Canonical's Mir move doesn't sit well with some Linux developers

Move toward display server MIR creates controversy

Nobody could accuse Canonical of resting on its laurels. The business side of Ubuntu – the best-known desktop Linux distribution – has expanded aggressively into mobility, pushed forward with a new desktop environment, and continued to release new versions of the flagship OS over the past few years.

Not everyone is happy with the direction in which Ubuntu is being pushed, however. The new desktop environment, called Unity, quickly became a target for some community critics, who prefer the traditional GNOME environment. A search “pane” feature that displayed results from third-party sites like Amazon was attacked as a privacy breach.

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Canonical’s latest tiff with the community at large, centers on the recent news that it will introduce its own display server – the underlying software stack that powers GUIs – called Mir. The idea, according to the company, is to create a flexible platform for the Unity Next interface, which is meant to be an adaptable one-size-fits-all offering for desktops, TVs, tablets and phones.

It’s an ambitious plan – but one that doesn’t sit well with developers of alternative desktops that use the older X or Wayland display servers. Thanks to the open-source nature of Ubuntu, a host of spin-off distributions have sprung up around the OS, some of which will have to be dramatically overhauled after the eventual switch to Mir. That will mean a lot of work, thanks to a decision they didn’t have any say in.

Martin Graesslin is a developer working on KDE, another popular Linux desktop environment. (KDE is used in Kubuntu, one of the aforementioned spin-off distributions.) While he says the Mir process is still young, and that there are several ways forward for distros like Kubuntu, Canonical must have realized that there would be a lot of dissatisfaction at the decision.

“I think they should have expected the backlash, and it happened before with the switch from GNOME to Unity for example,” he said. “On the other hand if Canonical expected it they could have prepared better for it. So overall, I rather think that they did not expect such a strong backlash.”

Graesslin wrote in a blog post this spring that Mir represents a “major disruption” and that Canonical has misrepresented the degree to which Mir will be compatible with GNOME and KDE.

Others face the same issue. The lead designer of the streamlined ElementaryOS distro, Daniel Foré, says that while he doesn’t have a strong opinion on whether to stick with Wayland or switch to Mir, the former option looks more attractive right now.

“I think most of us are leaning towards Wayland since it seems that upstream [GIMP toolkit] and GNOME (particularly relevant for LibMutter which powers our window manager Gala) are focusing on support there and Canonical seems to now be dedicated to Qt,” he said. “So chances are that Gtk will be a bit of a second class citizen on Mir and LibMutter may not even work.”

That said, according to Foré, being based on Ubuntu in the first place could mean ElementaryOS is in a good position to move to Mir.

“I think in the end it will simply come down to which is ready first and supports the rest of our stack the best,” he said.

Email Jon Gold at and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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