Is Ubuntu running off a cliff?

And, is that necessarily a bad thing?

Sometimes I feel like I’m watching Ubuntu running quickly towards a big cliff.

Recently, it was hinted/announced that Gnome would be dropped as Ubuntu’s default desktop, and x.org dropped as the x server. The mint Distro has forked itself to produce a pure Debian distro, which was what Ubuntu was supposed to be (sort of) when I signed up for it, which I take to be a reaction by the minters of Mint to Ubuntu’s increasing non-Debian-ness. At the same time Ubuntu is trying to be all forward moving and stuff, yet it is unable for some reason to provide non GPL but free and legal drivers so that when Ubuntu is installed on grandma’s laptop in an environment where there is no plug-in LAN, the user is SOL and has to do what to most is tricky hacking stuff just to get a single, simple switch thrown so their computer will work (same with some video drivers).

(Read more below the fold. Warning: Photograph of woman on nude beach, may not be work safe.)

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What I don’t know is this: Is the cliff Ubuntu is heading for the one at La Jolla, where you run at the cliff wearing a big brightly colored wind sail and then when you jump off fly around free as a bird circling over the famous Black’s (nude) Beach several hundred feet below …

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… on the edge of the beautiful Pacific ocean with whales and sea otters frolicking about, until you land safely just in time for a cappuccino and fat free muffin at the local Starubkcs?

Or is it running towards a high rocky cliff wearing one of those old fashioned “I can fly like a bird with these mechanical wings” outfits, and upon leaping off the cliff, crashing to the rocky shores below?

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Either way, I want to get myself some insurance, so I’m going to follow Linux in Exile’s advice and install the new version of Fedora on at least one machine so I can start to learn it. I consider this a Linux Distro Survivalist Strategy, but instead of learning how to flintknap and make my own medicine, I’ll be using the main, most developed alternative non-Debian system. On a third computer, I’ll install a pure Debian distro, possibly the one from Mint.

It may well be that the future Ubuntu distros will be fantastic. Actually, I have no doubt they will be. But they are leaving behind one of the great features of Linux: You can run it on shit. With every Ubuntu announcement about desktop or X or graphics drivers, there is a mention of how the future Ubuntu will kick ass in the 3D graphics department. Do you now what 3D graphics are? Do you design 3D graphics? Do you do three body problems in physics? None of that matters. 3D graphics, in this context, is this: When you open or close a window, instead of appearing or disappearing, it does a dance first. When you move a window it wiggles like jelly. That sort of thing.

I do like the desktop ability to show all open apps as little icons and such when you press a secret button, but all the other 3D stuff I don’t really need, and I do not feel that I should commit to an operating system distro that intends to require me to upgrade my computer every two or three years to keep up with its eye candy. The eye candy is nice, and it will “sell” more Linux (and more hardware, btw) but it is not my main objective.

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Ubuntu did start out, to some extent, as a distro for the masses, or at least, a distro go get the masses involved in Linux. But now, on the symbol of Ubuntu, the multi-toned hands holding each other in the touchy-feely ring are going to be wearing Rolex Watches, because running an eye-candy maximizing system will require current hardware, which is not free.

I’m thinking of running Enlightenment on Debian on an older single monitor desktop, Fedora 14 on my two-head box, and a version of mint on my main laptop. On an old broken laptop I have, I may run a scaled down Linux distro like DSL using a python script as a shell that interprets all key presses as the same exact command which, in turn, randomly changes a displayed picture or starts/stops some music. That would be Huxley’s ax.

Then, in a few years when I’ve saved up for a tripple-quad-quad AMD doubleclocked superprocessor with a MegaForce 9Zillion Four Head Graphics card, I’ll hook my Avant Stellar up to that suckah, install Ubuntu Nematid 23.04 and cook a turkey dinner on it while I exploit the full featured world of 3D graphics while typing stuff in emacs, which is mainly what I do.

That will be cool. Unnecessary, but cool.

