Is Shuttleworth Crazy, Brave, or Smart?

by Ostatic Staff - Nov. 05, 2010

Last week Mark Shuttleworth dropped the bomb that the next release of Ubuntu, 11.04, would ship with Unity as the default window manager. This caused a lot of concern throughout the community, but most were getting used to the idea, appeased by the knowledge that GNOME Shell would be but a few clicks away. But yesterday he went even further - he announced that Ubuntu would be moving to the Wayland graphical server as well. Has Shuttleworth lost his mind? Or does he know something we don't?

One of the biggest problems with Unity is that it requires graphical hardware acceleration in order to function properly, but then Ubuntu ships with open source drivers and provides easy access to proprietary graphical drivers that provide this functionality. So, most early concerns on this topic again were appeased for the most part. But with yesterday's announcement, this becomes a very serious issue among others.

The first issue to note is how young the Wayland project is compared to what it is actually designed to do. Wayland is a bold idea that everything is direct rendered and composited while passing most of the work on to the kernel and graphic libraries (such as Cairo or Freetype). The results should be a simpler, lighter weight graphical server that can serve up several desktops without excessive additional overhead. All exciting prospects, but the technology is not ready to ship with only MeeGo OS signed up to actually ship it.

Up until yesterday MeeGo was the only future user because Wayland is still quite limited in terms of compatible hardware and software as well as the lack of 3D acceleration demanded by Unity. Fortunately, the move to Wayland isn't slated for 11.04 and may not even be ready for 11.10. In fact, it may have to be pushed back even further. It will have to be until this major conflict is resolved.

Folks are standing around the halls and water coolers with their jaws dragging the floor as the prospect begins to sink in with the media coverage. What is he thinking?

Sure, some speculate his goal is to provide a common look and feel across the many devices in use today such as laptops, netbooks, smartphones, tablet PCs, and the old dinosaur desktop PCs. The corporate world has been trying to find a way to make money off this "Internet thing" especially since the price of computer hardware fell. Software as a Service and its ilk never wildly caught on. The latest trend is cloud computing, which is essentially SaaS and storage combined, and expensive mobile devices. That's probably where Mark's ambitions lie. Ubuntu One, the music store, and paid applications were rolled out to introduce the idea of paying and remote services to Ubuntu users. But there's little call for cloud computing with desktops users. It's the mobile customer that can really use the cloud storage capacity. And those eying a profit are looking upward.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. But Shuttleworth and company need to be prepared for the backlash coming from their previously targeted audience - the desktop user. And it is coming. Blogs and mainstream media are still lamenting the move to Unity and the fallout from the Wayland announcement will reverberate for months to come. Few kid themselves that Shuttleworth cares. He's an entrepreneur who wants a return on his investment. Again, nothing wrong with that, but Canonical should grow tougher skin.

Jono Bacon posted another blog entry this morning trying to smooth over the controversies created by the direction Ubuntu is being taken by basically stating that anyone disagreeing hasn't bothered to research the topic on which they speak. And if they are going to speak out, be nice about it. That tack isn't going to win any supporters. Desktop users want to know the Ubuntu they've always loved and propelled to the top, and do not doubt it was the loyal masses who did this for Ubuntu, will always be available and workable on their hardware. Unity and Wayland can not guarantee this and, in all likelihood, won't ever.

What Shuttleworth and most of the cloud proponents fail to realize is no one will ever trust their livelihood (or even their porn collection) to some remote server with unknown employees and affiliations. The cloud is not going to rule the world no matter how many articles are written, how often the word is buzzed around, or how many new providers emerge.

There's little doubt that Mark Shuttleworth is just a very brave man. It takes a brave man to exit the Earth's atmosphere and stake his future financial security on open source software. But sometimes bravado kills the cat too.