The upcoming Artful Aardvark release marks Ubuntu's return to GNOME as its desktop environment. After seven years, Unity will be abandoned, along with plans for a single desktop for all devices and the replacement of the X window system with Mir.
According to Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, these changes are being made in the hopes of making profitable Canonical, Ubuntu's governing company, and to allow Canonical to focus on its server and OpenStack business. However, to desktop users, the more pressing issue is whether these changes can help Ubuntu regain its domination of the desktop.
Returning to Old Territory
The answer is by no means certain. In the last few years, Ubuntu appears to have become less popular on the desktop. On Distrowatch, for example, Ubuntu is currently in fourth position, with half the page hits of its derivative Linux Mint. Ubuntu hasn't attracted the most page hits among distros since 2010, the year that Unity was introduced.
Part of the reason for this decline may have been Ubuntu's default Unity desktop. Although Unity has its fans, from the start it has been an awkward and unpopular choice compared to Linux Mint's MATE and Cinnamon desktops.
More importantly, much of Unity's development in recent years has been to adapt it to mobile devices, where relatively few users have ever seen it. Admittedly, Unity works best on a touch screen and a small display, but the point is that for several years, Unity has had few new features for workstation and laptop users.
As a result of the focus on Unity, many Ubuntu users have looked elsewhere. Linux Mint has been a popular alternative because its developers listen to users, yet confines itself to incremental changes. Debian has also benefited, perhaps because its installer offers a choice of half a dozen desktops (none of them Unity). By now, users have settled into their new choices of distributions, and would need a compelling reason to return to Unity.
However, to judge by its early releases, compelling features are just what Artful Aardvark lacks. Although GNOME is a more usable desktop than Unity, it remains less user-friendly than MATE, or Xfce and less innovative than Cinnamon or KDE's Plasma. To Ubuntu's developers who spent years obsessing over the details of Unity, GNOME's main appeal is perhaps the effort it has put into interface design -- and that is something that is available in countless other distributions.
Just as importantly, Artful Aardvark's implementation of GNOME has little in the way of enhancements that will attract users. Ubuntu originally established itself in its first releases by adding long-lacking features such as fonts and keyboard layouts for international support, but the 17.10 release offers nothing comparable. Considering that the change from Unity to GNOME is a large step in itself, yet it is hardly likely to entice users in itself.
Nor is removing the eccentricities of Unity, such as placing title bar buttons on the left, or the heads-up display that was supposed to replace menus but was never fully developed. These are restorations of a widespread norm, not an enticement.
In fact, Ubuntu's adaptation of GNOME is a curiously limited one. So far, it does not appear to support GNOME extensions, which allow widespread customization and is one of GNOME's most appealing features. The sole innovation appears to be a dashboard on the main scream.
Probably, this dashboard is added for the comfort of Unity users accustomed to its dash. Yet it duplicates the dashboard on GNOME's overview screen -- which, while fine if an individual user chooses it, but looks slapdash as a default setting.
If Ubuntu must have its own dashboard, a tidier way of implementing it would be to add a virtual desktop selector and remove the link to the overview screen altogether, as more than one GNOME extension does.
The New Ubuntu
Of course, Canonical may not care how attractive Ubuntu is to desktop users. The days have been gone for over a decade since Ubuntu development focused on adding much-needed features for the desktop. Shuttleworth's announcement in April 2017 of the sweeping changes to Ubuntu were not only a refutation of the distribution's early directions -- or even its most recent ones -- but an implicit declaration that the desktop was no longer a priority for Ubuntu.
Like SUSE and Red Hat before it, Canonical has learned the hard way that desktop development is not the way for open source-based companies to become profitable. Its business is based on Ubuntu, and no doubt maintaining Ubuntu is necessary to save face, but its emphasis is no longer on the desktop.
Far from being the return to sanity that detractors of Unity might expect, returning to GNOME and abandoning its former plans seems largely a way to maintain Ubuntu with a minimal of effort.
Admittedly, the dashboard on the main screen may be a sign that Canonical has not altogether abandoned its efforts to be unique. In the future, feature creep might still emerge. Yet, considering that the release after Artful Aardvark is a long-term support release, any additional innovation is probably at least a year away, if it happens at all.
Meanwhile, what Ubuntu offers is a curiously awkward and limited version of GNOME, likely to appeal only to Unity users nervous of the change. In the unlikely event that Canonical does still care about the desktop, Ubuntu will have to offer more if it wants to attract users. More likely, though, maintaining Ubuntu is now just one of the costs of Canonical's serious business.