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.