28 Apr 2011

GNOME vs Ubuntu

With today’s release of Ubuntu 11.04, Ubuntu has officially diverged from the default GNOME.

For those of you who don’t know, in the open source software world (free software) there is no single company that does everything. In Windows, Microsoft creates everything (with possible exceptions of codecs etc..). Apple is sort of a merge of the two. It has a lot of proprietary software, but has also taken a lot from the open source community (, KTHML, CUPS, GCC, openSSH, etc..)

While Ubuntu is a complete operating system, Canonical (creators of Ubuntu) write relatively little code. Sure, they have a few special things in it, but, unlike Apple and Microsoft, they get all of their code from what is called ‘upstream.’ Upstream refers to software developers who write complete program that are then included in operating systems. For example. Firefox is an upstream. Downstream in this case is Ubuntu. People who use Ubuntu aren’t getting Firefox directly from Mozilla. They receive it from the downstream, Ubuntu. If the Ubuntu developers find a bug in Firefox, they can either report it upstream (to Mozilla), or, hopefully, try to fix it and submit a patch (also to upstream). Then, when Mozilla fix the issue, or accept the patch, they will release a new build of Firefox, and here comes the magic…. All downstream people will get the improvement. This includes all Linux distributions, but also the official Windows and Mac builds of Firefox. Sounds great right? The code is fixed once, and the benefits are reaped by all. This is precisely why open source works. Why reinvent the wheel. All of the above also goes for the other software in Ubuntu: the Linux kernel, OpenOffice (though now it’s LibreOffice), GIMP, VLC and of course, GNOME.

GNOME plays a huge part of Ubuntu. GNOME is a desktop environment/graphical user interface. By using GNOME, Ubuntu essentially gets a bunch of its code for free. That’s precisely why it was a bit strange that they announced that they’d be replacing a big piece of GNOME with their own in-house Unity. There are many reasons for this, but the majority are philosophical differences of opinion. Basically they wanted a little more control. Sure, there’s more competition now, which can be good, but it means there are less open source developers working together.

There are obviously quite a lot of similarities, and they both require hardware acceleration. It’s certainly a good time to be a Linux user. GNU/Linux distributions are now not just about stable and secure, they’re also about pretty! I have been using Arch Linux for a while now, which means I’m using GNOME3. I’m sure Unity will be available in one of the community repositories, but for this I think I’d rather put my trust in the original upstream.