Canonical Ends Convergence On Ubuntu

Canonical, the company developing the Linux-based Ubuntu operating system, announced that it will no longer try to converge its mobile and desktop experiences. The company also said it will stop investing in the mobile version of the OS, as well as its own Unity interface, and that Ubuntu will go back to using the GNOME interface.

Convergence, We Hardly Knew Ye

Canonical was one of the very first companies to promote “convergence” between the mobile and desktop experiences. It first started doing that at the Mobile World Congress in 2012, when it announced the “Ubuntu for Android” project.

The idea was to have the Ubuntu OS alongside your Android OS on the phone, and when you’d plug your phone in a dock and a monitor, you could see the Ubuntu OS on the monitor. The two operating systems would share some data, as well.

The project was declared dead two years later, likely because it required convincing of OEMs to pre-load Ubuntu alongside their Android ROMs. Ubuntu desktop itself wasn’t that popular either, so the OEMs were likely skeptical about its chances.

"I took the view that, if convergence was the future and we could deliver it as free software, that would be widely appreciated both in the free software community and in the technology industry, where there is substantial frustration with the existing, closed, alternatives available to manufacturers," said Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's founder. "I was wrong on both counts. In the community, our efforts were seen [as] fragmentation not innovation. And industry has not rallied to the possibility, instead taking a ‘better the devil you know’ approach to those form factors, or investing in home-grown platforms," he added.

Canonical was also working in parallel on a “touch” version of Ubuntu that would run on smartphones, tablets, and the desktop. This version did show-up on a few smartphones, from lesser known manufacturers, but ultimately they didn’t prove to be too much of a success. As recently as Mobile World Congress 2016, Canonical was full bore into this convergence project. At the time, frankly, we were impressed with what we saw, although later after we got our hands on a convergence tablet, we found some serious issues

The converged interface (Unity 8) that would have also worked on the desktop, saw delays. And now it's dead.

We’ve seen other attempts at convergence in the past from Motorola with its laptop dock, Microsoft with its Continuum (which HP and Acer both gave a go), and more recently Samsung’s Dex Dock for the Galaxy S8. However, despite a keen interest in this idea from some users, the convergence idea hasn’t caught on so far.

Perhaps this is still largely an issue of a lack of proper implementation, and nobody has figured out how to do it right yet. Alternatively, perhaps the whole idea ends up being too impractical whenever someone tries to implement it.

Snaps Security Remains Uncertain

When Canonical launched “Snaps,” a new type of app packaging format, some criticized it for suffering from the same security issues that plague all Linux applications that use the X windowing system (which is presently virtually all of them). Applications that use the X windowing system are not well isolated from each other, so an attacker could use that to exploit Linux applications.

Canonical said that once the “Mir” display server arrives on Ubuntu, then Snaps could avoid this major security issue (that graphical Linux applications have to this day), because Mir applications would be more isolated.

However, Canonical has just ended Mir development, so the security of Snaps is uncertain. Either Snaps will continue to suffer from the same security flaws that all X-based apps do, or Canonical will have to build Snaps on top of the Wayland, the display server protocol that the larger Linux community ended up adopting while Canonical went with Mir.

It’s also important to note that other GNOME-based and KDE-based Linux distributions will have support for flatpak, a competing and arguably more universal packaging format. Flatpaks work only on Wayland, not on the X windowing system, so by default they should be more secure than Snaps.

Ubuntu is now also reverting to the GNOME interface, and unless Canonical will take the support for flatpaks out of their version of the GNOME interface, then Ubuntu should end up supporting both.

This would probably create more unnecessary fragmentation and another doubling of efforts to create more or less the same solution. It would probably be best if Canonical decided to work with the flatpak developers to merge flatpaks and Snaps into one packaging format that takes the best features of each.

MORE: Women In Tech: Jane Silber, CEO Of Canonical

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • Bloob
    A pity and a relief. It is good to try and innovate, but when there already are good solutions available, the wise move is to adopt them.
  • coldmast
    Right idea at the wrong time. For mobiles devices the app store is all. I don't know where Canonical thought it was going to succeed where Blackberry and Microsoft had failed.
  • thomasjames
    oh my god. FINALLY. after years of CRIPPLING and costly mistakes and immense, *VAST* duplications of efforts with ubuntu custom-everything, sanity will prevail. i am so happy i could cry. props though, takes a man to admit he was wrong rather than simply step down. however, let's move on, please step down and pass the ball to someone with a more mature, realistic view on the future. miguel the icaza would be the natural choice.
  • Dosflores
    The funny thing about this convergence fad is that Apple has been proven right in the end, but they were advocating for non-convergence just because they want you to buy as many Apple-branded products as possible. Why would you offer the same functionalities on both the MacBook Pro and the iPad Pro if you can sell both to the same person?

    It's funny too that Microsoft gave up on Windows 10 - Windows 10 Mobile convergence, and now Samsung and Google have taken their ideas and implemented them in a seemingly convincing way in the Galaxy S8. Many people don't need the level of performance that only a PC can provide, so maybe Android can make Windows 10 completely irrelevant for them. I'm curious to see whether some manufacturers will launch dumb terminal laptops that can connect via USB-C to the Galaxy S8, and let you use Microsoft Office for Android comfortably enough.

    Well, now I have a good reason to look forward to Ubuntu 18.04. Gnome surely looks much better than Unity nowadays.
  • Orgin
    @Canonical, how about officially supporting android apps in Ubuntu? That's the whole convergency you need really.
  • randomizer
    So 18.04 will have the most dramatic change in UI for Ubuntu in a long time. I used to enjoy seeing what they tinkered with in each release, but releases in recent years have been quite incremental and boring.
  • Bloob
    It's funny too that Microsoft gave up on Windows 10 - Windows 10 Mobile convergence

    Did they really?
  • SockPuppet
    I'd rather just use Windows where everything just works and I don't have to interface with the worst tech community on Earth to get answers to simple problems.
  • Dosflores
    19531296 said:
    It's funny too that Microsoft gave up on Windows 10 - Windows 10 Mobile convergence

    Did they really?

    Yes. For the moment, at least. Currently, Microsoft is much more interested in convincing companies to use the Desktop Bridge to bring their Win32 applications to the Windows Store. Windows 10 Mobile can't compete with Android and iOS, but Windows 10 is certainly able to compete with macOS. Some people would say that W10 can't compete with W7, but Microsoft already took care of that by not supporting Zen and Kaby Lake on W7.

    Microsoft's greatest ambition is simple: every PC uses W10, and every application is distributed through the Windows Store. It looks a lot more profitable than asking companies to implement support for Windows 10 Mobile.
  • linuxgeex
    The author proves his ignorance of Snaps by blathering about security FUD instead of speaking to the actual functional differences between Snaps and the common packaging methods of Linux distros.

    Snaps run their apps in a chroot jail with all their dependencies included, so you can for example install multiple versions of the same app on your system. Want to try the latest Firefox with Electrolysis and still keep an older version without it running at the same time so you can keep all your extensions? Snaps will let you do that.

    As the author points out, Snaps are not a magical security bullet that solves other security issues, such as the vulnerabilities of X, or of the kernel itself for that matter. However for Snap packages (not apps) which don't make use of a display, ie Redis or other services, Snaps are inherently more secure than .deb or .rpm simply because they isolate the service from the distro in a similar manner to OpenVZ, LXC, BSD Jails, Solaris Zones, etc.