Has Ubuntu Reached the End Of the Line?

I admit it. I'm impressed. I might have written a wishy-washy review of the beta of Ubuntu 9.04, but now I've had a chance to play with the final release, I like what I'm seeing. I like it a lot. Well done, Ubuntu guys!

The changes are subtle but impressive. The dramatic improvement in boot speeds is a lot more useful than it might first sound. It's no longer a matter of suspending to disk at the end of the day for me and my computers. Now I just shutdown and reboot. Hibernating is too time-consuming nowadays!

There can be no doubt that the Ubuntu guys have finally caught up with Windows and Mac OS X (and, after all, this was the whole point back in the beginning).

Crossing the line

However, I'd argue that Ubuntu actually crossed the finish line this time last year, when 8.04 was released. Sure, there were a few bad decisions rolled out as part of that release, including a sound subsystem that was essentially unfinished. But what you got with 8.04 was a genuine swap-in replacement for Windows or Mac OS X. It really was Linux for the ordinary human. No hype.

The new Network Manager in 8.10 brought significant functionality for mobile workers, but it's getting harder and harder to list genuinely new features in each release. Subsequent releases have been mostly about polishing the diamond.

All of this leaves the Ubuntu guys with a very real problem: Where do they go next? What do you do once you've won the race?

It's an interesting question, and it's not hard for those of us who follow Linux to dream-up suggestions. Just take-up a few interesting technologies that are lying about on the open source workshop benches. The Ubuntu project is already sponsoring the porting of Google Chrome to Linux, but they could be the first distro to feature Google's speedy new browser. That would be a significant coup. How about if they made Gnome Do a large part of the project? And what's been holding them back from including gDesklets all this time?

I'm sure you can think of other suggestions.

Beware the Gnome

However, the biggest changes to Ubuntu in the mid-term are perhaps already being planned, and will come with Gnome 3.0, due sometime next year (current releases of Ubuntu are based around the 2.26 line). In many ways, the fate of Ubuntu and Gnome are implicitly linked, because Ubuntu is a flagship Gnome distribution.

The biggest change that will probably come with Gnome 3.0 is the abandoning of the traditional desktop system. Gone will be the Start-button-style arrangement that was borrowed from Windows 95 (or at least inspired by it). Instead, it's looking likely Gnome Shell will form the chief user-interface component. This is a kind of desktop-on-a-desktop system. It's a little hard to explain how it works and the best thing you can do is go and look at some screencasts of it in action. It's too early for it to be found in the Ubuntu repositories, but you can download the code and build it yourself. The devs have made it really easy to do so, especially if you're running a mainstream distro like Ubuntu. See the Building heading on the main project page.

In practical terms, Gnome Shell marks a significant departure from the way desktop Linux has operated up until now. But Gnome Shell also marks a departure in another significant way. To understand why we have to acknowledge an elephant in the room, which is this: open source tends to follow paths created by proprietary software.

Proprietary Paths

This is a controversial statement, I know, and there are several prominent examples in the open source world that contradict it. The Apache web server, for example, made the world wide web possible, and came about before any proprietary software company even had a clue what the Web was.

However, in other key ways, the maxim is hard to deny. The granddaddy of all open source projects, GNU, was initially a recreation of Unix. KDE was inspired partly by Windows 95. OpenOffice.org was inspired by Microsoft Office, and Evolution by Microsoft Outlook. Could we have had the Amarok or RhythmBox music players without iTunes coming first? This list goes on and on.

With Gnome 3.0, the open source desktop may well be stepping out on its own for the first time -- heading down a path it's beating itself, and not one created by proprietary software. And this is a major, major departure from how things have been done up to now, at least when it comes to the contemporary Linux desktop.

It's astonishingly risky. When it comes to user-interface design, many of us mistake ease-of-use for familiarity. But this only underlines how important familiarity is. And by experimenting with essentially radical new technologies, Gnome may be making it even harder for newcomers to switch to open source.

Everything that's been fought for, and won, on the open source desktop over the past few years, might be lost in a few strokes as people boot their new desktop Linux installations and utter that terrible word/phrase: "Whyditdodat?"

Scratching the Itch

There's another truism here too, and it applies to the whole concept of open source experimentation: open source developers have a habit of scratching their own itches, rather than those of their users. In other words open source tends to be very developer driven and developer focussed. By way of contrast, proprietary software is exclusively user-focussed. It has to be, or it simply couldn't exist. Nobody would buy a proprietary project if it didn't do what they want. Open source has no such hindrance.

What concerns me is that, in developing the open source desktop, developers might adopt certain ideas or ideological concepts to the detriment of end-users. All that matters to many open source developers is the sheer beauty of the idea. Everything else comes second.

None of this means that Gnome Shell (or any other innovative open source technology, on or off the desktop) will be poor quality, or outrageously useless. But I really hope they test technologies like Gnome Shell against members of the public, and maybe run a few usability labs. Developers need to remember that they are far from typical users. Above all, I hope the Gnome guys (and all open source developers) are brave enough to realize when an idea has to be abandoned, regardless of how intrinsically clever it is, or how much it deserves to succeed. (Again, please note that this isn't a veiled criticism of Gnome Shell, which I think looks great and is extremely promising.)

The Solution

As far as Ubuntu goes, however, I think I have a solution for the immediate problem of where to go next. In my opinion, the KDE4 project is maturing very nicely. The recent release of Kubuntu 9.04 shows off KDE 4.2 very well, and the 9.10 release in October will apparently feature the even better 4.3.

So why not move the main Ubuntu release to KDE4? Effectively, the Kubuntu project has been doing advanced research for such a move almost since the beginning of the entire Ubuntu project. They've developed the system software, for example, such as a GUI package manager.

KDE4 is extremely familiar for modern Windows users. In fact, I suspect that several people who have been using Vista might feel very at home with KDE4.

You may scoff at this suggestion, but do you know what? I've got a feeling it may become a reality in a year or two. Remember that you read it here first.

Keir Thomas is the award-winning author of several books on Ubuntu, including Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.

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Keir Thomas

PC World (US online)
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