When I first started using Linux, Ubuntu had two gray panels that went across the top and bottom of the screen, and apps were orange. Within a year, those panels became tan. Then they became black.
Soon Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, began developing its own user interface. This went through a few iterations before remaining stagnant for half a decade. Now it’s gone. Ubuntu has switched back to the GNOME desktop environment, which long ago abandoned those two gray panels for a fancy overview screen and virtual desktops.
Long story short, Ubuntu hasn’t gone anywhere, but it sure doesn’t look like it did way back when.
Whether you use Ubuntu or another Linux-based operating system, you may be asking yourself the question: Can I trust my favorite Linux desktop to stick around?
Why Do Desktops Change?
Let’s take a step away from Linux for the moment. Do other desktops undergo change?
The Ever-Changing Worlds of Windows and macOS
Windows 10 isn’t the same as Windows 8, which was different from Windows 7, which was different from Windows Vista. But with the exception of Windows 8, each release since Windows 95 has come with a start menu in the bottom left, a taskbar across the bottom, and a clock in the bottom right. The window dressing (pardon the pun) changes, but the experience remains fairly consistent.
While each version of macOS introduces more features, its overall design has been the same since the release of Mac OS X in 2001. While Macintosh desktops already had a panel across the top displaying menus and the time, Mac OS X came with a dock for managing apps as well as a glossy appearance. Newer releases have added more ways to launch and access apps.
Windows and macOS are both commercial desktops tied to giant corporations, Microsoft and Apple, which create software in order to drive a profit. Microsoft in particular feels the pressure to entice people to buy new versions of Windows by making the product look like a substantial upgrade, while at the same time keeping the experience consistent enough so as to not derail businesses and other organizations that depend on the software.
Back to Linux
On Linux, there isn’t one desktop interface that everyone uses. There are many to pick from, which you’re free to swap out as you wish. There are also many different Linux operating systems, also known as distributions, that make these desktop environments available for download in various forms. Some of these are directly run by companies, like Ubuntu, while others come from a community of people. Even in the case of the former, there’s usually a broader community helping to do some (or much) of the work.
Among Linux’s desktop interfaces, Unity was the most similar to Windows and macOS, in the sense that it was created to be a product for consumers, albeit a free one. Most Linux interfaces come around because someone, or a large group of someones, decides there needs to be a better way to interact with all of the many apps available for the free desktop.
These interfaces are free to use and free to upgrade, so you’re less likely to see arbitrary visual changes meant to attract eyeballs. Many Linux desktop and app designs have remained consistent for decades. When they do change, it’s because the developers have decided the old way is no longer adequate or, in contrast, they don’t know how to make it any better than it already is. Or it’s because the original developers have left and others have taken up the task of continuing the project.
It Comes Down to Resources
Sometimes whether an interface changes has less to do with what developers want to do and is instead constrained by what they can. Free desktops don’t have the kind of money going into them that Windows and macOS have, even when there’s a company like Canonical behind them. Some teams can’t afford to attract the kind of talent needed to do make certain improvements. Others have the know-how but simply lack the time to invest in what is ultimately a passion project separate from their day jobs.
“One of the things I’m most proud of in the last seven years is that Ubuntu itself has become completely sustainable. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Ubuntu would continue on.”
— Ubuntu Founder Mark Shuttleworth, interview with eWeek
For Unity and Canonical, resources were part of the problem. It’s not that Canonical couldn’t afford to keep working on the interface — it’s just that the interface wasn’t profitable. If the company were going to go public and attract investors, it wanted to first rid itself of big projects that weren’t making money. When it came to Unity and Ubuntu Phone, Canonical saw that it simply was not going to get a return on its investment.
Canonical is hardly the only company that has struggled to crack this nut. Linspire and Mandriva both tried to make money creating Linux operating systems. Mandriva went out of business in 2015, after sixteen years . Linspire is technically still around, but it isn’t doing anything that vaguely looks like making desktop Linux. The list of companies that have taken a stab at this is long, and the number that found success is low. At least in Canonical’s case, the company is still making money from Ubuntu, even if it isn’t from Unity.
What About Elementary OS?
This state of affairs made me nervous about my current Linux operating system of choice, Elementary OS. That project is managed by a small company consisting of a few team members, with much of the vision articulated by its founder, Daniel Foré. I’ve come to feel more comfortable with non-profit entities: Mozilla Firefox, LibreOffice, and Debian have shown resiliency over the years.
