MC's Journal

Ubuntu LTS: Unity, Sugar and Wayland

As you probably know I'm not usually running Linux but I confess that there are a number of GNU/Linux systems in my home. Both my sons use GNU/Linux systems and my little ARM netbook, the Genesi Efika MX Smartbook, also runs Linux.

Ludvig and I recently upgraded the Debian distribution installed on his computer. Unfortunately, some strange things happened. Some packages simply disappeared, among them update-notifier. It was weird, but re-installing the package helped. Sadly, I couldn't find the time to figure out what really happened.

Dad's Inofficial Computer Support won't be open all the time and when Ludvig moves out this autumn for college it would be good if he was running something with a little more long-time support. Enter the latest Ubuntu LTS with a pledged support of five years, even for the desktop distribution. It's a possible solution.

I have no real experience of Ubuntu but since it's more or less a Debian system I seem to be able to find my way around in it. However, Ubuntu has recently changed their default desktop to something called Unity which I don't know much about. I just had to check it out first.

A lot of people have expressed their horrors about Unity and I dreaded what I was going to see when I tried to install Ubuntu on my test machine. To my surprise it was rather usable! Yes, it used almost 300 MiB RAM just after login, without even having started any applicatons yet, but that's what I've come to expect from modern desktop environments. I don't think it's much worse than, say, Gnome or KDE or whatever kids run these days.

I showed Unity to Ludvig and we played around for a bit. He says he might come to like it even though he's been using XFCE for the last few years. We'll see. If not, it shouldn't bee too hard to install XFCE, although you might loose some of the integrated features, I guess.

Obviously, I'm staying with a much more lightweight solution myself. I see no reason for me to start using a desktop environment. It wouldn't add much to my user experience.

While playing around with Ubuntu I also found, to my surprise, the Sugar environment from the One Laptop Per Child project. I tried it but it almost immediately hanged: The Python process running Sugar used 100% CPU until I killed it a few minutes later when nothing appeared to happen.

If you want to try Sugar don't forget to install some activities (Sugar's way of saying “program”) as well. Of the activities I found and tested no-one seemed very child friendly compared to what is offered in the Unity or Gnome environments. In some cases I think programs running in a straight terminal would suffice. Yes, really!

Sugar didn't look very stable. Perhaps I was using some pre-Alpha release? It said 0.90, after all.

To my suprise I also found that the Wayland project's Weston compositor is included in Ubuntu! If you don't know, Wayland is a replacement of the X Window System with some rather nice ideas about direct rendering. Most of the criticism against Wayland has been about the lack of network transparency. Wayland fans argue that this should be easily remedied by an X server on top of Wayland or using VNC or similar technologies.

I tried Weston with the Weston-terminal terminal emulator on my test machine. The compositor on my laptop 1024x768 screen weighed in at 16 megs resident (74 meg virtual). The terminal emulator seemed to chew about 10-15% of the CPU! While idle! It seems a bit strange but I guess it's still early in development.

I admit that I sometimes still dream of a more lightweight window system for Unix systems, perhaps something in the tradition of Plan 9's rio or 8½, Blit's mux or even the old MGR, something exceedingly simple, easy to understand and easy to program.