Friday, May 10, 2013

Will Ubuntu eventually go BSD?

At some point, I think, Mark Shuttleworth looked back and thought, 'I wish I chose BSD instead of Linux'. Imagine Ubuntu powered by BSD or FreeBSD instead of the Linux kernel. Crazy talk? Speculation? Definitely.
But the thought couldn't help cross my mind when I look back at what Ubuntu have been doing the last year or so. The trend is very clear. They are moving away from Linux and perhaps GNU Open Source.
First was the use of the term 'the Ubuntu kernel' instead of the Linux kernel. You would be hard-pressed to find the word Linux on the Ubuntu website or paraphernalia. I can't fault Ubuntu for maintaining brand prominence. But why at the cost of diminishing the Linux brand. Surely, Ubuntu is not ashamed of it's Linux core. Some people have pointed out that perhaps they want to distance themselves from their Linux heritage. To this, I point out that it is only a heritage when you are generation removed. Like Linux's Unix heritage. Ubuntu is still clearly dependent on Linux. In a way, I do see their point. Perhaps there are almost no Linux references in the website because they really want to prepare us for an Ubuntu without Linux. 
Then there is Unity. Maybe Ubuntu saw what I saw in the debacle of Gnome3. The sense was simply that the Gnome developers betrayed their user community. But instead of offering a safe haven for the majority that didn't agree with where Gnome is headed, Ubuntu saw this as opportunity to differentiate themselves even further. They created another environment, open source but definitely under their control. They were hoping that users will flock to that instead as an upgrade path from Gnome3. In the end, Unity didn't look much different than Gnome3, users faced similar issues and they even share design principles. Ubuntu just applied them to different parts of Ubuntu. And their goal is evidently the same, a touch-friendly, tablet interface. No matter how much the Gnome developers protest and claim otherwise, the proof is just in the result of their work. If fact, when taken from that perspective, both Unity and Gnome3 are really good. Problem is, most users still don't have touch screens. The Gnome developers may want their Star Trek dream to come true, most of us just want to check mail.
The biggest step Ubuntu has taken so far is to move their graphical display technology away from X Windows to something that they themselves developed called Mir. Let's get something clear first. X Windows has a lot of problems. It is very simplistic in nature, mainly because it was designed in the 80s. It even needs a separate program to manage the windows and make them move, maximize and do even the most basic functions. That doesn't even include what we normally expect from a GUI like cut and paste between applications. KDE and Gnome were built to fill the need for a graphical system that does more. But at the core is the fact that X Windows offered cross-platform compatibility. I remember selling linux boxes as replacements to expensive Sun and HP graphical workstations. The X Windows applications still used the powerful CPUs of the servers while the workstation only busied itself with managing the GUI. Ubuntu moving to Mir breaks this compatibility. They had originally planned on using Wayland to replace X. Wayland respected X and offered a way to coexist and interact with X. Mir doesn't seem to care about that. What it also means is that future Ubuntu users can't share their applications with other Linux (or even Unix) distros and vice versa. But that is only good for Ubuntu because it create a lock-in. Ubuntu say it really wants to build a graphical display system that could be used for both desktop and mobile platforms. If it locks in their users and makes applications written for Ubuntu exclusive to them, then what downside is there for them?

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