I reached out to Foré with my concerns. Obviously, he couldn’t promise anything, but he did have this to say:
“elementary started as a purely volunteer-driven Open Source project about 10 years ago now, long before we decided to incorporate. I think that’s probably the best argument for us sticking around is that we’ve been around.”
He went on to say that forming Elementary LLC helps with holding funds, paying taxes, hosting events, and the like. As for the bulk of software development? Most of the contributions are still volunteer at this point.
Elementary actually considered being a non-profit entity, and a desire to make money was not why it didn’t go in that direction. As the Yorba Foundation (original creator of Geary and Shotwell) discovered, achieving non-profit status in the U.S. as a free software project isn’t a sure thing.
Becoming a non-profit can also come with restrictions that can make it hard for a small team to operate, such as the inability to hold on to savings, which would qualify as making a profit. This is why non-profit entities such as the GNOME Foundation and the Linux Foundation have a lengthy list of corporate donors whose money help them keep the lights on.
Questions to Ask When Picking a Linux Desktop
There’s nothing you can do to be certain your current Linux distro will stand the test of time, but there are certain questions you can ask that may lead you to one that’s likely to last.
1. How Many People Work on This?
Is this project a giant collaborative effort or one person’s pet project? The latter is a much more precarious place to be. A piece of software with too little manpower can stagnate simply because no one has time to work on it.
2. How Long Has the Project Existed?
A Linux distro that has been around for a decade or two is likely to have a foundation in place that keeps it running for more years to come. The founders may no longer be involved, showing that the project can survive transition and isn’t overly dependent on the continued interest of a handful of people.
3. What’s the Mission?
What is the project’s goal? If it wants to provide users with another distro or desktop environment to provide a social good or scratch an itch, then it can do so at its own pace. If the goal is to compete in the market as an open source consumer product, then the project might disappear if that bar isn’t reached. MeeGo, Firefox OS, and Ubuntu Phone are all cancelled open source smartphone projects that failed to attract enough consumer attention.
4. How Large Is the Community?
The larger the community, the more likely someone can pick up the project if the original team decides to bail. Case in point: OpenMandriva is a continuation of the software Mandriva left behind.
5. Who Contributes to the Code?
There tend to be two main approaches to open source development. There’s code dumping, where a team of internal developers throw new source code over the wall with each new release, and there’s open development, where contributions come from wherever and progress is done out in the open over the internet. Neither approach is a guarantee of anything, but code dumping does run the risk of no one outside the team having the interest or necessary expertise to pick up the project if the original developers move on.
Prominent Linux advocate Eric Raymond described these two approaches as the cathedral (code dumping) and the bazaar (open development) in an essay, expanded into a book, in the 90s.
6. Is There a Corporate Sponsor?
Fedora and openSUSE are two of the most established Linux projects out there, and each has a corporate sponsor. Red Hat and SUSE may not pump heaps of cash into either distro, but they do provide certain infrastructure that make keeping the projects alive easier to do. Plus both companies use the code to create their enterprise versions, giving them a clear incentive to keep the open source communities going.
7. Who Else Depends on This?
Are there other major companies, government departments, or school systems that rely on this Linux distro? They need this software to exist in order to accomplish important work. They may be able to help when a distro needs a hand.
8. Does the Project Infringe on Any Laws?
There’s a reason most Linux distros don’t provide multimedia codecs out of the box. That’s a murky legal issue. Distros that infringe on someone else’s copyright or trademark may even find themselves in hot water at some point. Just because someone hasn’t gone after them yet doesn’t mean they never will.
9. How Often Do New Updates Come Out?
Projects tend to peter out before they disappear for good. Unity existed largely unchanged for years before Canonical pulled the plug on the project. If your favorite distro or desktop environment isn’t seeing much active development, it may only be a matter of time before someone sends an email out over a mailing list announcing that they’re calling it quits.
Whatever Happens, Happens
Some projects do ultimately fade away. Running Moblin on an Intel Atom-powered netbook won’t exactly provide you with a current experience. Joli OS is open source, but you can’t exactly install it anymore. Sometimes all you can do is say goodbye.
But with open source software, this tends to be the exception to the rule. Unity may be gone, but Canonical did a great job making GNOME feel just like it. If you simply can’t adjust to GNOME, there are other projects doing their part to keep the Unity experience alive.
On Linux, you can swap from one distribution to another or choose a different desktop environment and usually walk away with a comparable experience. It may not always be pleasant, but it could be worse.
What open source software projects have you had to say goodbye to over the years? Are there any you wish to use but are afraid won’t be around for long? Do you feel that free and open source software is more or less likely to fade away than closed source apps? Share your thoughts in a comment!
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