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Comments

  1. #1 Daniel T Chen
    November 15, 2010

    Actually, Ubuntu was intended as a more pragmatic Debian-based distribution, not as a pure Debian distribution. Further, Ubuntu isn’t ditching GNOME, nor is it ditching X.Org: GNOME remains the foundation for the Ubuntu desktop session, and X.Org remains the foundation for the entire graphical/windowing system. Some confusion has arisen since Mark Shuttleworth’s post regarding Wayland, but we should recognize that post as a barometer not intent. Unity is the graphical twiddles, but it’s all still GNOME underneath. And all of it rides on X.Org and Linux.

    It’s always good to be familiar with multiple distributions. Ubuntu has never been – and cannot be – suitable for the most wide range of hardware from a standard installation. In fact, no distribution is.

    You aren’t required to upgrade every X years provided you’re willing to take on the maintenance burden, and in fact this latter approach is the traditional(ly accepted) one for tinkerers. If you want to stay with Fedora 11, then stay with it – or Debian 2.1, Ubuntu 5.04, Slackware 7, Red Hat 6.0, SuSE 6.3, etc.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2010

    Daniel, maybe. Gnome is in fact being ditched for netbooks, barometers really do predict the weather.

    In any event, the statement that Ubuntu will move towards full use of the 3D graphic paradigm is not idle chatter, but part of the plan, and the switch away from x.org makes sense in doing that. And, I’ not saying it’s a bad thing. However, the philosophy that the system can evolve past the hardware because the hardware will catch up is, exactly and explicitly (though I can’t lay my hands on a quote) Microsoft’s. It isn’t just hackers who resist that, but, well, people who don’t have the cash flow or in the case of running lots of installations, the time and other resources. A free operating system can be designed to make a business spend thousands of dollars a year so there will be eye candy. Or not.

    I want there to be a version of Linux like this one Ubuntu is planning, or barometizing, to develop. And I’ll put in on any computer I happen to own that can run it.

    But really, if I want maximally optimized hardware and eye candy rich software and don’t mind the money for the constant upgrades, I’d get a Mac.

    Yeah, we’ll look back at his post and your comment in two years and see!

  3. #3 MattR
    November 15, 2010

    I’ve recently made the switch from Ubuntu to Sabayon which is Gentoo- rather than Debian-based, but with the ease of installation/setup/etc of Ubuntu and some nice eye-candy to boot. Very happy with it so far, although having every installation compile from source code is, to say the least, time consuming.

    It looks good and I figured it’s high time I looked at another Linux distro (used Fedora in uni, and Ubuntu thereafter).

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2010

    A Gentoo installation that is easy? What’s the point?!?!?

    I’ll have to look at that. I like the idea of installing C code on a computer and making that be how you get an operating system. It’s how it should be, really.

    What percentage of Debian or Fedora (or Windows) is useless junk that is only there in case the user’s computer has this or that specification? This difference between Linux and Windows on one hand (hate putting them in one category like this, but here it works) and Mac on the other is the amount of stuff that has to be there to deal with whatever hardware is thrown at it vs. the hand in glove design is probably very important. (Or at least at one time).

  5. #5 BrianX
    November 16, 2010

    I’m not a big fan of the eye candy, honestly. I actually just got a netbook and put UNE 10.10 on it, and I’m really not a fan of Unity either, but it does work well with the screen space available. (I miss having a proper start menu though.)

    Truth is, I definitely don’t need the window effects; translucent terminal windows are useful, as is live dragging and scrolling (which work on pretty much anything made since about 1995 anyway), but they’re the exceptions. The problem is that anything that looks like it was hacked together using a heavily modified version of FVWM and the Athena widgets isn’t going to get any play from anyone but the old-line Unix crowd.

  6. #6 Rorschach
    November 16, 2010

    Red Hat 6.0

    I think anything after 5.3 was a step in the wrong direction.I still have the installation CD.Can’t remember how to write the ppp scripts anymore though….;)
    Btw, the last time I tried to get Compiz to work on this whizzbang machine on U 10.10, it wouldn’t play ball.

