The latest Ubuntu Developer Summit has only just begun, but Canonical has already announced objectives for the next Ubuntu release that could drastically alter the look and focus of millions of Linux desktops around the world.  Here are the details, along with some thoughts on how this news affects the rest of the open-source ecosystem.

During his keynote speech yesterday at the Ubuntu Developer Summit--which Canonical organizes biannually, towards the beginning of each Ubuntu development cycle--Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth proposed replacing the Gnome 2.x desktop environment, which has been a staple of Ubuntu and many other Linux distributions for years, with Unity, a new interface developed by Canonical and originally targeted at netbooks.  The change would debut in Ubuntu 11.04, codenamed "Natty Narwhal," which will be released in April 2011.

There was a bit of ambiguity in Shuttleworth's remarks, particularly because he mentioned "new users" in the context of his comments on Unity.  It's not yet clear whether he meant to imply that only new installations of Ubuntu would use the Unity interface, or if existing systems that are upgraded to Ubuntu 11.04 would also see their current desktop environments replaced.

Ubuntu and Gnome

The proposed replacement of the traditional Gnome desktop with Unity is big news, and not just for Ubuntu users.

Most obviously, the change would affect upstream Gnome developers, who have been hard at work on their own radically updated interface for Gnome, called Gnome Shell, for quite some time now.  As was clear the last time we took a look at Gnome Shell back in April, there are a number of questions and strong feelings from users and developers about this initiative.  Ubuntu, however, now stands poised to sidestep that controversy by passing over Gnome Shell in favor of its in-house Gnome interface, in the form of Unity.

As Ubuntu developer Jono Bacon emphasized in a blog post, however, the new plans for Unity do not entail a complete divergence from Gnome.  On the contrary, Ubuntu will remain highly dependent on the stack of Gnome applications, with Unity simply providing a different interface.  In other words, as a slide at the UDS declared, "Unity is a shell for GNOME, even if it isn't GNOME Shell."

Gnome developers might receive some reassurance from Bacon's comments that at least some of their work will remain embedded within the world's most popular desktop Linux distribution.  But it remains to be seen how Ubuntu's plans for Unity might affect development of Gnome Shell going forward, or influence other distributions' interface decisions.


Another upstream project affected by the Unity news is Compiz, the codebase that makes desktop effects in Gnome 2.x possible.  Previously, the future relevance of Compiz had seemed to be in doubt, because Unity, like Gnome Shell, currently uses Mutter as its window manager, rather than Compiz.

As Bacon also announced on his blog, however, Unity will be ported from Mutter to Compiz in time for the 11.04 release.  He cited performance and hardware compatibility as the chief motivations for this change, which makes sense: having been around now for quite a while, Compiz has had more time to work out bugs with different graphics cards and other hardware that will be essential requirements for delivering a quality user experience.

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