Is Canonical’s Unity Move Divisive?

Canonical's announcement that it would not adopt GNOME Shell for Ubuntu 11.04 has not been universally loved. But is Unity divisive or just a typical development decision being given too much weight?

Last week, Mark Shuttleworth announced that the default desktop for Ubuntu 11.04 would be the Canonical-developed Unity desktop. It’s not a fork, but it does raise a number of issues about Canonical’s direction and the future of GNOME.

The issue in a nutshell? GNOME 3.0 is on the horizon and with it comes a new interface called GNOME Shell. Canonical have been on the fence with GNOME Shell, and have been developing a UI called Unity for their netbook remix. At the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) last week, they formally announced what quite a few people suspected — that they’d not be taking up GNOME Shell and would instead use Unity.

First, a disclaimer: I’m a member of the GNOME Project and help with PR for the project on occasion.

As expected, this move ruffled quite a few feathers — but why? Ubuntu is not the first distribution to ship a customized GNOME. Canonical is not the first company to take huge chunks of the GNOME platform, but leave behind the GNOME shell. Moblin, and now MeeGo, based a lot of technology on GNOME but decided to ship their own interface.

The Fedora Project and Red Hat have rejected components of GNOME that require Mono. People did get upset at Novell for its Slab menu (which I still hold is better than the default GNOME menus), which was hardly an Earth-shattering change. What gives?

Perception matters

It’s really all about perception. Red Hat, rightly or wrongly, gets a pass for stripping out Mono because Mono has been painted as “evil” by many parties in the FOSS community — and Red Hat has maintained a strong “good guy” image in the community by dint of its enormous contributions to just about everything Linux-related.

Novell got slammed because, well, it’s Novell. And it was going against the flow with the GNOME community by doing its work away from upstream and in its own little sandbox. This is a guaranteed way to annoy developers. So imagine just how annoyed the GNOME camp is at Unity already, and then to have it announced without any warning at UDS as the default 11.04 desktop when GNOME Shell is just on the cusp of release. I say “without warning,” because as far as I know not a single GNOME contributor outside of Canonical was given the courtesy of knowing about the announcement ahead of time — not even the developers attending UDS. Not exactly a way to assuage any concerns about taking a divergent direction from GNOME.

Ubuntu has, for many years, been the GNOME showcase. The flagship for the GNOME community — Ubuntu far and away enjoys more desktop users than any other distribution, and probably (though reliable stats are hard to come by) as many users as Fedora, openSUSE, Debian, and Linux Mint combined. More on this in a moment.

Copyright assignment and Canonical direction

Another reason that Canonical’s taking heat for this is its copyright assignment policy and the way Unity is being developed. The perception, if not reality, is that GNOME Shell is community developed and Unity is Canonical developed. The reality is that Unity is 100% Canonical right now, and GNOME Shell is heavy on Red Hat contributors but contributions from other individuals or companies.

So Unity, in its present state with current Canonical policies, can never be part of upstream GNOME. Other projects can ship it and use it if it turns out to be successful, but it seems likely that outside contributors will not significantly influence Unity without adhering to Canonical’s vision for the project or forking it.

Don’t call it a fork…

A couple of people have been calling this a fork of GNOME. Earlier this year Canonical addressed the “fork” issue and said “no, we’re not forking GNOME.” And they’re not, they’re diverging.

Canonical are leaving most of the GNOME platform untouched, and simply swapping out the desktop shell and some other bits. But they’re not trying to push their own project based on GNOME code in a different direction. If Unity constitutes a fork, then just about every distro “forks” GNOME. Fedora chooses not to ship Mono and Mono apps by default. Linux Mint and openSUSE have their own custom additions to GNOME, such as custom menus.

Most distributions ship non-GNOME default apps. Who ships with Epiphany by default as the Web browser? Answer: None of the major distros. For good reason. But shipping Firefox isn’t considered a fork, it’s considered good practice to meet user expectations.

Whither GNOME?

What does this mean for GNOME? I think Dave Neary was ahead of the pack when he predicted GNOME becoming a platform rather than strictly a desktop.

