Hard on the heels of Canonical's controversial decision to use the 3D-enabled Unity interface in its desktop Ubuntu operating system came word late last week that it will also adopt a new graphics system.
Rather than the venerable X Server and X Window system, open source Ubuntu Linux will include instead Wayland, a lean, OpenGL-based display management system, Mark Shuttleworth said in a post on his blog.
"We don't believe X is set up to deliver the user experience we want, with super-smooth graphics and effects," Shuttleworth explained. "I understand that it's *possible* to get amazing results with X, but it's extremely hard and isn't going to get easier."
Progress on the two-year-old Wayland project, meanwhile, "is sufficient for me to be confident that no other initiative could outrun it, especially if we deliver things like Unity and uTouch with it," he added. The change will probably show up in about a year, though it could take as long as four or more years "to really move the ecosystem," Shuttleworth predicted.
Ubuntu 11.04, or Natty Narwhal, is due in April, with a first alpha release now scheduled to arrive early next month, according to recent changes on the project's wiki.
The X Window System, also known as X or X11, dates back to 1984 and is considered by many to be slow and bloated, as noted in an early suggestion in 2008 that it could be replaced by Wayland, which at the time was brand new.
The X.org implementation of the X Window System is included in pretty much all mainstream desktop Linux distributions, where it's responsible for displaying onscreen graphics as well as mediating user input.
Because the base X11 technology dates back so far, portions of it are no longer needed, while newer capabilities must typically be added on as extensions. Wayland, on the other hand, offers the advantages of being built around recent graphics technologies such as kernel mode-setting and the Graphics Execution Manager. It also has its own built-in compositing manager. Among the X11 capabilities not included in Wayland is network transparency.
Making the transition to Wayland won't be an easy task for the Ubuntu project, since drivers, third party software and all of the other layers of the stack will need to be adapted accordingly.
For users, however, the change shouldn't be too disruptive, Shuttleworth said: "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."
Still, on top of the news about Unity, many in the Ubuntu community are concerned.
"Desktop users want to know the Ubuntu they've always loved and propelled to the top, and do not doubt it was the loyal masses who did this for Ubuntu, will always be available and workable on their hardware," wrote Susan Linton in an OStatic blog, for example. "Unity and Wayland can not guarantee this and, in all likelihood, won't ever."
I see it differently. In my view, the move is one more sign that Ubuntu has achieved enough success on the desktop to boldly strike out on its own to get what it needs for even broader success in an increasingly graphical world. As a longtime Ubuntu fan, I confess it's all making me a bit nervous.
At the same time, though, I'm excited to see such consumer-focused confidence from the top Linux distribution. No longer an "also-ran" alongside Mac and Windows, Ubuntu is gunning to take the lead.