Canonical Whims

Mark Shuttleworth recently announced that his company would be dropping the Ubuntu phone and the Unity desktop, and that future versions of the operating system will ship with GNOME Shell instead. It's a little sad that the u-phone is going, but not much love will be lost with the departure of Unity.

Back towards the end of 2013 I had a job and some income so I thought I might get a smartphone and maybe experiment with creating some apps for UbuntuTouch (the Ubuntu operating system for phones). I wavered over the decision for a while, and a couple of things happened. First, the second hand Nexus 4 phone which I'd bought - at what by my standards was great expense - broke. Second, the Snowden story was in the news a lot. Instead of trying to make u-phone apps I thought that a better direction would be to shift towards being more security focused and try to actually implement something like a FreedomBox home server. I knew that would involve building operating systems, possibly custom kernels and stuff like that which was all quite similar to what I was doing in my new job. That change of focus became the Freedombone project. I also knew that I could still experiment with smartphones in combination with the server, but it didn't necessarily need to be a u-phone. Any dirt cheap or gratis second hand Android phone would do, and it wouldn't matter much if it broke. Based upon the Snowden disclosures I also knew that Free Software would get a boost from that, and that moving towards a fully free stack was likely to become a trend among anyone who gave a damn about the integrity of their computer systems.

With the recent Canonical announcement, I think that late 2013 decision actually turned out for the best even though it seemed like a gamble at the time. Things could have gone the other way and the u-phone might have "gone viral" and become a must-have hipster gadget. The recent popularity of Mastodon also is an indicator that my intuition back then was along the right sort of lines.

There are some lessons from the demise of Unity. If you are a small-ish company like Canonical, don't try to unilaterally re-invent multiple layers of the software stack (Unity, Mir, Upstart). Going with the developer and user community is much easier than trying to go alone against it. There's a place for pioneering decisions, but once it becomes obvious that you're just re-inventing the wheel (i.e. shipping something quite similar in appearance and functionality to GNOME Shell) then be prepared to switch.

As far as Unity itself went, I didn't hate it but I didn't love it either. It was usable, but not my favourite. Possibly it's development might continue if there's enough developer community interest, but that seems rather doubtful.

Final defeat or new era

So it's an inflection point for Canonical. Given Shuttleworth's characteristically inept comments about Free Software developers perhaps this is the beginning of his withdrawal from Free Software altogether.

But maybe it isn't.

If Canonical refocuses on desktop and server again, and goes with the community rather than against it, then maybe Ubuntu could regain its lost mojo.