GNOME has to evolve. The free desktop is rapidly evolving, and standard desktop applications aren’t the be-all and end-all of computing. People are using Web applications more, for example, and I’m glad to see GNOME taking tentative steps towards Web services. Well, I’m glad to see GNOME taking steps towards Web services — not so much glad that they’re so tentative.

I’d like to see a much larger crop of applications out of GNOME that focus on Free Software, Web-based applications. And I’d love to see the GNOME Project follow in Mozilla’s footsteps in finding ways to make money off those services to fund more and faster development, and not be quite so dependent on companies for their funding.

It’s not just Ubuntu that’s not going to default to GNOME Shell with the release of 3.0. I’ve talked to the project lead for Linux Mint, Clement Lefebvre, and he’s indicated that they’re unlikely to switch to GNOME Shell either. Nor do they plan to switch to Unity, and will probably stay with “classic” GNOME.

Now would be a good time for the GNOME Project to have a good think about its role with regards to its consumers and audience. The move to Unity shows that there’s simply not, ahem, unity on the direction of GNOME going forward. The fact that the largest consumer of GNOME, the Ubuntu community, is not aligned with the development direction of GNOME Shell shows there’s a bit of a disconnect. One hopes that the GNOME Project, including Canonical, will use this event as an opportunity to figure out how to better work together. For that to happen, the GNOME developers need to see Canonical and Ubuntu as a more important part of the community — size of code contributions aside. And Canonical and Ubuntu need to see themselves as part of the GNOME and Linux community, which I am not entirely sure they do.

Community: Which community?

Ubuntu Community Manager Jono Bacon said something interesting on Identi.ca, which I don’t want to over-emphasize, but I think sums up the situation: “Canonical doesn’t really go it’s [sic] own way, it is the way of what is best for the Ubuntu community.” The original comment to which Bacon replied was “People see Canonical going their own way sometimes. Not always part of the community.”

Simply put, Ubuntu community is not the same as the Linux community that many have imagined. Canonical have consistently moved to stand slightly apart from the rest of the Linux community. Its code of conduct was the first to really emphasize being nice to new users, something that set it far apart from other distros in 2004.

The company fostered “LoCo” teams when Linux User Groups already existed in many areas. Launchpad could have been developed in concert with other projects, but the company pursued a singular collaboration tool around its own community.

Ubuntu’s largest contribution, which unfortunately is rarely recognized as such, may be marketing. When I say “marketing,” I don’t mean simply advertising. I mean actually listening to its users and trying to provide what non-technical end users want instead of what developers feel like providing. In an ideal situation, this would work out well for everyone involved — the problem is that marketing and reaching end users is not seen as a valid contribution by many developers who only count contributions in bugs squashed and code generated. There’s also the very real consideration that Canonical needs to acknowledge which is gaining users for Ubuntu does nothing to help companies that fund much Linux development. In other words, both sides need to move a bit more to the middle. Canonical should keep doing what it does well, but it would be nice if they also contributed in more ways that benefit all the contributors and not just Canonical or Ubuntu — at least if they want the respect and cooperation of other development-oriented companies.

Recently, the Ubuntu community pushed for its own StackExchange, which was not entirely well-received by other Linux proponents who would have liked to see a unified Linux forum instead. (Go to LinuxQuestions.org.)

Look at the Ubuntu.com site and you’ll notice — there’s nary a mention of Linux or GNOME on the front page or on several of the “About” pages. The company and project are pursuing branding that doesn’t even mention the Linux heritage of the project. That might be a good strategy, considering the perception of Linux for many users is “something just for geeks, not for me.” But at the same time, some of the rest of the community are a bit — dare I say — jealous of Ubuntu’s success and wishing the project were more effusive with its acknowledgment of its heritage.


My purpose in writing this isn’t to point fingers, but simply to assess how we arrived at a situation where the largest consumer of GNOME is going in a different direction as the GNOME Project. Also, to try to clarify why it’s raising tempers in some circles. Simply put: Ubuntu is the most visible GNOME consumer, and its move away from GNOME Shell is something of a rebuke of the GNOME Project’s direction and development processes. More simply: Ubuntu isn’t being a team player here.