  7. #7 David Gerard
    November 16, 2010

    You realise, of course, that Fedora is making a similar move.

    Because Wayland is actually developed by Red Hat.

    See those names, saying “Wayland on Fedora, a good idea”? Those guys are all lead Xorg developers. They know precisely how X sucks in intimate detail. They know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.

    I am slightly worried by old video cards falling off the edge of the world … but that’s been a perennial problem in X for a while now, no matter what distro, as the Xorg devs valiantly try to drag a mouldering codebase into at least, say, early 2000.

  8. #8 Lassi Hippeläinen
    November 16, 2010

    Of course Wayland makes sense. It updates the architecture to the 2000′s. X was developed in the mainframe era.
    http://wayland.freedesktop.org/architecture.html

    I happen to like the idea behind KDE, but its implementation still sucks. My latest attempt to move from Xubuntu 9.04 to Kubuntu 10.10 ended when I couldn’t log in. The mandatory change of password at first login doesn’t let you enter your password. WTF??? (Workaround: first boot in text mode and change the password from the throwaway to the permanent one. Use the second line in GRUB menu. The one that looks scary.)

    So I moved my desktop machine to Crunchbang (Ubuntu with Openbox in stead of Gnome), which I have been running on my netbook. At the surface it is minimalistic, but it works. It even recognised and configured correctly my ancient Wacom Graphire pad, which Kubuntu failed to do. BTW, even #! is dropping Ubuntu. The next release will be Debian/Openbox.

    In the long run I may move to Arch, because I like the idea of continuous small updates, in stead of scheduled major releases. As an engineer I prefer good tools over big marketing events.

  9. #9 Guy
    November 16, 2010

    Learn Puppy Linux. As a back up against problems with your main distro it is unsurpassed. It can be installed, but runs great from a key-pen. It is easily customisable & has a built in system for persistence. Once modified there is a built in wizard for remastering. You can have it on a hard drive alongside your existing distro (called a frugal install) & even create a grub/ lilo entry to add it as an option at boot.

    I did run Ubuntu all the way but I now run puppy Linux not only on an old laptop but also on the main family computer: this is a little old & suffering from an unfixed bug with Intel on-board graphics, one of those cases where ‘progress’ has been a bad thing and introduced problems for some of us.

  10. #10 Nate
    November 16, 2010

    If debian was perfect, ubuntu wouldn’t exist. If debian was perfect, mint wouldn’t exist. Just a thought. I do agree though that it’s about time for canonical to use it’s assets to get past the stupid legal issues involved with making our computers just work out of the box.

    Now I personally think getting away from X is a huge advancement. Even if the first mainstream attempt (wayland) doesn’t turn out to be amazing, at least it gets us out of our x.org funk. We’ve been using X for far too long, and quite frankly things are starting to stagnate. Or more accurately, things started to stagnate at least 10 years ago.

    I’ll bet the move to new display servers will push X to rewrite, and update it’s model to overcome the design flaws it has that can’t be solved by clever workaround coding.

    As for the eye candy: Yes, it’s really not usually the power user’s cup of tea. But the fact of the matter is that most people do like it. Not necessarily for all the shiny panels and eye-blasting effects, but more because it makes the interface less harsh, and more approachable. Something as simple as a shadow under a window, or a window that fades away rather than abruptly disappearing really does put less stress on the eyes.

  11. #11 LinuxCanuck
    November 16, 2010

    Lemmings go over cliffs. Ubuntu is not being a lemming. They are in fact showing some leadership and initiative rather than sitting back on their laurels.

    You have too much false information in one piece. It is alarmist without any need to be.

    LMDE is not a Mint departure from Ubuntu. It is an experimental project. The key feature is not that it is not based on Ubuntu, but that it is a rolling release, something that Ubuntu does not make. It also only comes as 32-bit and is rough around the edges. Mint has no stated plans to move away from Ubuntu.

