Canonical's open source Unity desktop has faced its share of user wrath. But in a sign that the controversial interface may finally have gained a following, it has now jumped the fence into the Fedora world, with experimental RPM packages available for Fedora 17. And that could mean big changes for the open source channel. Here's why.

In its early days, Unity -- which is developed by Canonical -- left a lot to be desired. When it became the default user interface for Ubuntu in April 2011, its feature set remained minimal, it lacked any serious customizability and even simple stability was not always a sure thing.

Fast-forward to the present, however, and Unity has come a long way. The scathing reviews and bitter user feedback of yesteryear have given way to acceptance and even enthusiasm for the interface. That's a good thing for Canonical, which has firmly bound Ubuntu's future to Unity and all but burned its bridges with the third-party projects behind alternative desktops, such as GNOME.

To Fedora and Beyond

In the surest indication yet that Unity might stand to become massively popular after all, the GNOME:Ayatana project, in a move independent of Canonical, has released a repository of RPM packages for Unity designed to run on Fedora 17.

There are some catches. For one, the Fedora version of Unity currently relies on some relatively dirty hacking (discussed here) that makes its integration within Fedora's official repositories in the near future doubtful. Meanwhile, some Unity features such as autohide are not yet working correctly on Fedora, according to comments from a GNOME:Ayatana developer.

Nonetheless, these hitches aren't stopping the same team of developers from moving forward with plans to port Unity to Mandriva and openSUSE. And that could be a big deal, since both of those Linux distributions -- like Fedora -- differ from Ubuntu in important technical ways and are sponsored by companies in competition with Canonical. In other words, the expansion of Unity's presence into these new spheres means it has now grown beyond the boundaries of Canonical's home turf, and stands to assume more of a life of its own out in the wilds of the open source ecosystem.

At least, that's theoretically what could happen. For now, it's clear that Canonical retains control of Unity's development and direction. The dirty hacks required to make Unity run on Fedora -- which themselves reflect just how isolated Ubuntu has grown from the rest of the Linux world since ditching GNOME for Unity -- are an indicator that, for simple technical reasons, Unity is likely to remain closely tied to Ubuntu for a while to come. And it's also far from clear that many Fedora, Mandriva and openSUSE users actually want to run Unity.

Yet Unity's appearance in an unofficial Fedora repository is not to be taken lightly. It has now broken out of the Ubuntu mold, even if only slightly, and it could go anywhere from here.