nice, and even see if we can push the project to make more options for responsive applications possible, so that they can be used on a tablet and phone as well (yes, I realize Cordova exists). So many applications are being released built on top of Electron, instead of trying to convince them to use other tools, let's go to them!

All-in-all, I'm pledging my support and talents to making Unity 8 successful, and my hope is that others will join me. I think Ubuntu still has a long way to go, but is ultimately still our best bet at a stable and user-friendly platform that serves both professional and casual users.

I will post more on my experiences with Unity 8 as I begin testing Ubuntu 17.04. I will keep those who follow me up-to-date on the challenges and successes of the platform. So stay tuned.

Feedback? Want to tell me I'm wrong to back Unity 8. Hit me up at: [email protected] Want to see what else I'm up to? Follow me on Twitter or my new Facebook page.

Ryan Sipes

Ryan Sipes

Community builder, organizer, technologist, open source enthusiast, and all-around rabble rouser. Community Manager for Thunderbird.

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