    Ubuntu is not ditching GNOME. Unity is built on top of GNOME. It is just replacing GNOME Shell which will replace the familiar GNOME 2 desktop interface. Either way, Ubuntu Natty users would be in for change with Unity or GNOME Shell. This way Ubuntu has more control. A bonus is that it will give support to Compiz which is dying without help.

    They are not ditching X either. They will support Wayland and use X until Wayland is ready. They make no bones about the fact that X is not able to meet their future needs. BTW, Fedora has said the same thing recently. Mark just beat them to the punch.

    Some distributions will be more conservative. Mint has said that they will not use GNOME Shell either, but will stick with GNOME 2. In this way they are staking out their territory in the same way that Ubuntu is. The difference is that Ubuntu is moving things forward and Mint is sitting pat.

    BTW, the same thing happened when KDE 4 came out. Many distros elected to stick with KDE 3.5 and only the most progressive embraced KDE 4. Kubuntu was among them. At least Canonical is consistent.

    Ubuntu may lose a few users to Mint, but I think that most will continue to use Ubuntu. Some of those will choose to run Unity, some will install GNOME shell and some will run GNOME 2. The one without a future is the last one, unless GNOME is forked.

    It is Mint that needs to find itself. It no longer has an advantage over Ubuntu re: restricted drivers and codecs. It is splitting its identity with LMDE and sticking with a dying desktop, GNOME 2. So who is headed for the cliff?

  12. #12 jordan
    November 16, 2010

    Personally, I think Ubuntu will do a good job with unity, once they get rid of mutter (the gnome-shell window manager) on the back end. Early indications seem to corroborate this. So here’s to the wait and see period.

  13. #13 Brian Dean
    November 17, 2010

    I have to agree with you on the 3D stuff. When I close a window, it means that I want to close that window. It doesn’t mean that I want that window to entertain me. Usually when I close a window, it’s because I want to do something else in some other window. The fact that the window I just told to close, isn’t in fact closing (but is doing a dance instead) means I have to sit and wait for it before I get to do whatever else it was I wanted to do. VERY annoying.

  14. #14 No more derivatives to me
    November 17, 2010

    >>If debian was perfect, ubuntu wouldn’t exist. If debian was perfect, mint wouldn’t exist.

    Things evolve.
    Actually I’ve found that recent Beta1 Debian live/installer image is next to perfection. http://live.debian.net/
    After I have ditched Ubuntu for Mint, I guess the time comes that I ditch Mint for pure Debian.
    I have tested and compared the 32bit LMDE of Mint against Debian Beta1 Squeeze Live 32bit. The latter is much more stable, faster, with less RAM consumption. I simply wait when the first Release Candidate of Squeeze is available to switch forever from the all uselessly polished derivative to the true one – Debian.

  15. #15 Virgil Samms
    November 17, 2010
  16. #16 jim
    November 17, 2010

    “” I have to agree with you on the 3D stuff. When I close a window, it means that I want to close that window. It doesn’t mean that I want that window to entertain me.”"

    Your missing the point of design. -Don’t think design matters ask Seven Jobs if design matters. Art is in your lives it would be cheaper if we all drove bare metal cars, we don’t – why?
    I don’t think Ubuntu is on a cliff. I believe Linux as a OS is falling off this cliff and Ubuntu is trying pull it back by innovating. WHY are we still using X and I love Gnome but Gnome need a better API and a visually pleasing Desktop.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    November 17, 2010

    David (7) I would not interpret that email as “making a similar move” though yes, it does indicate that something like this is in the cards.

    And in the long run, that is a good thing.

    If we look at desktop computers of today, there are zero (or close enough as to not matter) that can’t run a GUI. We are obviously past the point where a GUI only OS is not going to cut out some percentage of users (this says nothing of the utility of command line, but I think the point is clear.

    However, among current desktops, something like half can’t run compiz without risking integrety or slowing down or otherwise messing up their system.

    I just think Ubuntu might be moving fairly quickly in that direction.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    November 17, 2010

    LinuxCanuk:

    “Lemmings go over cliffs. Ubuntu is not being a lemming. They are in fact showing some leadership and initiative rather than sitting back on their laurels.”

