Is Ubuntu Animosity Misplaced?

Monday Mar 10th 2014 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu receives a healthy dose of criticism even as it does a great deal to move Linux forward.

Hate it or love it, Ubuntu is a hot topic these days among those in Linux circles. Despite the success the distro has enjoyed over the years, there have been some significant bumps in their path forward as well.

In this article, I'll take a look at some of the most common issues Ubuntu detractors have with the popular Linux distribution and I’ll discuss whether we should be concerned.

Unity

When the Unity desktop came out I wasn't all that impressed. After awhile, though, I begun to tolerate it. Fast forward to today, and I'm fairly neutral in my view of the Unity desktop.

As for the feelings of the Linux community in general, the consensus is that it felt like GNOME was somehow being slighted or ignored. Remember early on, Ubuntu was a GNOME-centric experience. While today, Ubuntu is most definitely Unity-centric instead. Obviously alternative desktop environments are a mere "apt-get install" away, but most people will use Ubuntu because they're fans of the entire experience – end to end.

To take this even further, there are people who, to this very day, still complain about the Unity desktop and how it's "terrible to use." Why these folks spend their energy complaining about something no one is forcing them to use, remains a mystery to me. This, despite the fact that it's been a long-term part of Ubuntu for some time now. But one thing is very clear to me – Unity still gets people into passionate debates over the merits of their preferred desktop environment.

So, how did Unity get users upset when it was first released in Ubuntu 11.04? By not being ready for prime time just yet. Fact is, it took a few releases to iron out the bugs with the new desktop. Ubuntu simply needed to give Unity more time in development before releasing it in its early days. As of Ubuntu 12.04, however, Unity has managed to find its stride.

Moving away from the functional side of Unity, there is the "what about GNOME" aspect of it. Simply put, I believe some folks within the Linux community felt like Ubuntu was isolating itself with the move to Unity. Then to make matters worse, the Unity Amazon lens came into play. This particular Unity lens allows affiliate products from Amazon to be included in the results while searching for various items on the desktop.

When it was first released, there was a huge outcry. After all, who seriously wants Amazon results on their Linux desktop? Those against the idea felt it would do far better as a manually installed add-on, instead of a default option.

Not long after the Amazon lens was released, the option to disable it was offered. The hope was that this would address the outcry. However, some argued it was too little too late. It's important to note that, in the early days of this feature, adult material was readily accessible without any parental controls. Because of this, many within the community found themselves moving onto Ubuntu variants to escape the issue once and for all. Others users figured it was easy enough to simply disable or remove the lens entirely.

Not surprisingly, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) made their view of the situation known. And ignoring the fact that they were anti-Ubuntu early on (due to philosophical differences), the FSF did bring up some interesting concerns around the potential for privacy concerns.

In response, Ubuntu's side of the story was made clear by its community manager, Jono Bacon. No matter which side of the issue you happened to fall on, the fact is that even today it's a hot button issue within the Linux community and shows little sign of letting up anytime soon.

Mir vs Wayland

When it was first announced that Mir was to be Ubuntu's choice for Xorg's replacement, once again, the Linux community sounded off. At the time, I took a stance on the matter explaining that if Mir didn't get at least one additional distro to use its display option, I would be wearing a "monkey suit" for the masses to witness on a weekly podcast I co-host. Well, it’s 12 months later and I've lost the bet and am prepared to pay the price initially agreed upon.

Despite my well-intentioned effort to lighten the mood surrounding the issue, it became clear this issue wasn't going to be resolved with gags and good intentions. The argument at the time was that Wayland was clearly a better choice for a display server. Advocates explained that it was better aligned with the larger Linux community for multiple distributions and it made using Mir unnecessary.

Now for a bitter pill you don't want to hear - the casual computer user couldn't care less about this issue. So long as their applications work as expected, I suspect we'll be seeing shrugs of indifference throughout the Ubuntu masses. No, I see this as a battle of wills between developers and their opposing views.

Ubuntu's team explained that Wayland wouldn't do what they needed it to do, while Wayland fans have been saying that this was nonsense. This back and forth was perhaps even more heated than we'd seen with the Unity vs GNOME challenges in the past.

To toss in a bit more recent perspective on how this is developing, Ubuntu has Mir working with Chromium. Keep in mind that in order for Mir to be successful on Ubuntu, it must maintain compatibility with toolkits such as Qt, GTK and so on. By maintaining toolkit compatibility, the applications based on these toolkits "should" be compatible as a result.

Sadly though, things become rocky again as we discover that some of the work for this new Mir port for Chromium was made possible by duplicating work done by the Intel Wayland team. Fans of Mir will argue there's nothing wrong with this. Naysayers, however, will be latching onto this as another example of Mir being a problem.

Quite honestly, I don't see this debate settling down anytime soon. Both projects continue to jockey for their positions on our desktops. Wayland is the clear winner in terms of planned adoption.

Upstart vs systemd

The final piece to this puzzle is Ubuntu's initial idea of going with Upstart instead of the community preferred solution, systemd. When news came about that the init replacement for Ubuntu was to once again become something not widely anticipated, the virtual rioting started right up again. The concern was that it wasn't as good as what systemd could offer for desktop systems. On the flip side, however, Upstart has seen adoption within the mobile space ranging from webOS to Maemo.

Unlike the Unity vs Mir debate, Upstart got the attention of a fresh crop of Linux users as it would directly affect how a Linux distro starts and stops events/services. So even if you're not a system admin or a developer, this affected everyone who uses Linux on a day-to-day basis.

The best coverage of how this situation has played out comes from the Debian wiki. Not only does this page point out functional differences between Upstart and systemd, they also highlight one critical area most people aren't likely to consider at all – the Canonical Contributor License Agreement (CLA).

The Canonical CLA

At its core, the Canonical CLA (Contributor License Agreement) is perceived as a barrier among many developers within the Linux community. The always outspoken Linus Torvalds expressed his displeasure with CLAs in any form back in January. Torvalds explains that his disapproval of CLAs aren't limited to the one involving Ubuntu, but those used by any project. But in Canonical's case, the real concern is that the CLA opens up potential danger for submitted work to be used under a proprietary license. This isn't to say that it will, rather, it has the "potential" to be a problem in the long-term.

Closing thoughts

In the wake of each controversy above, the fact is that the Ubuntu project has not only done wonders for propelling Linux adoption among governments and schools, they've made Linux accessible to the common user as well. Bundle this fact with Mark Shuttleworth understanding that Debian's decision to go with systemd meant that it made sense for Ubuntu to do the same, shows that the Linux community's focused development decisions are in fact, within the development team's wheelhouse.

I can think of one thing we can all agree on – the Linux community is passionate, involved and sometimes overtly "loud" when it comes to the direction the platform is headed in. While users such as myself try very hard to remain neutral and not act as though using our computers is a "religious experience," the community at large continues to make their voices heard....no matter the cost.

My concern is that newer users who have just come over to the Linux side of the fence will be scared away by some enthusiasts' misplaced animosity toward Ubuntu. As Linux continues to evolve, I don't see this changing any time soon though.

Will this color how the majority of new comers see the Linux community? Perhaps, only time will tell. Thankfully most of us are fairly grounded and can have our opinions without scaring the heck out of the newbies too much.

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