Canonical's Ubuntu Linux already does many things differently from other leading open source operating systems. And it may soon diverge in yet another respect, with Ubuntu developers in the midst of discussions over replacing Nautilus—the file browser that has long been a core part of many Linux distributions—with something home-grown.
First, some background: Nautilus is part of GNOME, one of the open source community's biggest software projects. The GNOME desktop environment provided the interface for the desktop version of Ubuntu from Ubuntu's launch in 2004 up until April 2011, when Canonical replaced it with Unity, a new type of interface it developed itself—partially as an effort to forge a common Ubuntu interface that would work equally well on desktops, tablets and phones.
Yet even after Ubuntu ceased to ship with the whole GNOME software stack, it retained some key parts of it, including Nautilus. (And the rest of GNOME has always been available to users to download and add to Ubuntu if they wish.) But now, Ubuntu developers are discussing removing Nautilus entirely at some point in the future. The major reason is changes in the way Nautilus works, including "ripping out things like dual pane and other beloved and helpful features," according to developers.
The app they want to replace Nautilus with, currently called just "File Manager application for Ubuntu devices," has already been in development for some time, but the Ubuntu development team is now hoping to articulate a clearer vision of what exactly the new file browser will look like, and how it will integrate with the rest of Ubuntu.
Given the current state of Canonical's alternative file browsing app, it will surely be a long time before Nautilus disappears from Ubuntu. And for end users, the change probably won't make much of a difference: After all, a file browser is just a file browser, and Canonical can probably write one that works pretty much as well as Nautilus.
But from a channel perspective, the move is significant because it eliminates yet another link between Ubuntu and the rest of the open source ecosystem, making Canonical even less dependent on GNOME and other third-party development initiatives. And that, in turn, will enable Canonical to continue pursuing new niches, such as mobile devices, in its own way. For a long time, Canonical's vision of what Linux could be beyond the server world—a scalable, portable platform that provides a consistent user experience across different types of devices—has grown apart from the priorities of other major Linux distributions, and Nautilus's removal is another significant step down that path.