Ubuntu Linux 13.10 Preview: Docking With Mir

Ubuntu continues to push the envelope and aggravate the community with each new release. In this newest version, there aren’t any “Unity” type changes to the UI, but one of the more controversial changes in recent memory is just about ready for prime time as they change the underlying Window Manager to “Mir”. Let’s take a quick look at that and some of the other changes from version 13.04 to 13.10.

How Do We Look?
Here is a screenshot of good old Ubuntu 13.04:

Ubuntu 13.04 Raring Ringtail

and here is new Ubuntu 13.10 (Beta):

Not really much difference and everything that was available before is still available. This is not really where the controversy comes (although I find that the Unity lenses look and perform better in 13.10 Beta).

Quick Laundry List
Here is a high level overview of some of the differences in 13.04 vs. 13.10:

 

    • Touch screen support and updates

 

    • Additional lenses

 

    • Improved compositing support

 

    • New Kernel

 

    • Mir Included (see below)

 

    • Improved mobile device support

 

    • ARM support

 

    • Remove all references to “Linux” from screens

 

Remove all references to “Linux”? You heard right, it’s been hinted at (and in fact, checking their home page will not turn up a single reference to the word) and now has made it into (or out of) the operating system. “Ubuntu is not Linux” according to Mr. Shuttleworth as they continue to try and differentiate Ubuntu in the eyes of the world and develop their own branding. Commercialization of Linux, say it ain’t so!

Mir: More Than a Space Station
So what is the big deal about Mir? What is it? In short, Mir is Ubuntu’s replacement for the X Window System. This is part of their strategy to move beyond the desktop (which is seen as a shrinking market as everyone has their phone, tablets and eReaders) and will support “Ubuntu Mobile”. This is to be the operating system for “Ubuntu Edge” and the other devices that may have been announced or just hinted at.

To get this over with, here is an example of what Mir looks like:

This is being referred to as “Scopes” and is intended as a more “web focused” approach to content on the desktop. Other than that, it looks the same as Unity in 12.04, 12.10 and 13.04. So why do it? X Windows is long in the tooth and has had a myriad of issues for quite some time that have been largely unaddressed over many years. Recently however, the Wayland graphics stack has started to move into other distributions as the successor X Windows, but Ubuntu is going off on their own and implementing their own replacement. There are a large number of discussions about Ubuntu’s reasoning for that, which we will not go into here, but what it means for the end user is a couple of things.

One positive is that there won’t be the need to mess with the “xorg.conf” file ever again. That configuration is no longer used as they move away from X Windows and is never to return. All versions of Ubuntu will now run on a single graphics stack, which should mean simplified overall configurations that are more consistent across devices. Therein lies the rub as they say. The graphics stack still has to communicate with the underlying hardware and 3rd party graphics vendors (i.e. ATI and NVidia) are not happy and have waffled as to whether they will support the operating system graphics. Given the refocus off of the desktop, that appears to be fine with Ubuntu. Here is a short list of items that still are not right with Mir, and that does not even include 3rd party driver support:

 

    • No multi-monitor support

 

    • Composition not working well or at all (i.e. 3D effects or gaming)

 

    • No power management

 

    • No VESA support

 

    • Accessibility broken

 

    • Multi session support broken

 

All these problems are as of September 2013, and it launches/releases in October. Is Ubuntu abandoning the desktop in general?

Final Thoughts
Although I concur that X Windows needed a major overhaul and replacement, I do not believe that Mir is good for anyone, not even Ubuntu. Only recently have we started to get real gaming support on the Linux desktop and that is arguably because of Steam and the ubiquity of Ubuntu as a Linux desktop operating system. Does this change invalidate or erase those strides? I hope that what we see is a wholesale “punt” by the end user community on version 13.10 and that Ubuntu gets that it can monetize its property without causing the regression of Linux on the desktop that we have seen in the past view years.

Mir may be the new frontier for Ubuntu, but it may very well send the rest of us into orbit. Hit me up in the comments below and share your thoughts!

Terrence T. Cox

A veteran of twenty years in Information Technology in a variety of roles. He has worked in development, security and infrastructure well before they merged into what we now call DevOps. He provides training in Linux, VMWare, DevOps (Ansible, Jenkins, etc) as well as containers and AWS topics.