Whether it should be is another question entirely. The rest of the team hasn’t always been particularly receptive to Canonical either. If the powers that be at Canonical think there’s a greater chance of making Linux succeed on the desktop with Unity, then they should pursue that. It’s not Canonical’s responsibility to adopt GNOME lock, stock, and barrel if they don’t feel it’s best for their user base.

On a technical level, I think Canonical are biting off more than they should with this. Having used current iterations of Unity, I don’t think it’s ready for prime time on netbooks — and suspect that six months of development are going to be insufficient to get it ready for standard desktops. If Unity is unready, it’s going to backfire in a large way. I’m also unconvinced that Unity is a great interface for desktop systems. Luckily this is an issue that will be settled with code — when the rubber hits the road, either Unity will or won’t be the right technical choice will be settled when 11.04 ships.

What do you think? I’d be curious to hear how the linuxdlsazine audience feels about the switch, and whether it’s a good or bad move on Canonical’s part.

Comments on "Is Canonical’s Unity Move Divisive?"

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Well, i’ve used unity as well and also consider that it’s not ready for prime time and agree with you that 6 months it’s not going to be enough to polish al the rough edges, personally it think that it would happen here the same thing that happened with compiz and beryl, remember? started as one project forked to another and in the end both merged and voila! today we can enjoy the almighty Compiz fusion, maybe along the way we’ll se canonical and gnome setting a common ground and offering the best of both worlds (unity and gnome shell) to offer the best posible desktop experience. hope so …


I’m not a fan of changing the desktop default on an Ubuntu distribution. My Ubuntu 10.04 with Gnome works well enough to “not get in the way.”

It seems to me that the first priority should be to fix what ever is broken. Complaints with Gnome or Gnome Shell should be about fixing the bugs.

Canonical isn’t going to be able to get Unity working properly on 11.04 in my opinion–not with all the distracting controversy swirling around and the timeline for development so short. The last thing Canonical needs is an unbaked release of 11.04.

Maybe Stormy Peters left Gnome because she didn’t want to participate in a contentious environment and saw what was coming with Canonical’s Unity experiment.


Beginning with the new 11.04 Natty Narwhal edition (and its “new features”), The Ubuntu distro is going down faster than the speed of light…
So pitty !

Bye, bye Canonical…


10.10 may very well be the last version of Ubuntu I will be using. I have been pushing Ubuntu everywhere I go and I am certainly hoping that will not change. Will wait to see what the final 11.04 looks like and decide from there. Canonical don’t make me switch my OS.


I can’t believe that the wizards of Canonical do not know what they are doing. Therefore I am not going to make any rash decisions about this. When 11.04 hits the street I’ll try it. If I find it to be overly buggy, I drop it, wait a few weeks and try it again. In the meantime, I wish them the best of luck. Things never stay the same. We should all be ready to accept change.


So if people don’t like the Unity GUI, they’ll abandon Ubuntu?

Hello! We’re talking GNU/Linux here, are we not? If you don’t like Unity, you install Gnome, KDE, xfce, or whatever and you’re happy. It isn’t Windows, folks. With GNU/Linux you have a menu to choose from.

Did I hit myself on the head and miss something?


This change is not something I’ve been waiting for. The “Classical” Gnome desktop works well (although a few things under the hood could be improved).

I’m not sure what the fuzz is all about though… if the Unity shell is based on Gnome (it is, isn’t it?), then choosing the right shell for the right purpose whether it’s Unity, Gnome Shell 3.0 or Gnome Classical (3.0?) would be a simple matter?


Taking into account the recent event with M$ supporting a company that has or is in the process of buying out Novell that may be the reason for the shift. Speculation at best and I am in no way a Linux expert and know it’s history. If Unity is based off of some code that M$ will eventually own patents for then the theory above would hold not water, however if it doesn’t then Canonical will be avoiding the vampire court sessions that M$ will undoubtedly start up. I certainly wouldn’t want to tie up my funds in defending shoddy patent laws, because the court system is built on one thing, MONEY. If you have more of it you stand to win your case either through funding pet projects or just straight funding or you can play the resource hold out game and deplete your opponents funds and ability to defend themselves. *Cough..cough* getting off topic…
I’ve played with a lot of distro’s of Linux trying to find one that suits my needs, but I still haven’t committed 100% to a certain one. Will be interesting to see what developes.
Good point hhemken you can just install the interface you want, but I think it’s the principle of the matter that gets people. Certainly isn’t like windoze.

