Ubuntu Embraces QT Toolkit: Blurring Linux Development?

Monday Jan 24th 2011 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu succeeded with lots of GTK applications. Do we really want QT being tossed into the mix?

GTK vs QT. Now there's a fast path to a geeky argument between passionate programmers of all walks of life. Despite this once widely debated divide, Mark Shuttleworth has announced that Ubuntu is about to add QT libraries to the Ubuntu release known as Ubuntu version 11.10.

According to Shuttleworth, the reasoning behind the inclusion of QT libraries in Ubuntu stems from their perceived "ease of use and integration advantages." I'll take his word for it until I can find glaring data to support a decent counter-argument, since I'm not a programmer myself.

But one thing I don't see being discussed is whether or not this is breaking a system that already works. Ubuntu was made successful with brown themes, the GNOME desktop and yes, lots of GTK applications. Do we really want QT being tossed into the mix?

Trying to please everyone

Considering Ubuntu's move with the "Unity" desktop in future releases of the distro, adding in QT libraries shouldn't come as too big of a shock. It's becoming clear that Ubuntu is bent on taking what works, then tweaking it to see how far they can push the envelope before people start complaining. And like with the Unity desktop, you can always use something else once everything is installed anyway.

My own cynicism aside, I'm willing to give the minds behind Ubuntu a chance. If they can implement these changes without adding to the potential list of bugs that come with any new distro release, fantastic. On the other hand, if we find that the new QT libraries end up creating basic usability challenges due to some unforeseen problems through the blending of the two frameworks, the blow-back will be sizable.

QT libraries won't make any significant difference from the end user perspective if everything goes well during the distro installation. Beginning to make QT-based applications the default over GTK-based apps, however, might peeve off more than a few dedicated users though.

Keeping things familiar is a big deal for many of us. We have things the way we like them. No sense in messing that up. With any luck, we won't see any significant changes in the applications we use. And truth be told, we can always reinstall them should they be dethroned for some obscure reason.

I think it's safe to say that QT libraries will leave most users completely unaffected. It's just not something that we're likely to deal with on a daily basis.

Developer opportunity

The tablet made me do it. This might be one of the biggest motivations for the Ubuntu development team to embrace the shift to the QT library inclusion. Think about these factoids as you ponder what Ubuntu will hold in its sights in the future.

• QT has its own familiarly with ARM architecture, in addition to that of x86. Going with QT means there's plenty of optimization to go around for either architecture in question. Mobile phones, tablets, netbooks – QT provides everything a growing development team could possibly want.

• Touch and multi-touch input. QT has a history of getting their touch input system into a mature form. So using QT applications on a touch-based device presents a certain appeal here for developers looking to get onto tablet computers.

Undoubtedly, there are other benefits to be had here. Yet when we consider if any perceived successes are still in the speculation stages for the Ubuntu world, one still has to wonder – should we be rocking the boat by adding QT at all? Does Ubuntu really have a chance against Chrome OS/Android and iOS on the Apple iPad?

My gut tells me no. At least, not with the kind of numbers that will make anyone stand-up and take notice. But when you factor in international sales, my pessimism is quickly put to rest. Widespread Ubuntu tablet sales all over the world would be enough to make the push for QT in Ubuntu totally worthwhile for developers.

New users at the expense of existing ones

Not to sound adverse to the advancement of technology, but I personally couldn't care less about using an Ubuntu tablet. I prefer a notebook/netbook for my portability needs. And I imagine that I'm not alone in my lack of interest here.

At the same time, regardless of my own aversion to using a tablet, the marketplace has spoken and tablets are clearly part of where portable computing is headed. And at its core, this is fantastic for the idea of spreading the idea of Linux into new hands. I wish the Ubuntu team all the success in the world. But before they get started, perhaps they can address one nagging issue yet to be resolved for us aging notebook users.

