Ubuntu Plans More Non-Traditional Moves With Wayland

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

November 8, 2010

4 Min Read
Ubuntu Plans More Non-Traditional Moves With Wayland

Close on the heels of the controversial announcement two weeks ago that Unity would replace GNOME as the default desktop interface in the next version of Ubuntu, Canonical’s independent streak continued recently with news that it plans to move Ubuntu away from its dependence on X.org.  Here are the details, and what this means to Canonical’s larger plans.

Anyone who’s used Linux anywhere in the last 20 or so years is likely familiar with X, the open-source implementation of X11 on top of which most Unix-like operating systems build their graphical user interfaces.  While a variety of alternatives to X exist, many of them open-source, all mainstream Linux distributions currently live and love (or not) X.  Despite a variety of criticisms that date back to the protocol’s early days, most distribution developers have concluded that it’s better than the alternatives.

Ubuntu, however, stands poised to break that trend by abandoning X in favor of Wayland, a much younger windowing system.  Introduced in 2008 by Red Hat engineer Kristian Høgsberg, Wayland attempts to address many of the traditional shortcomings in X–particularly those that are most annoying to desktop users, such as screen redraw issues and the unnecessary bloat associated with the traditional X.org framework.

X to the Wayside

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth announced the Wayland decision on his blog, declining to commit to any specific timeframe for completing the switch to Wayland but pointing at one year as a general goal.

Notably, Shuttleworth was careful to make clear that Ubuntu is by no means ditching X entirely:

We’re confident we’ll be able to retain the ability to run X applications in a compatibility mode, so this is not a transition that needs to reset the world of desktop free software…X will be around a long time, hence the importance of our confidence levels on the idea of a compatibility environment.

He also made clear, however, that Canonical believes Wayland to be a better candidate for delivering the user experience that Ubuntu developers envision, with the Unity desktop environment and the uTouch input system at its core.

A More Unique Ubuntu?

Considered within the larger context of the recent decision to break with GNOME in favor of Unity, as well as other changes in recent years that have moved Ubuntu farther away from the traditional mainstream Linux software stack, the Wayland announcement underlines Canonical’s vision for setting Ubuntu apart from other Linux distributions.  Ubuntu running Unity, with Wayland providing the graphical backend and uTouch supporting a rich set of touchscreen-based input functionality, will look and likely feel much different than Fedora, Suse and other popular open-source operating systems.

Of course, Ubuntu developers have a lot of work ahead if they hope to build a Wayland-based desktop experience that surpasses that of current distributions.  Beyond convincing application developers to work with Wayland, the Ubuntu team and its partners will need to adapt a wide range of hardware drivers to support the framework, a task which will require more than a little manpower.

On that latter front, Ubuntu received a bit of a setback on Sunday, when an Nvidia representative announced that the company has “no plans” to support Wayland with its proprietary Unix driver.  In theory, that’s not a showstopper because there should be little difficulty converting the open-source nouveau driver to work with Wayland on Nvidia hardware.  Unfortunately, however, since nouveau remains in development and still lacks important features–namely, stable support for 3D acceleration–Nvidia’s proprietary driver remains essential for many users.

Of course, a lot could change with nouveau in a year’s time, especially if Ubuntu’s Wayland plans entice more developers to contribute to the project and finally break Nvidia users’ dependence on a closed-source driver.  Nvidia could also be convinced to change its mind and support Wayland after all.  For now, we’ll wait and see.

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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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