Canonical Focuses on Multi-Monitor Support In Ubuntu

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

December 23, 2011

Just a day after questioning whether multiple monitors are really necessary, I learned the design team at Canonical had purchased not two but six monitors to attach to a single computer. Fortunately, this seeming excess should benefit Ubuntu users — if not me personally — by improving the multi-monitor experience in Ubuntu. Here’s a look at these efforts so far, and how they fit into the larger open source picture.

According to a blog post Dec. 20 by Canonical designer Stewart Wilson, the design team acquired its six-monitor rig in an effort to meet the goals laid out in Multiple Monitors UX Specification Phase 1. Those goals focus on providing more rigorous support for basic use-cases connecting external monitors, projectors and TVs to Ubuntu computers in time for the upcoming 12.04 release in April 2012, with more advanced features eyeballed for future versions of the operating system.

The blog post didn’t offer much in the way of details about the updates that have been implemented so far, but it did include a video demonstrating how Canonical designers envision the multi-monitor user experience:

Since the video is billed as a “working mockup prototype,” it’s not clear how many of the features it displayed have actually been implemented so far in real code. But if things end up working as well in practice as they do in the prototype — where working with different monitors appears almost as simple and intuitive as using multiple virtual desktops — Ubuntu stands to benefit greatly.

Past and Present

At the risk of renewing the bitter debate on Unity’s merits, I have to admit that when I first read about the commitment to improving multi-monitor support in Ubuntu, my thought was that none of this was would be an issue in the first place if GNOME 2 were still around.

In GNOME 2, even back in my wistful days as a Mandriva user, I never had trouble getting an external monitor or projector connected to my laptop or setting up dual monitors on a desktop. Configuring a second screen and deciding how it should fit into GNOME, although not a totally painless process, was easy enough. Unity always seemed like a reversion to me in this respect, since it lacked any kind of solid multi-screen awareness.

Thus I’m glad to see Canonical addressing this issue. Even better, I’m excited to see that the designers are focused not just on restoring the functionality available under GNOME 2, but also going further by aiming to build a more streamlined and user-friendly experience out-of-the-box.

Of course, for now most of these improvements remain theoretical. In addition, their implementation will be gradual; the monitor initiative is a multi-release effort, with only its first stage planned to be ready in time for Ubuntu 12.04.

But the enhancements could set some important examples for other Linux distributions and open source developers to follow by driving home the importance of impeccable hardware support for all users — even those who, unlike me, aren’t content with virtual desktops alone.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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