Ubuntu first gained attention for being an easy-to-install and easy-to-use version of Linux. But that was not all. Ubuntu was exciting. Canonical and the Ubuntu community innovated the desktop, thinking creatively about what the Linux experience needed or could become.
Two decades later, Ubuntu has more users, but that fire doesn’t seem to be burning as bright. Here are some reasons why the Ubuntu desktop now looks relatively dark.
1. Ubuntu is now more reactive than proactive
For years, Canonical has tried to create its own desktop environment. Unity was an ambitious attempt to create an experience that scales well across desktops and mobile devices. It was an expensive undertaking, and Canonical eventually decided to switch to GNOME, patching that particular desktop to retain some aspects of the Unity experience.
In a way, it was a return to the roots of Ubuntu. Early versions of Ubuntu came with the GNOME desktop environment. But in the past, Canonical created extensions that expanded what GNOME could do.
The MeMenu has consolidated messaging and social media status into one place on your desktop. NotifyOSD notifications were an attractive way to provide passive updates. Ayatana indicators cleaned the system tray.
Today, Canonical is patching GNOME not to add new features, but to preserve the existing experience. Making the dock always visible and on the left is not a design upgrade or improvement, just a different approach. Putting desktop icons on the desktop is nothing new, just an effort to preserve functionality that a number of people still expect.
As new versions of GNOME become bolder and more creative in their design, such as with the release of GNOME 40, Canonical’s desktop team spends time trying to incorporate the latest GNOME updates while modifying the least possible the Unity-inspired experience. But as GNOME changes, Ubuntu inevitably changes too, just without a consistent vision.
2. Other distros don’t follow Ubuntu’s lead
When one office does something exciting, others follow. Consider, for better or worse, the extent to which software design emulated Apple design after the release of Mac OS X and iOS.
In the free software world, leadership isn’t just about inspiring others to do the same. There is leadership in collaboration. Elementary OS, despite being a relatively small project, brings innovations that eventually find their way into GNOME and other desktops, such as the introduction of a mode standard dark and accent colors. Fedora is leading the way with the development of backend technologies such as the Wayland display server and PipeWire.
At this point, Ubuntu has established a long list of projects that other Linux distributors have shown little interest in adopting. This includes the Unity desktop environment, the Mir display server, and the Snap universal package format.
Ubuntu’s influence on other Linux desktops seems to come mostly from a reliable infrastructure that others can rely on, much like Debian.
You can see further evidence of this change in some of the reasons many people give for using Ubuntu. It’s often not about Ubuntu-specific features, but having access to all software tested to work on Ubuntu and the vast pool of support available for online distribution.
3. Fun innovations are happening elsewhere
Other Linux-based desktops have picked up the slack in finding bold innovation and experimentation. Ironically, a number of them are based on Ubuntu. For example, Elementary OS shows what a paid app store might look like that provides software designed specifically for a distro.
Pop!_OS, at least until System76 develops its own desktop environment, shows that a desktop can respond to GNOME changes while remaining proactive. Pop!_OS focuses on features for power users, such as creating a tileable window manager extension that saves users from having to trade in the entire desktop environment for such functionality.
GNOME itself, especially since the release of GNOME 40, is making great strides in design. The whole experience is space-oriented, with zooming out to your workspace to launch apps and back to get to work.
Libadwaita provides developers with a library that gives GTK4-based applications a consistent look with animations and the ability to automatically adapt to mobile devices. Stock GNOME is available on many distros, but Fedora Linux is known as the easiest place to check out what GNOME does.
4. The desk is starting to lack finish
One of the first screens you see after installing Ubuntu is a pop-up showing some of the apps you can install. Many examples consist of closed-source apps that people already use on Windows, macOS, or their smartphones.
This means that these are names many people already know, and yet the names of some apps aren’t even capitalized. In the screenshot above, Visual Studio Code just appears as “code”. Zoom does not appear as “Zoom” but as “zoom-client”.
Your home folder contains places to store your documents, music, photos, videos, and other types of files. These folders are in uppercase and are accompanied by stylized icons. Then there is a lowercase generic folder titled “snap”. What is happening here? Is it safe to delete?
Technical users know that this folder has something to do with Canonical’s snap format, but being able to use your computer without needing that kind of technical knowledge was part of Ubuntu’s appeal in the first place.
Canonical will delay an Ubuntu release when critical issues arise, such as a security vulnerability that needs to be patched or an ISO that doesn’t boot on certain systems. That those core issues that impact people’s first impression of the office can make it stick out and last for years, affirm that the office is no longer a primary issue (that, and how far you need to scroll on the Ubuntu website to see a mention of the word “desktop”).
5. Ubuntu software tends to lag
Wayland has been around for years, and it’s long been established as a replacement for the aging X.Org display server. Ubuntu gave Wayland a try in 2017, but then stuck with X for several years. Wayland wasn’t ready yet, the office team said.
While Fedora shows support for new technologies by adopting them early and making them the default, Ubuntu is much more cautious.
Unfortunately, this is not limited to large backend components which can break many expected features in a wide range of applications. Ubuntu 21.04 shipped GNOME 3.38, the same version included in Ubuntu 20.10, although GNOME 40 has already landed. This meant that Ubuntu users were stuck on GNOME 3.38 for an entire year.
When Ubuntu 21.10 upgraded to GNOME 40, GNOME 41 was already available in other distributions. What feature changes do new versions of GNOME break? Canonical extensions and themes. Users had to wait longer for Canonical to adapt its own customizations.
This problem extends beyond the desktop environment itself. The introduction of universal package formats has made it easier to get the latest versions of applications, but if you depend on the traditional repository, that software is often outdated, especially on long-term support releases. The contrast is particularly stark when comparing Ubuntu to a streaming distro, like Arch Linux.
So that’s it, Ubuntu does nothing?
Not at all. Ubuntu contributes to the development of GNOME, improving interface speed for everyone, not just Ubuntu users. Distros in general may not have rallied around snap, but people using these distros can still install apps from Canonical’s store. Canonical’s Hardware Enablement Stack gives Ubuntu-based Linux distributions greater support for the latest hardware.
In the end, Canonical and Ubuntu remain an invaluable part of the Linux community, even if the Ubuntu desktop has become somewhat of a victim of its own success.
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