Why Don't Other Linux Distros Use Unity? A Few Thoughts

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

January 23, 2012

4 Min Read
Why Don't Other Linux Distros Use Unity? A Few Thoughts

Last week I wrote about spinoffs of Ubuntu, noting that some of the once popular ones have now gone dormant. But later, I realized something else interesting: No Ubuntu variant — not a single one — uses Unity as its default desktop interface. Keep reading for some thoughts on why this might be, and what it says about Ubuntu and Canonical.

Admittedly, I have to give most of the credit for noticing the lack of Unity-based spinoffs of Ubuntu to an attentive reader of my earlier post named Jake, who pointed out in the comments that most Ubuntu remixes predate the adoption of Unity. Indeed: According to DistroWatch, there are exactly two Linux distributions that ship with Unity as their default interface: Ubuntu and Leenux, a relatively obscure spinoff that on its webpage actually appears to use the old Netbook Remix interface that Unity replaced. So that means that of the approximately 125 official and unofficial Ubuntu variants out there, Ubuntu itself is the only one based on Unity.

That’s kind of a big deal. I can’t think of any other Linux distribution that’s so unique with regard to its interface. Nor do any of the mainstream distros, with the exception of Ubuntu, use desktop environments developed in-house; instead, most of them are built around GNOME Shell or KDE, which are third-party projects.

All Part of the Plan?

Why might this be so? There are several potential explanations.

The first — which will appeal to those users who wish that Unity had never been created — is that the interface is simply unpopular. That might be part of the answer, but it’s not sufficient on its own. While there has been plenty of trepidation regarding Unity, there are also people who actually like it — and not all them, believe or not, work for Canonical. In addition, as Ubuntu developers continue to revamp the interface and fix the problems that marked earlier versions, it stands to gain a larger following. Attributing the lack of Unity-based Ubuntu spinoffs to user rejection alone is not a satisfying explanation.

Some might argue also that Unity is harder to work with from a technical standpoint. But I’d disagree. This might be a point best debated by serious developers, but based on my own limited experience remastering Linux distributions, it doesn’t seem to me that Unity should make things any more difficult. Like any other desktop environment, it’s just a set of packages that can be added or removed to a remixed software stack pretty easily.

The third explanation, and the one which makes the most sense to me, is that no one has spun off Unity because Canonical has kept the interface so close to home, so to speak. Precisely because Unity is different from GNOME Shell, KDE and the like in the sense that it’s developed by Canonical rather than partners elsewhere in the open source channel, Canonical has been able to exert much more rigid control over it.

Unity is open source, of course, and anyone is legally entitled to do with it what he or she wants as long as he or she respects the relevant licenses. But Unity is so tightly integrated with Ubuntu itself that it hasn’t made sense to build Ubuntu spinoffs based on Unity. For Unity to work well it needs the software stack that ships with Ubuntu proper.

It’s also telling that Unity has not been distributed outside of Ubuntu’s own channel. An effort to port it to Fedora fizzled out, and I couldn’t even find RPM packages of the software anywhere. Meanwhile, the only up-to-date Launchpad PPA for Unity currently supports Ubuntu 12.04 alone. In other words, even just installing Unity on a distribution that’s not Ubuntu remains a tall order, too difficult for most people to consider.

And my suspicion is that this is exactly the way Canonical wanted things. The company has been stingy with Unity most likely because it believes Ubuntu will be most successful if it has a unique desktop environment that allows it to stand out from the constellation of competing Linux distributions. Canonical wants Ubuntu to be something special, and Unity — as it exists today, and as it will evolve in the future as it expands to TVs and beyond — is a central part of that formula.

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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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