Ubuntu in transition with the new 17.10 release

Artful Aardvark

© Lead Image © Dena Friesen

© Lead Image © Dena Friesen

Article from Issue 203/2017

Ubuntu restarts the alphabet on the Ubuntu 17.10 release, with one small step for Wayland and one giant leap backward from the controversial Unity desktop.

With Artful Aardvark (17.10), Ubuntu's release names move to the start of the alphabet. At the same time, Ubuntu's desktop environment switches from Unity to Gnome. That in itself is a major change, so don't expect more than a handful of visible changes when version 17.10 is released on October 17, 2017.

The switch marks a sudden reversal of direction. The Unity desktop was Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth's response to his own challenge for Linux developers to rival OS X, and Ubuntu's parent company Canonical spent six years developing it, bringing in a design team, arguing with the community, and linking it to convergence – the development of a common interface for everything from laptops to phones to workstations.

However, in April 2017, Shuttleworth abruptly announced that Ubuntu would be abandoning Unity and convergence and defaulting to Gnome for the first time in seven years [1]. Additionally, Wayland would be replacing Mir, Ubuntu's intended replacement for the X Window System, and an undisclosed number of Canonical employees were either laid off or assigned new duties. These changes, Shuttleworth explained, were intended to make Canonical profitable and to attract investors and perhaps an eventual public stock offering.

In the second alpha, the latest release at the time of writing, packages for X Window, Mir, and Unity are still in the repositories, although they might disappear before the final release. However, many of the features that characterized Unity, such as the Head-Up Display (HUD), the intended replacement for traditional menus, or the placement of titlebar buttons on the left are scheduled to disappear, although remnants are still there of some of these features in the second alpha, as well as Ubuntu Gnome as a separate flavor of Ubuntu. Whether all the expected changes will come in 17.10 is still uncertain. With 18.04 scheduled as a Long Term Support (LTS) release, 17.10 is apparently intended as a transitional release, in which all the rough bits of the changeover will be worked out.

A Distribution in Transition

The final 17.10 release is supposed to default to Wayland. However, the second alpha defaults to the X Window System, and if you want to try Wayland, you must chose Ubuntu on Wayland as you log in (Figure 1). My subjective impression is that Ubuntu runs more slowly on Wayland, with the opening of the desktop and of larger applications like LibreOffice being positively sluggish, so the possibility remains that in the final release users will have a choice. However, the intention is to make Ubuntu the second major distribution (after Fedora) to default to Wayland.

Figure 1: In the second alpha, Wayland is not the default. By the final release, it will be.

"We're currently dropping patches that bring in dependencies for things that may be getting demoted back to Universe," said Ken VanDine, a leading programmer on the transition team, in an interview with OMG Ubuntu! [2], implying that some of the older features of Unity will be supported in the future by the Ubuntu community, rather than Canonical. In particular, Unity support and development will be continued by the Artemis Project, formerly known as Enjade [3].

The Gnome Experience

At first impression, the change of desktop environment in 17.10 is not immediately obvious. The wallpaper on the main screen is the same familiar aubergine to orange gradient, and the desktop still defaults to the elegant Ubuntu font. Although the overview screen defaults to a brown gradient – a possible salute to Ubuntu's original color scheme – its dock makes the superficial similarity between Unity and Gnome all the stronger (Figure 2). The similarity in appearance may become even stronger if, as promised, 17.10 adds a Dash to the main workspace screen.

Figure 2: Superficially, the switch from Unity to Gnome does not seem so great. Only small differences appear as you start working.

However, once you start using 17.10, the differences quickly become obvious. Unlike Unity's dash, the one on the Gnome overview does not have a widget for collapsing the apps displayed on the bottom. Nor does it indicate open apps, even with the minimal triangle indicators in Unity – mainly because, as an overview, the rest of the screen is dedicated to that purpose.

Despite a similar function, the search functions are also changed. Not only is the Gnome search function on the overview screen, but it contains fewer filters than Unity's. All the efforts to develop lenses for Unity has now disappeared, leaving only the choices of Frequent and All to filter the display (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Gnome search offers fewer filters and no lenses (look at the bottom of the screens).

On the main screen, the differences become even more noticeable. Unlike Unity, the default Gnome does not use desktop application launchers. As a result, the right-click menus in 17.10 show only a few items for customization, and none of Unity's options for adding another folder or document launcher or for arranging icons (Figure 4). Similarly, the selection of context icons in the panel differs: From left to right in Unity they are language, sound, time, and lock and close; in Gnome, they are date, connections, and sound.

Figure 4: Because Gnome does not use application launchers, the right-click menu has changed.

Other changes include switching the login from LightDM to Gnome's GDM, which makes for consistency with Gnome, but seems unnecessary, since the two are functionally equivalent. One rumor suggests that Firefox may not be the default browser, although it is still present in the second alpha. Otherwise, the only major changes planned are automatic adding of new Bluetooth and WiFi sources.

Whether the greatest changes will appear depends on whether the final release includes Gnome 3.26 or not. Gnome 3.26 includes a number of new apps, including a new resource monitor, passphrase bank, and scheduler, as well as improved tiling, the importation of files from cameras to Gnome Photos, and a redesign of the settings windows. However, since the final beta is due September 28, the possibility is slight. Still, this partial list of features explains one of the attractions Gnome has for Ubuntu.

One change that is not coming is the use of Gnome extensions. Try to add them, and the extensions web page reports that a version of Gnome is not available. This lack is unfortunate, because with the careful selection of extensions, users can customize their desktop in many ways, including a desktop that omits the overview screen and produces something that is the next best thing to Gnome 2. However, VanDine concedes no more than the possibility that the development team "may consider a few tweaks here and there to ease our users into the new experience." Similarly, although the second alpha's repositories do include Gnome Tweak Tool, it does not yet work after installation.

Making the switch means an adjustment for long-time Ubuntu users. Judging from comments on the Internet, many users are not happy about the switch, but in many ways, Gnome is closer to Unity than any of the alternatives except perhaps Budgie, which may be too new to Ubuntu to be considered as an option. Certainly the changes are smaller in Gnome than they would be in KDE or even Xubuntu.

Back to the Future

I admit to mixed feelings about the change. On the one hand, I am disappointed in the canceling of convergence development. Unity is far from my favorite desktop on a workstation, but on a tablet with a touch screen, it comes into its own. On the other hand, like many long-term users, I admit to a certain nostalgia for the days when Ubuntu used Gnome. Despite all the work done on Unity, Gnome remains a more flexible desktop.

Exactly what Artful Aardvark will include or even look like should be clearer by the time you are reading this. However, all signs point to a smooth transition. Ubuntu is even polling users to help make some of the final decisions.

Meanwhile, the transition is attracting an interest in Ubuntu unseen since its earliest days. Despite the grumbling about the changes, 17.10 promises to be the most successful Ubuntu release in years.

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