    Actually, Lemmings don’t (in the way usually attributed to them). Anyway, please note that my metaphor is bifurcated. Sailing off at La Jolla and having a great day vs. the suicidal flying machine….

    Interesting analysis about mint vs. ubuntu vis-a-vis the cliff, though.

  19. #19 Brian Dean
    November 17, 2010

    “Your missing the point of design. -Don’t think design matters ask Seven Jobs if design matters. Art is in your lives it would be cheaper if we all drove bare metal cars, we don’t – why?”

    No, I don’t drive a bare metal car. I also don’t drive a car with a perfect rendition of Rembrandt painted on the hood that only goes 50 kph.

    Design is not supposed to impede function. A window that doesn’t close when I click on the X to get it to close, impedes function.

    Suppose for example, instead of having a blue bar with the program title in text at the top, you had a 3D small fractal with the text in 3D. I wouldn’t complain as much (other than it would look gawdy) because it wouldn’t impede functionality.

    I am less annoyed by the window waving up instead of merely popping up (i.e. I can live with it) because it doesn’t really slow down what I want to do that much. But a window that separates into blocks with the blocks spinning and fading out? That annoys me because I have to WAIT for it.

    Anything that makes me WAIT that isn’t solving any problem I want solved (how to separate the window into blocks isn’t a problem I am interested in having the computer solve) is WASTING MY TIME.

  20. #20 jim
    November 18, 2010

    Turn off the animation. Great design enhances functionality and the artist who designed your car would disagree with your Rembrandt comment. A great many people want something more then just a time saving function. I love Gnome, however the standard Gnome desktop is dull. Like I posted design always matters. When people only think in terms of Functionality, the end product is lifeless.

    “Your missing the point of design. -Don’t think design matters ask Seven Jobs if design matters.”"
    Mac Book air – $1000 netbook

  21. #21 Brian Dean
    November 18, 2010

    “Great design enhances functionality”

    A window that instead of just closing, clutters up my screen with blocks of itself which spin and fade out is NOT an example of a “design that enhances functionality”. It’s an example of a design that makes me wait and watch something I am not particularly interested in watching. Sort of like, a car that displays a picture on your windshield every time you stop at a stop light, forcing you to push a button when you want to see the road. Sort of like, some web sites that have 10 different spam pop ups before you can read their web site. Sort of like, a web site that has sound where you have to find some widget buried way in to turn it off.

  22. #22 foxoman
    November 18, 2010

    “Gnome would be dropped as Ubuntu’s default desktop”

    Not true , they will not use the default gnome-shell .
    Unity is compiz plugin works a shell for gnome .

    That’s mean you will be able to use it in any distro uses the new compiz 9.x

    http://lh6.ggpht.com/_1QSDkzYY2vc/TN51KydwkJI/AAAAAAAACSQ/hKWxSD0rmWY/ubuntu_unity_plugin_compiz.png

    “x.org dropped as the x server”

    fedora will move also to to Wayland :)

    http://www.osnews.com/story/24029/Fedora_To_Eventually_Move_to_Wayland_Too

  23. #23 Mez
    November 24, 2010

    I lost too much time reading this pointless entry.

    Jeeez, that must be one of the worst critics ever. At least, if you don’t agree with how things are going along at Canonical, try to underline some interesting points you’re not in harmony with instead of muttering wide of the mark and exaggerating childishly the 3D stuff.
    But here, that’s just wind crashing to no avail against the aforementioned cliff.

  24. #24 Greg Laden
    November 24, 2010

    Mez, thank you for the very helpful comment.

    For some people, the 3D effects are the reason they use a computer. For me, every time I activate the 3D effects, I lose functionality in the areas for which I have a computer to begin with. I’m watching Ubuntu move towards that 3D world and I’m feeling that I may need to switch distros to retain a working system without overriding defaults.

    I don’t think I’m alone in this.

    Will this be the next bifurcation in the community? BSD vs. Linux; vi vs. emacs; Gnome vs KDE; 3D vs. regular?