In what appears to be a growing penchant among open source developers for naming things after Soviet spacecraft, Canonical recently announced a new project called Mir. And while it doesn't actually have much (or anything) to do with outer space, it could have major implications for open source user interfaces throughout the channel--not to mention for Canonical itself as it strives to "converge" its Ubuntu offerings across a range of hardware devices.
Quite unlike the space station of the same name, the Mir project exists to create a new display server for Linux. It will replace the venerable X.org implementation of the X Window System, which comprises one of the core components of virtually every major Linux distribution out there today.
Mir, according to Canonical, will offer a number of improvements over X that will prove particularly beneficial for tablets, phones and other touch-enabled mobile devices. But it is being designed to work across all hardware platforms, and--if it gains wide adoption by other Linux distributions besides Ubuntu--it could help to drive innovation in interface design across the open source channel.
While Canonical's decision to develop a new display server for Linux itself was a bit surprising, the company's vision for radically changing the way open source platforms handle graphics and interfaces has been apparent for some time. Nearly three years ago, Canonical began investing in the uTouch project to help open source applications take better advantage of touch technology. Not too long after, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced that Canonical would eventually replace X with the Wayland display server, an open source alternative that remains in development.
The Mir announcement changed that, however, with Canonical now declaring that "our evaluation of the protocol definition revealed that the Wayland protocol does not meet our requirements." The particular reasons that Canonical cited included "future developments like 3D input devices (e.g. Leap Motion)," which Wayland may not support as well as Canonical would like.
It seems clear that Mir is another reflection of Canonical's deep commitment to making Ubuntu a truly cross-platform operating system that works as well on servers and traditional PCs as it does on mobile devices --including not just those on the market today, but also new types that will emerge in the future. And while I confess that I was a bit skeptical when Shuttleworth began speaking excitedly about these developments last year, Mir is perhaps the clearest sign yet that Canonical is prepared to make the significant technical and financial investments necessary to turn its ambitious vision into reality.
By the way, why is Canonical calling this project Mir? A definitive answer remains elusive, but perhaps it has something to do with Shuttleworth's adventures in space tourism. And it does follow nicely on Dell's Project Sputnik, the high-end Ubuntu laptop that the company introduced late last year.