Ubuntu Mir: Is This the Future of Linux Everywhere?

Ubuntu — possibly the most popular distribution of the open source Linux operating system — is striking out on its own. Canonical, the commercial company that oversees Ubuntu, has made a habit of building new Linux components from scratch, moving away from tools built and used by the larger open source community. That’s rubbing many Linux developers and users the wrong way, and now Canonical may have finally alienated these hard-core open sourcers.

The company is building its own platform for running a Windows-like interface on Linux, and many are up-in-arms. This sort of Linux world controversy often means little to the rest of the planet. But Canonical’s user-interface strategy could help decide the future of Linux on desktops, smartphones, and tablets.

Linux has been hugely successfully inside data centers, helping run the computer servers that power web services and so many other business applications, but it has lagged behind on machines used inside offices and homes. In branching out on its own with a new desktop interface, Canonical may finally get Linux over the hump. Or, in alienating its core group of supporters, it may end up shooting itself in the foot.

The name Linux refers only to the kernel — the most fundamental building block of an operating system. A variety of other software runs on top of the kernel, including command-line tools, programming environments, and window managers. Software that bundles the kernel with other tools is known as a distributions. These other tools often include a graphical user interface, a Windows-like creation that makes it easier to use the OS, and that’s the latest area where Canonical has ventured out on its own.

Most Linux distributions run their desktop environments atop a piece of software called the X.Org Server. X.org Server is based on the X-Window System protocol, which was created by MIT in 1984. It hasn’t really aged well, so Canonical is building a replacement for X-Window and X.org called Mir.

But it’s not the first attempt at an X.org replacement. Many of the developers who originally worked on X.org are now building Wayland, another open source alternative to X Windows. With Mir, Canonical is undercutting this project — and that has stirred a fair amount of controversy among the broader community of Linux developers.

Why didn’t the Ubuntu team work with Wayland? The Mir spec originally published by Ubuntu originally cited issues including input event batching and compression, motion event prediction together, flexible synchronization schemes, and other input related features as being too complex to implement in X.org. But Kristian Høgsberg, the original author of Wayland, pointed out on Google+ that these features were already implemented in Wayland’s compositor Weston.

Though the spec has been updated, Canonical maintains that there are other technical issues in the way. But Wayland developer Tiago Vignatti isn’t buying it. “There are no technical reasons Ubuntu cannot use Wayland in principle,” he wrote in a blog post. “What they wrote there is a very very mean excuse instead.”

This isn’t the first time the Ubuntu team has decided to go its own way. They’ve been catching flak ever since the company created the distribution by forking the Debian distribution. But the most significant example is Unity, a user-interface shell that runs on top of GNOME in place of the traditional GNOME shell. Unity was met with mixed reactions from users.

Unity may make more sense to users now that Ubuntu Touch has been unveiled. The trouble is Ubuntu is venturing further and further from the Linux tools used by the greater community.

What’s the problem with this? Isn’t freedom of choice a part of the spirit of open source development? Yes, but duplication of effort also flies in the face of the open source ethos. One phrase regarding the creation of Mir that came up over and over again in comment threads and discussion boards is “not invented here syndrome,” a term for “reinventing the wheel” when there is no compelling technical reason to do so. Rather than improve an existing project that does what Canonical wants, the company is investing resources in its own pet project.

The company has also been criticized in the past for not committing resources to common Linux projects such as the Linux kernel. In 2011, while Red Hat and Novell (the company behind the SUSE distribution of Linux) continued to lead development of the Linux kernel, Canonical didn’t even crack the top 20 corporate sponsors of the project. It also trailed Red Hat in contributions to GNOME even before the creation of Unity.

“People are angry with Canonical because they have continually marketed themselves as $DEITY’s gift to Linux and yet every time there are stats like this released, the company still seems to fall short,” SUSE community manager Brian Proffitt wrote in 2010.

Canonical’s decision to keep development of Ubuntu 13.04 closed was also controversial. Although by releasing its code under a GPL license, Ubuntu remains open source by the Open Source Initiative’s definition, it violates the spirit of openness and transparency. Rather than working out in the open and accepting feedback on message boards — or code contributions through a system like Github — Canonical chose to work in secret, allowing only its inner circle to contribute. Some call this approach “throwing code over the wall.” It’s another sign that Canonical wants greater control over its open source projects.

On the other hand, Canonical clearly has a different vision for the future of its distribution than other distribution makers, or the the developers of projects like GNOME do. The Ubuntu team wants to be able to make its own development decisions without being slowed down or compromised by those who don’t share their vision. That’s understandable. Open source provides room for people and organizations to fork projects that don’t fit their needs. But they really want to embrace openness, they need to learn to play nice with others.
By Klint Finley

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