Ubuntu Desktop: charting a course for the future
Photo by Geranimo, Unsplash
It has been a little while since we shared our vision for Ubuntu Desktop, and explained how our current roadmap fits into our long term strategic thinking. Recently, we embarked on an internal exercise to consolidate and bring structure to our values and goals for how we plan to evolve the desktop experience over the next few years. This post is designed to share the output of those discussions and give insight into the direction we’re going.
These values form the framework by which we determine our priorities and measure our progress, and hopefully inspire those that want to contribute to this experience to focus their energies in ways that are aligned with our longer term ambitions.
Where are we now?
Before looking ahead, let’s take the time to acknowledge Ubuntu Desktop’s position in the wider OS landscape. Starting with some stats:
- Ubuntu Desktop has more than 6 million monthly active users (based on devices checking for desktop-specific updates and not including those behind a corporate firewall or proxy).
- Ubuntu Desktop is by far the most popular Linux distribution for developers (~27% in the 2023 Stack Overflow developer survey).
- Ubuntu Desktop is the most used desktop Linux distribution for gaming (when you include older LTS and interim releases grouped inside the ‘Other category’ on the Steam hardware survey).
But this is not a position to be complacent about. We must be hyper-aware that the desktop landscape is rapidly evolving in a variety of ways, including:
- The increasing focus on security, including a wide range of MFA tools, secure boot, hardware backed encryption and immutable OS’s.
- The rapid transition of user data and enterprise management suites to the cloud.
- The growing usability of cloud desktops, even for high-end software engineering.
- The introduction of more experimental technologies like embedded AI, such as Windows Copilot.
- The concept of augmented or virtual reality productivity environments, such as the Apple Vision Pro.
With this in mind, it is not enough to polish what we have, we must build momentum to address these evolving user needs in a way that is uniquely ‘Ubuntu’, adheres to our mission and the broader values of the open source development community.
That is why the Ubuntu Desktop team continues to grow rapidly, so that we can reinforce our foundations, explore new technologies and use cases, and serve our ever growing user-base.
Why are values important?
Values help us articulate the reasons behind the goals we set ourselves. They represent commonly understood priorities from our users that may manifest at different levels in the product. From specific features, to combinations of features, to simply a philosophy behind our development practices.
They also provide a persistent through-line across Ubuntu releases. It’s one thing to list all of the new features we plan to land in Ubuntu 23.10, but to do so in a way that everyone understands that these are stepping stones to broader goals makes it easier for users to appreciate our motivations and follow our journey towards a commonly understood end-point.
Let’s illustrate this with an example:
In Ubuntu 23.04, we changed the Desktop installer from Ubiquity to Subiquity, the new Ubuntu Server installer.
The “feature” view of this change is a new desktop installer that is more flexible and unifies the tech stack so that development effort is centralised.
But we could view this as a stepping stone towards a longer term goal: “Zero touch deployment” or the ability for users to take a laptop pre-installed with a standard Ubuntu image and apply customisations on first boot to create a personalised or enterprise specific installation through device enrollment.
This goal is made up of many features, the new installer being just one of them, and to achieve it will be a multi-cycle effort that gradually adds more elements of this design over time.
We have shifted the way we plan in the Ubuntu community, to make these high level goals the primary topics of discussion and debate, so that we can more easily include a wider group of voices into the Ubuntu roadmap.
But why did we choose that as a goal? And how do we maintain focus on such a long term initiative over many releases? Well, this is because such a feature lives up to a number of our core values listed below. Let’s see if you can identify which ones.
The Ubuntu Desktop values
Ubuntu Desktop is used by millions of people from all over the world. This includes Linux enthusiasts, gamers, freelancers, students, administrators and professional developers, so it’s challenging to narrow our roadmap thinking to simply targeting specific types of users.
To ensure that we are maximising our efforts to provide exciting new capabilities to as many users as possible, we need to reduce this complexity space to a set of values that would resonate with as many people as possible.
These are the result of that thinking, first at a high level and then illustrated with more specific examples from our upcoming Ubuntu 23.10.
- Ubuntu 23.10: This one we’re keeping quiet about for now, stay tuned!
The features we ship in Ubuntu should be high quality, well designed and form a coherent experience that is both intuitive to new users and highly efficient for power users.
- Ubuntu 23.10: We’re continuing to refine the first time user experience beyond what we delivered in Ubuntu 23.04, including a new, more modern and performant app store (also part of our enjoyment value, see below).
Backed by our global community and Canonical, Ubuntu Desktop should be well documented, easy to troubleshoot and securely maintained for the lifecycle of each Long Term Supported release. Ubuntu Pro is available to everyone and Canonical’s support teams deliver enterprise-grade support services to those organisations that require it.
- Ubuntu 23.10: Thanks to the migration to Subiquity, it’s possible to use autoinstall to customise desktop images via cloud-init. We are working on the desktop specific elements of that. Check out Dave Jone’s blogs on building Ubuntu flavour images for Raspberry Pi for inspiration.
A desktop operating system should be more than just productive, it should be a pleasure to use. The touchpad should feel good, games should run well, your favourite software should be easy to find and your workspaces should be intuitive to navigate.
- Ubuntu 23.10: Our new Ubuntu Software application is designed to make it easier than ever to find and manage the software you need. Quarter-screen tiling will also land as a first implementation to help you manage your workspaces more easily.
Ubuntu should feel lightweight and responsive across a wide range of hardware for a range of tasks from gaming to development to day-to-day productivity. It should also be efficient, particularly when it comes to the battery life of your devices.
- Ubuntu 23.10: Our partnership with Intel on hardware accelerated video encoding and decoding in the Chromium snap is now making its way to stable.
Privacy by design
Privacy is an increasingly important value to users in every sphere of life. We want to ensure that users feel in control of their data and have the tools to manage and understand their privacy status when using Ubuntu.
- Ubuntu 23.10: We are investing in a new prompting mechanism that asks users to provide and manage additional permissions requested by applications (such as specific file access).
Security by default
Ubuntu Desktop must hold itself to the highest standards of security for both daily users and organisations with specific compliance requirements. Ubuntu’s recommended security configurations should be easy to understand and available as the default experience.
- Ubuntu 23.10: We are currently working on a highly experimental implementation of hardware-backed full disk encryption as an option in the Ubuntu installer and the newest release of software-properties improves security for PPA key management.
Ubuntu should deliver a coherent and consistent experience across Desktop and Server where it makes sense to do so. It should be easy to introduce Ubuntu into the wider ecosystem of developer, identity and device management tools.
- Ubuntu 23.10: By bringing Netplan to Ubuntu Desktop we will deliver a more unified experience for those managing Ubuntu across both server and desktop.
Looking towards the future
We should always be working to identify new technologies that could improve Ubuntu Desktop in the context of our other values and implement them in a thoughtful, mission-aligned manner.
- Ubuntu 23.10: In parallel we are also working on Ubuntu Core Desktop, an immutable version of the classic desktop experience, an additional choice for Linux Desktop users designed to improve security, quality and stability.
As you can tell from some of the examples, each of these values can be interpreted and applied in a variety of ways across the Ubuntu stack, even internally we are still identifying new things to explore or consider inspired by this framework.
We know this list is not exhaustive. We sometimes fall short of fulfilling these bold goals. But that’s why we put them on paper: because we want to focus on achieving these high standards we’ve set for ourselves.
If you believe in these values and want to challenge us, or even contribute to making them a reality, we want you to be part of our journey.
I look forward to hearing your thoughts and returning to this topic towards the end of the year in the context of Ubuntu Desktop 24.04 LTS.
We think it’s going to be pretty special.