Many Ubuntu users will undoubtedly have strong opinions on Canonical's recent proposal to replace the GNOME desktop with Unity in the Ubuntu 11.04 release.  But for the programmers behind GNOME, one of the open-source community's most important projects, the announcement might prove to be even more upsetting.  Jon McCann, lead designer for GNOME Shell, recently shared his thoughts on this topic with us--and he was none too charitable in his comments on Canonical.  Read on for details.

GNOME Shell, of course, is the new desktop interface on which GNOME developers are currently hard at work as the next big step for one of the Linux world's most popular desktop environments.  GNOME Shell introduces a number of innovative interface concepts that, if successful, could truly redefine the way users interact with their operating system.

Unity, meanwhile, is an interface developed by Canonical that borrows many of its ideas from GNOME Shell.  Canonical began work on Unity last spring, and introduced it as the default interface for Ubuntu Netbook Edition in the Ubuntu 10.10 release, which debuted a few weeks ago.

But the big news came last Monday at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Florida, where Mark Shuttleworth suggested that the next Ubuntu release, April 2011's Natty Narwhal, should adopt Unity as the interface for Ubuntu Desktop Edition as well as the netbook version, which would entail major changes for many users--not to mention upstream developers, who might have to make big changes if they want their code to remain consonant with Unity.

Canonical's Leap Off?

Ubuntu developer Jono Bacon was quick to point out that Unity will still depend heavily on GNOME's software stack, even if the interface itself break away from GNOME.  That may be true, but GNOME developer Jon McCann nonetheless views this move as a fundamental break between Ubuntu and GNOME.

Not that McCann was surprised.  "Canonical has been pulling away from the GNOME project for about two years," he declared.  "So, this was inevitable.  I suspect that the timing probably has a lot to do with Mark's jealousy of the recent OS X Tiger announcement."

Nor did McCann question the validity of Canonical's decision.  The organization has been working "to differentiate and become a profitable company" for some time now, he said, and the break with GNOME seems to fit into that equation.

But McCann is doubtful that Canonical's new strategy will pay off for the company.  Questioning the feasibility of getting Unity ready for Ubuntu Desktop Edition by April, McCann noted that Unity's principal designer just left Canonical, and that it will be difficult for the company to forge a completely independent path after having relied centrally on upstream contributions for most of its existence.  "When you have been standing on the shoulders of giants for so long it is a bold move to leap off and hope you can fly on your own," McCann asserted.

Despite his lack of optimism for Canonical's strategy, however, McCann views the break as a change that can make GNOME stronger by lessening its dependence on downstream developers.  "We should probably stop relying on distributions to deliver our value anyway.  I think there is a valid comparison to how musicians are starting to realize they don't need to sell their soul to record companies and corporate radio stations to reach their audience."

And insofar as the Unity plans might represent a rift between Ubuntu and GNOME--or, indeed, between Ubuntu and much of the rest of the open-source ecosystem--McCann does not rule out the possibility of a reconciliation in the future, concluding, "I am sure that if they don't succeed we will welcome them back like the prodigal son."

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