I find this interesting.

I have always used KDE – I think that however well it might perform, the GNOME desktop is ugly.

Will be interesting to see how nice the Unity Desktop is.


I like GNOME desktop, but what I don’t like is the two bars on top and bottom. It should be either top or bottom and leave rest of the screen free. Interestingly I try Ubuntu every time they come up with a new release, but 10.10 didn’t go well, and 10.04 is better, at least for me. EasyPeasy came up with a desktop, which I think is quite nice, so I have it on my laptop. Its easy to work with, doesn’t trouble at all. Actually, once we have programs open, we don’t see the desktop, so I believe a desktop should be somewhat unassuming. Talking about Ubuntu, I like all kinds of Ubuntu re-masterings, for they do work really well. I think Canonical has a little problem of the “feeling” of a company…Anyway, let’s wait and see how Unity would work. Don’t say no yet…


I think free software is about freedom, so Canonical should give the opportunity to those users that want to install Ubuntu and choose X11, Gnome,
gdm, etc. Trying to force the user along a path is what other companies do,
and not the FOSS way. Ubuntu may be diferent from other distros, but it’s
based on a lot of code from the community.


Not having used Unity, I can’t say what the experience will be. Having used a couple betas of the Gnome Shell, I can say that for me it does not work. I will give Unity a go in 11.04, if it ends up that it does not work for me, then I will have to find an alternative. Gnome Shell is not an alternative, but there are many others that I can try. With what is available, I’m sure I can find something I like.


I like Gnome, I like Ubuntu, never managed to get along with KDE, tried Unity on my netbook. Unity makes sense for a netbook, but cannot see it on a desktop myself. Not sure what the issues are about Gnome 3, but I think it is a mistake for Canonical to ditch it.

However, I’m presuming that Gnome will still be available, alongside KDE, Unity, XFCE, and so on – so as another commentator has said, I’ll just be installing Gnome and use that. As long as Debian sticks with Gnome, it will be available for Ubuntu, even if they try and exclude it from their channels. If they drop Gnome, I am sure somebody will come up with a distro derived from Ubuntu that incorporates Gnome.

Not sure what the issue people have with Gnome is. If I could install Gnome on top of Windows 7, I’d use it there as well.

Perhaps this is part of a long-term strategy that is becoming visible – to fork Ubuntu from the linux community, and make it into a proprietary proprietary product that will leave its linux roots behind and place itself in a niche not covered by Windows and OS-X.


I wonder if the issues aren’t with GNOME 3, but the use of X or components thereof that may be placed at risk by patent trolls.


Whatever the case, there are obviously some *feelings* regarding the switch to Unity. I think this will be a good thing. I encourage all of you that got your feet wet with Ubuntu to branch out and explore the F/OSS and Linux world. Ubuntu was (and still is) a great place to start learning, but now seems like a great time to dive in, doesn’t it?


I’ve always tried to like Gnome, but I’ve never been able to. It’s too difficult to customize and it’s ugly. The buttons and icons are too large and so are the tabs. And it’s due to stubbornness on the part of Gnome. I hope this whole situation prompts “GNOME Project to have a good think about its role with regards to its consumers and audience”.


For me, I don’t see what the deal is. I use Gnome and KDE and like them both. I haven’t tried Unity yet, but as was earlier stated, if you don’t like it use whichever one you prefer. I have installed Debian, but when I was done it looked just like ubuntu, then I tried Mint, and the same thing. I was going to try Fedora, but I figured when I was done I would just end up with a fedora,Ubuntu hybrid. So I’m just sticking to Ubuntu. The best thing, is that we all have a lot more options than windoz.


