A major bombshell was dropped in the Linux Desktop world today. The Ubuntu project announced that they were working on their own graphics server called Mir. Mir will replace the X Windows system, which has been around in various incarnations for almost 30 years! With software that old it is understandable that Ubuntu would want to write a replacement? But besides the age the real motivation is to bring Ubuntu for phones and tablets and the Ubuntu desktop product closer together. Again why wouldn’t they want to do that? Bringing the two systems closer together means less work for for the engineers working on both systems, and X Windows is just too old and crusty for a touch based phone/tablet OS.
So what’s the problem with this? The problem is that the Linux community has already been working on a replacement for X Windows called Wayland. Wayland is not ready to be used in a real system yet, but it is getting close. Why would Ubuntu/Canonical decide to start from scratch vs turning some of it’s engineer’s talent and time towards furthering Wayland? The Ubuntu wiki page linked to above states that they considered Wayland but there were some technical deficiencies that they felt would be holding them back. But why not work with the Wayland developers and the freedesktop.org members to change Wayland to meet Ubuntu’s needs? Wayland is not a released product yet (though some parts of the API are frozen) so if you have an idea to make it better now is the chance to speak up and get your idea in.
I have a feeling this decision is really about control. Ubuntu may be afraid they won’t be able to influence the design as much as they like. Branching out on their own is Ubuntu and Canonical’s modus operandi now. First it was sticking with Upstart when everyone else was moving to Systemd. Then they started developing their own desktop environment, Unity, rather that participating in the development of Gnome 3. Now it appears Ubuntu will use Mir while everyone else (presumably) moves to Wayland.
On one hand I can understand why Ubuntu would want control of something so important, especially if they believe the other alternatives have technical deficiencies. And they are certainly under no obligation to use Wayland, Systemd, or Gnome 3 just because everyone else is. Choice is one of free software’s biggest advantages. But I, and may others in the Linux community, would like to see Ubuntu play nicer with the other projects and distributions. Ubuntu has been criticized in the past for having the lowest number of commits to upstream projects like the Linux kernel and Gnome 2. Ubuntu’s upstream contributions are laughably small compared to that of Red Hat or even Suse. Considering Ubuntu’s success is built on the shoulders of the Linux kernel and Gnome 2, among others, it would be nice to see them giving back more to those projects. And similarly it would be nice to see Ubuntu work with freedesktop.org to turn Wayland into a product that can be used to build the next generation of Desktop and Phone/Tablet interfaces. But apparently that is not to be.
Of course no one is stopping Gnome from adopting Mir in the future either. But if Ubuntu does not end up accepting many patches from the mostly Red Hat employed Gnome developers then what upside is it for the Gnome folks to go that way? I wish Ubuntu luck and it will be interesting to see how this all shakes out in a few years. In the mean time get ready for some flame wars and even more folks abandoning Ubuntu for other distros.