Friday, November 5, 2010

Is Ubuntu slowly shutting out older hardware?

A few weeks ago, Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth announced that the company was abandoning the popular GNOME desktop in favor of its own Unity solution.  Just as the dust from that announcement was starting to settle, Shuttleworth dropped another bomb on the Linux community in a blog post yesterday announcing Ubuntu's imminent move away from the X.org display server to upstart Wayland.

Display servers, as the name implies, are responsible for rendering what you see on your screen, including the desktop itself.  While X.org has long been a standard in the Linux/Unix world, Wayland offers some tantalizing new possibilities as to what can be done on the desktop. By combining Wayland and Unity and abandoning X and GNOME, Ubuntu will be able to offer the excitingly rich user experience to their users that users of other operating systems have enjoyed for years.

But that new experience could come at a cost to both Ubuntu users and Canonical itself.

By combining Unity and Wayland, Canonical is, in one huge swoop, cutting free a fairly large group of users who use graphics cards that can't handle the type of technology, called OpenGL, on which these two systems heavily rely. Most affected are users of laptop computers where graphics technology often lags several years behind the desktop counterparts, but many desktop users who use older hardware, or anything with nVidia or ATI chipsets, could well find themselves out in the cold as well.

Personally, I'm torn about this issue. While I understand that Canonical is a for-profit company who must survive and that the changes they're making to Ubuntu are moving it forward into a more polished and commercial place, I find it somewhat frustrating that the company has made several rapid fire decisions that will affect such a large group of users within six months to a year or two.

One of the beautiful things about Linux is that it can be used to give life to old hardware. Laptop and desktop computers that couldn't even dream of running Windows Vista or Windows 7 can usually happily run Linux and some can even provide a desktop effects environment that rivals or surpasses Microsoft's offerings. This move, I fear, is going to change that and many users of older hardware, myself included, will be forced to either purchase new gear or leave Ubuntu for something else, like Linux Mint or Fedora.

There is a bright point in this story though: while Ubuntu will be moving away from GNOME and to Unity with their April 2011 release, the move to Wayland will be much more gradual. Wayland is still a young project with a long way to go before it is even a minor contender to X and that's something Shuttleworth acknowledged in yesterdays blog post about the move. The move might take four to five years or, depending on Wayland's progress, it might never happen (unlikely). Eventually, though, we're going to see Ubuntu move away from X.org and towards what could be an exciting new display server, if your hardware can support it.

Lastly, I find it quite exciting that Canonical is pushing the envelope so hard in improving the Linux user experience. We've focused on everything else to the degree that Linux, and particularly Ubuntu, is a fully usable and advanced system able to compete with both Mac and Windows toe to toe. The only thing missing by some accounts is software and graphics. In my opinion, while this could be a double edge sword, this takes a step in the right direction in both of those areas.

My money is on the long term success of Unity and Wayland. It's exciting, it's sexy, it offers a lot of possibilities. I guess we'll just wait and see...

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