Oh yea, and if you think Gnome is ugly, have you tried theming it with Emerald? Makes a big difference.



n. pl. u·ni·ties
1. The state or quality of being one; singleness.

2. One interface, be it your mobile device, or your desktop.

Is this the idea behind Unity? There may be many people who will want this convenience.




Divisive? Have we all forgotten that Free Software is all about choice? I believe in code sharing, when it makes sense to do so, but it also makes sense to try out many different alternatives. First, the same thing does not work best for everyone. Isn’t that why most of us have looked at free software in the first place? Second, we need to look at many alternatives to stumble upon new ideas that propel even more new ideas, improving what we have, replacing what needs changing. Third, sometimes being different is a choice in itself. What’s wrong with that? We fight one another over race, appearance, preferences, and so forth. Sure, I tend to stick with those who think similarly to me, but at other times, I really enjoy others who do things – not the SAME as me, but DIFFERENT than me. It is no threat to my personality, in fact, as I’ve grown older, more and more I appreciate differences. No, I don’t agree with all choices, some are unhealthy choices, mentally, physically, or spiritually. But when it comes to software diversity, as long as it doesn’t cross immoral or unethical boundaries, I find many choices to be healthy and I think that Canonical’s willingness to try things out that are not “sure bets” is a most encouraging thing. Should their ideas fail, I am sure they are wise enough to change directions again. Give them a chance, they have the freedom to make those choices. Whether I personally embrace the methods or not, I will most certainly embrace the right to choose!


I would have like to see a (brief) review of what Unity offers and even a comparison with Gnome. Also, it would have been nice to see a statement on what is Unity’s dev direction/purpose and again with some contrast to Gnome. This would have provided a relevant context for me. I guess I will see Unity when 11.04 hits the road. And if I don’t like it there will be other desktops to use since I carry a few desktop interfaces on my box.

P.S., I left KDE for Gnome … I am anxious to see what Gnome 3 has to offer.


Gnome generally is my Desktop Manager of choice (although I do like KDE as well). However I cannot stand the Gnome panels. First job after installing Linux-Mint/Ubuntu is to install the extremely well designed “Avant Window Manager”. This has most of the power of the Windows 7 Superbar and is not too “docky”!!
Otherwise Gnome appears to be perfectly functional. Will probably go with Linux-Mint for my future releases (to avoid Gnome-shell and Unity – unless these actually fix anything I need fixed = unlikely).


If the default gnome goes away in ubuntu, I guess I’ll have to shift myself back to debian/gnome. I agree with most of the posts here, fix the problems, not the UI. KUBuntu is great for those who like KDE, but a different window manager / UI this late in the game? Really? No thanks.


Linux Mint Debian Edition.
Problem solved.


Personally, I prefer debian and usually use gnome or openbox.
Debian is actually a run by a community as opposed a specific company.
I have not tried unity. From my understanding users will be able to choose a gnome environment upon installing ubuntu–it just won’t be the default.
It is interesting to see that as Ubuntu continues to make choices to tailor itself to its target audience a number of ubuntu-based distros are migrating to debian.
Ubuntu is choosing to use gnome source to its advantage which is appropriate given gnome’s licensing. If the gnome team wants to force developers to contribute back then they should maybe change their licensing. Otherwise they need to accept the fact that not everyone will share and share alike.
Canonical is providing more end-user specific coding it seems that the general developers do not have interest in.
It will be interesting to see how all of this pans out. Will ubuntu at least continue to have a platform that maintains compatibility with open standards? If so then an increase in the user base could mean more applications for all of Linux.
Ubuntu may end up being a member of the Linux community in the same way Apple is a member of the BSD community. Will ubuntu be the only distro to make this leap?
Only time will tell.


I’ve always upgraded since about 8.04 (every 6 months).
So I’ve accumulated a fair bit of crud.

I won’t be upgrading from 10.04 -> 11.04 in May or even June etc…
Because it will be broken.

I shall wait until 11.10 or even 12.04 – by which time Canonical will have realised that Unity is a total waste of time.
If not, then a move (full install) to Mint is always possible…

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