Shuttleworth Gives Up Hope for Convergence Breakthrough

Canonical’s long and winding quest for a unified user experience came to a sudden halt on Wednesday, as founder Mark Shuttleworth announced the firm’s decision to stop investing in its struggling Unity8 shell and revert to Gnome for its Ubuntu 18.04 LTS desktop OS release.

The 6-year-old Unity plan was to create a user interface that could work on various types of devices, ranging from a mobile phone to a personal computer or tablet.

The project had been the subject of rampant speculation over the past couple of years, as public updates were scarce.

There was speculation that the company’s own resources were insufficient to carry the project where it needed to go — yet there seemed to be a reluctance to collaborate.

Canonical remains committed to the Ubuntu desktop that millions already rely on, Shuttleworth said, and it will continue to produce what is touts as the most usable open source desktop in the world, maintaining existing LTS releases and working with commercial partners to deliver the desktop.

He extended that commitment to corporate users who rely on the desktop and millions of IoT and cloud developers who use it to innovate.

Shuttleworth believed that convergence was the future and that a converged product would appeal to the free software community, but “I was wrong on both counts,” he said. “In the community, our efforts were seen [as] fragmentation not innovation. And industry has not rallied to the possibility, instead taking a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to those form factors, or investing in home-grown platforms.”

Focus on Future

The plan now is to invest in areas that will contribute to the company’s growth, said Shuttleworth, including Ubuntu for desktops, servers and virtual machines; cloud infrastructure products, including OpenStack and Kubernetes; and cloud operations, including Maas, LXD, Boostack, Juju, and IoT in snaps and Ubuntu Core.

“All of those have communities, customers, revenue and growth, the ingredients for a great and independent company, with scale and momentum,” he said.

Hard Lessons

“I think the decision is an admission that user experience is very much tied to hardware and specific usage models,” observed Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

With “no direct connection to hardware,” the open source user interface “will always lag in delivering new UX features and in taking advantage of new hardware capabilities,” he told LinuxInsider.

Google would have fallen behind in mobile without Pixel and previous Nexus phones and tablets, Teich said, noting that Apple “uses vertical integration of both their own OS and hardware to pioneer new user experiences.”

The same arguments can used to justify Google’s Chromebooks, which are driving the non-PC user experience for clamshell form factors, he suggested.

“This is probably the biggest impediment to Linux desktop UX development,” Teich added. “Google is working closely with hardware manufacturers to provide a better, integrated experience between Chrome and the underlying hardware. A software only effort can’t even get close and this is the core of why Mark wisely let go of Unity8.”

The move reflects a recognition that the mobile space is crowded, said Al Gillen, group vice president for software development and open source at IDC.

Shuttleworth’s aim, Gillen told LinuxInsider, is to reallocate resources into a space where Canonical and Ubuntu “can gain more traction and make a difference.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

1 Comment

  • I really thought this was a wrong move in the first place. Much like Windows 8 a hope for cross platform support and uniformity in one OS. It just doesn’t work that way. Maybe now Ubuntu can get back to functioning as a decent desktop OS? Certainly Ubuntu lost a lot of users to Mint and other distro’s. Wouldn’t be surprised if many Ubuntu users were Gnome users not Unity. I myself never liked Unity or could get used to it.

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