Canonical Ends Ubuntu Unity Linux Desktop in Favor of GNOME

NEWS ANALYSIS: After six years of pitching the dream of a converged Linux desktop experience that crosses desktop, mobile, server and cloud, Canonical pulls the plug.

Ubuntu Linux

The dream of a converged Ubuntu Linux desktop user interface environment is no more.

For the last six years, Canonical, the lead commercial sponsor of the Ubuntu Linux distribution has been pitching a convergence vision that included desktop, server, cloud and mobile footprints. The cornerstone of that convergence dream was the Unity desktop environment, which when it first appeared in 2010, was adored by some and hated by others.

Unity actually was originally tasked with being a desktop interface for netbooks, small and light notebook computers that that accessed most of their resources from the Internet. In October 2010, Mark Shuttleworth, the leader of Ubuntu and Canonical announced that Unity would become the default desktop interface for Ubuntu Linux starting with the 11.04 release. I have had many conversations with Shuttleworth over the years and in every single one since October 2010, we have spoken about Unity.

In the most recent conversation I had with Shuttleworth (watch the video here), we spoke about the upcoming Ubuntu 17.04 release, which is scheduled to debut in a few short weeks. At the time of the conversation, Unity was still very much alive and one of Shuttleworth's goals was the continued development of Unity and the convergence dream.

That dream today is (mostly) dead.

"I'm writing to let you know that we will end our investment in Unity8, the phone and convergence shell," Shuttleworth wrote in a blog post today. "We will shift our default Ubuntu desktop back to GNOME for Ubuntu 18.04 LTS."

No, I did not see that coming. Certainly, it has taken a while for Unity to mature and the convergence dream hasn't really quite materialized, but it's a dream that Shuttleworth, and many within his organization, were very passionate about. The commercial reality though is what has driven Shuttleworth's decision.

While Ubuntu is an open-source effort, Canonical is not a charity and it needs to make money.

For Canonical, revenue has been coming in from its cloud efforts, where the company was an early advocate of OpenStack and has reaped many financial rewards as a result. Canonical has also been very active in the container space, building the LXD hypervisor for containers as well as backing the Kubernetes project. The Ubuntu Core effort, with its Snappy packaging system, is making inroads in the emerging world that is the Internet of Things (IoT). 

The practical reality is that neither the cloud, nor containers, nor IoT need Unity. All of those systems run just fine from the command line and for those that need or want a desktop environment, the open-source GNOME desktop environment is more than sufficient.

While the dream of Unity was quite literally to bring 'unity' to multiple form factors, it's a dream that didn't catch on much, if at all, beyond Canonical. It's unfortunate, but it's also reality and rather than chasing a unicorn, Shuttleworth is now quite literally putting his resources where the money is.

On a positive note, the GNOME desktop environment could well be the big winner here, as Canonical will re-focus on that desktop, no doubt re-tasking resources that were previously on Unity. With Canonical's focus on elegance and usability, it will be interesting to see how much will be contributed upstream to improve GNOME moving forward.

Finally, though Canonical is no longer going to be investing resources in Unity, as open-source software, I have no doubt that here will be individuals and perhaps even other companies that will want to invest and advance Unity, though none will ever have the passion that Shuttleworth initially inspired in the effort.

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner

Sean Michael Kerner is an Internet consultant, strategist, and contributor to several leading IT business web sites.