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Ubuntu's Great Graphical Gambit: X Won't Mark the Spot

By Katherine Noyes
Nov 15, 2010 5:00 AM PT

For many here in the FOSS community, Canonical's decision to make Unity the next desktop Ubuntu's default interface was shocking enough. There are some, in fact, who still need to lie down in a dark room with a cold compress at the very thought of it.

Ubuntu's Great Graphical Gambit: X Won't Mark the Spot

So, ever since Mark Shuttleworth made known the new, equally shocking plan to switch away from and onto Wayland as the distro's new graphics system, let's just say it's been a good time to invest in anti-anxiety pharmaceuticals.

"We'd like to embrace Wayland early, as much of the work we're doing on uTouch and other input systems will be relevant for Wayland and it's an area we can make a useful contribution to the project," Shuttleworth explained in a blog post a week or so ago.

"Progress on Wayland itself is sufficient for me to be confident that no other initiative could outrun it, especially if we deliver things like Unity and uTouch with it," Shuttleworth added.

'I Wonder if They Realize the Magnitude'

The virtual ink had barely dried on Shuttleworth's post before the Linux masses galloped onto the scene to have their say.

"Another good and gutsy move. I 100% support it," wrote Zac in the comments on CIO Australia, for instance.

Indeed, "I remember a discussion a year or two ago here on Slashdot how X was badly in need of replacing," wrote somersault on Slashdot. "Sounds to me like Canonical have the right idea, and the impetus to make it happen."

Then again: "I find it somewhat odd that we take a very powerful OS platform and begin to remove its power in order to reduce its utility enough to make it more palatable for the single user desktop use case," countered Bill_the_Engineer.

And again: "Ubuntu has shown they can deliver in the past, and perhaps they can do it now, but I can't help but wonder if they realize the magnitude of what they're undertaking here," opined starseeker.

'A Great Plan if It Works'

The angst was palpable throughout the Linux blogosphere, so Linux Girl did the only sensible thing, and headed for her favorite barstool at the Punchy Penguin.

'It's a great plan if it works," she overheard fellow barmate and Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza saying. "As far as I know, this is the only serious attempt to replace X that has ever had a real chance to succeed.

"So long as they manage some sort of backwards compatibility -- Shuttleworth's confidence aside, I'd like to see something working before I commit -- then there's no reason why a fully OpenGL-based desktop shouldn't more smoothly provide the features that users are looking for in Compiz," Espinoza added.

'X11 Is Not Made for Home Users'

Indeed, "I for one am ALL for it," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. "X11 is honestly a mess and is NOT made for home users.

"How many home users actually network their desktop? And try having a dozen windows or more and launching a video player like VLC," hairyfeet pointed out.

"Let us not forget that Ubuntu is 'Linux for humans' and NOT 'Linux for CS grads'," hairyfeet concluded. "Want more complex than Wayland? Well there is a bazillion choices out there that use X11.

"Personally, I am hoping that Canonical will just go ahead and fork the kernel away from Linus and thus finally give us a true 'third way' for home users," he added. "By adding a stable hardware ABI, drivers could be written that 'install once, run for years' like Windows and OSX, and with Wayland, it could finally make a desktop that is as easy to use thanks to Unity as Windows 7 and OSX Snow Leopard."

'They May Have Gone Too Far'

Not everyone was quite so sure, however.

"I really think they may have gone too far with this change," Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger opined. "There are still plenty of ways to get better speed out of the existing system without a wholesale change like this."

Similarly, "I can see that faster/fancier graphics may be useful for gamers, less-serious users of PCs and graphics artists, but the value of X as a networked display system far exceeds those niches," blogger Robert Pogson opined. "About 80 percent of users could benefit from using a networked display on thin clients, saving huge outlays of capital for equipment, power and maintenance. A thin client also is smaller, quieter and lasts longer."

'I Cannot See Doing Away With X'

In fact, "X gives up very little to Wayland for 2D displays that work for the majority of us," Pogson added. "How many of us normally use Compiz, anyway? I played with it once and decided it offered nothing for me. I work when I use a PC; eye-candy does nothing for me."

Using X on top of Wayland, meanwhile, "seems to me very wasteful as new drivers will have to be written for every video card out there," he noted. "Don't we have enough problems getting one set of video drivers to work?"

In short, "I can see using Wayland for some of the fancier video cards for serious graphics and leaving X alone," Pogson concluded. "I cannot see doing away with X. A lot of thin clients use RDP, but I would avoid that as it may well be patent-encumbered -- we do not need to give M$ any more leverage."

'It Will Be Confined to Net-Tops'

Unity also targets lower-resolution displays, noted Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site. "It doesn't make sense for larger screens, so it will be pretty much confined to net-tops," she explained.

Given that Shuttleworth expects Wayland to take three to four years to be ready, "let's fast-forward to the holiday shopping season of 2014," Hudson suggested.

"Laptop sales have continued to dominate the market, to the point where pretty much everyone has one as their main (or only) computer, and smart phone sales continue to ramp up," she predicted. "As a result, net-top sales are dismal, into the single digits for the second year in a row."

'Chasing a Dwindling Market'

Laptops, meanwhile, "weigh no more than today's net-tops, but with 2 terabytes or more of storage, high-resolution displays, most of them are (at least) quad-core, with 8 to 16 gigs of ram, they come with Windows 8, and the cheapest ones from last year are going for $299.00," she added. "The few net-tops are being ignored by both the customers and the sales staff."

In short, "Ubuntu is chasing a dwindling market," Hudson asserted.

"Net-tops were a compromise for when people wanted mobile computing and their main computer was a desktop," she explained. "But in a few years, when every laptop will resemble an Apple Air in terms of size and weight, and everyone already has one or more, net-tops are going to be seen as crippleware.

"Consumers won't buy them if they can't run the same applications their 'real' computer runs," Hudson concluded.

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