Adding QT doesn't fix legacy Ubuntu problems

The working wireless device selection is horrid for the Linux platform, regardless of distro.

I've managed to horde a fairly decent selection of USB adapters using a variety of Realtek, Ralink and Atheros based dongles with a history of ongoing stable wireless compatibility. My two main portable devices expand on this with integrated Intel and Atheros chipsets for much needed 802.11n goodness. So no complaints there.

Unfortunately, many folks trying to install Ubuntu on those "made for Windows notebooks" aren't as lucky. Many of these individuals find Ubuntu (among other distros) relying too heavily on NDISWrapper for their problem wireless devices. More often than not, this approach leads to disastrous results, with people left to fend for themselves, often posting their frustrations to the Ubuntu forums. Let me tell you, these rants have not diminished with time. Not one single bit.

Now I realize this isn't the fault of the Ubuntu distro. Ubuntu – and desktop Linux as a collective – have bent over backwards to support as many devices as possible. After all, there's great native wireless support provided out of the box. So kudos to the developers for making this possible.

Sadly though, no one in their right mind can make heads or tails out of what devices are actually going to work due to the nature of the 802.11 standard. Wireless devices rely too heavily on revision numbers. This fact alone makes keeping up a usable hardware compatibility list (HCL) for wireless dongles completely useless.

And the Ubuntu wireless compatibility list demonstrates just how pointless this truly is, with flying colors.

What's the solution then? In my view the most logical approach are Ubuntu branded Atheros- and Ralink-based dongles. I have spoken to one dongle vendor that does indeed use compatible chipsets. The possibility for consistency does exists. We simply need a "big brand" company to step up and distribute the devices.

Canonical, are you listening? I'm not looking for corporate platitudes, instead I just want answers. Before you put your core user base on the back-burner to pursue mobile computing dreams, how about addressing this glaring issue first? Perhaps there is no real motivation to care?

QT, wireless and tablets

The more I dug around looking into what I think Canonical's motivations are for the future of Ubuntu, the more I began to see what I think is a shift in the way the distro aims to work.

• Pre-bundled netbook/tablet wireless support, check.

• Netbook/Tablet focus, check.

• A focus on a move to QT that meets with the company's new vision of mobile usability, check.

Nothing listed above is necessarily wrong. What Canonical has done with Ubuntu is an amazing feat in itself. Their accomplishments deserve to be celebrated. I throughly enjoy using Ubuntu. So don't take any part of this as "Ubuntu bashing." Instead consider this commentary a reality check of things to come. If I am wrong, then let's consider the following instead.

I'd like some reassurances that the ridiculous state of wireless device consistency finally gets some attention. Tackling this with the Windows-only wireless vendors has clearly failed. It's time for a handful of Ubuntu-branded dongles for users without working integrated wireless.

If that isn't going to work, then fine. How about finding more companies like Edimax with their Ralink devices? And with no revision numbers and consistent Linux support. In theory, this should be a good match. Too bad I'm still having to compile proper functionality with 802.11n devices, as the drivers provided in Ubuntu are non-functional. Then for everyone else, let them fuel their addiction to NDISWrapper.

About the software

Refocusing ourselves once again on those QT libraries to be offered with Ubuntu, I cannot help but wonder about GTK-themed software. Will my default personal information manager remain Evolution or will we see a slow shift to its KDE counterpart?

Will we begin to see a hybrid of the Ubuntu/Kubuntu projects meshed together in some kind of Frankenstein-like experiment? As a plain-old end user, these are questions I would like more clarification on.

If history is a decent teacher, I'd suggest the possibility that everything will come out fine in the end. Despite my own gripes about how Ubuntu developers handle QT or the legacy issues not yet resolved, the fact is they clearly have managed to make things work pretty darned well.

Hopefully this continues and with any luck, the addition of QT means more shared success for the end user and the developers alike. If tablets are where Ubuntu's future is headed, let's hope it's a bright path being blazed ahead.

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