Will SurfaceFlinger Replace Compiz In Ubuntu 14.04?

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Secrets & Lies

Canonical has been hard at work on some very interesting projects lately.  This new direction started last year when it announced Ubuntu for phones, a fully featured desktop loaded onto an Android device.  More recently — and more mysteriously — they’ve been working on the Ubuntu operating system for phones and tablets as a replacement for Android.

In the time between the release of Ubuntu 12.04 and the recent release of these Ubuntu images, Mark Shuttleworth announced that they would be taking a more secretive approach to things moving forward, stating in his blog:

Mapping out the road to 13.04, there are a few items with high “tada!” value that would be great candidates for folk who want to work on something that will get attention when unveiled. While we won’t talk about them until we think they are ready to celebrate, we’re happy to engage with contributing community members that have established credibility (membership, or close to it) in Ubuntu, who want to be part of the action.

The skunkworks approach has its detractors. We’ve tried it both ways, and in the end, figured out that critics will be critics whether you discuss an idea with them in advance or not.

It’s clear that Shuttleworth’s values are different than that of Ben Franklin who quite famously stated “Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.”

As the world neared the release of Canonical’s first install images for the Galaxy Nexus and the Nexus 10, it’s first critics started to come out of the woodwork.  One critic was Aaron Siego, a leader from the KDE side of the fence.  His criticism is born from Canonical’s claim that Ubuntu is the full installation of Ubuntu that you’ve already been using.  Siego goes on to say in a Google Plus post:

We can start with the obvious clue: Unity currently does not use QML at all; Ubuntu Phone is pure QML. So, no, it is not the same code, it is not the sort of seamless cross-device technology bridge that they are purporting.

While Shuttleworth and company has been promoting a seamless experience that scales to any device, we are now learning that it is simply not true — at least, not yet.  As of now, it is easy to agree with Seigo if you are rational thinking person.  Technical terms aside, Unity and Ubuntu Phone share nothing in common except for the same swatch.  That’s right, apparently Ubuntu is just an inviting collection of purples and browns designed to calm your senses and heighten your complacency with it’s product.

Compositing

The most recent news surrounding the Ubuntu mobile product is its compositor.  Like Michael Larabel of Phoronix, I wondered if Ubuntu would be using Compiz or Wayland to draw the screen, assuming rather naively that it would be one or the other.  In fact, it is neither.  It’s using SurfaceFlinger; Android’s native compositor.  So, that slippery, buttery experience that Mark Shuttleworth has got you so excited about is nothing more than a component of Project Butter, something that’s already being exploited by HTC, Samsung, LG and others with their custom Android UI layers.

So what is Ubuntu Phone?  Well, ironically it is not Unity.  It’s something completely different.  It’s got an Android kernel and uses Android kernel modules to gain access to the phone’s radios.  It won’t run any standard GNU/Linux software in userspace and all of the applications kick you out the a webpage.

Canonical now claims that the Ubuntu phone and tablet with be fully integrated with the desktop operating system in 14.04.  As far as I’m concerned, that means SurfaceFlinger is coming to the Linux desktop.

It used to be that using Linux was about transparency.  It’s still true if you’re not using Ubuntu.

Aaron Seigo’s right.  We are being duped.


Dean Howell

Dean Howell has over a decade of experience with Linux and nearly 2 decades of experience with computers in general. Currently, Dean is Editor-in-chief of The Powerbase and also works for one of the world's largest providers of Linux-based NVRs.

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  • M37H

    ubuntu is doing what the did in the Linux world, that is leeching code from other develops and slapping their poo colored branding on the production, now in the mobile world they are leeching from the hard work of the CyangenMod Devs, ubuntu phone OS is nothing more than a horrible skin built on top of Android and CyangenMod.

    • CameronN

      It isn’t a damn skin! They did do something. They merged Plasma Active with Cyanogen Mod. In doing this, Canonical bypassed the DVM while maintaining driver support. When the Google kernel re merges with the mainline kernel, the only difference between Plasma Active and Ubuntu Touch will be Surface Flinger. Ubuntu phone already runs all command line linux apps, and it offers a good app framework. Hopefully, they will also take elements from FF OS and allow for open Web API applications (I am not sure if that is the case now, but it might be).

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  • http://hydrox24.tumblr.com/ Alex Bainton

    What matters more is that we take atleast one more step towards a true open source phone OS, even if it’s only marginally better than android, it’s still better. And hopefully as it gets more open, it’s easier for hackers and homebrewers to make their own phone OSs. Arch on tablets in 2016/17 maybe?

  • http://soltesza.wordpress.com/ sola

    This article is overly critical with Canonical and Ubuntu.

    My opinion is that it doesn’t matter what they use if they keep Linux desktop application compatibility. This is obviously not true for Ubuntu Touch at the moment but it may become true for 14.04.

    I, for one, like the idea of bypassing Wayland and switching to SurfaceFlinger as the compositor for the whole GUI environment. This would make desktop Linux very easy to run on Android hardware which would be just great.

    GTK and QT backends for SurfaceFlinger can probably be implemented very quickly (QT may already have that backend since it has official Android support) so 90% of native Linux desktop apps would start working immediately. Even Java desktop appplications would work (OpenJDK/Snoracle Java uses GTK).

    This is a viable strategy to get Android and desktop Linux get synergistic.

    Just think about it: it may be that a lot of desktop Linux applications would be able to run on pure Android after SurfaceFlingerGTK/QT integration is done. From that point the application developers could ship the Linux desktop application for tablets and the user only needs to attach a mouse/keyboard to be able to use them.

    Moreover, Android will very likely include some sort of desktop environment in its next major release. From that point on Android and Linux desktop apps may be able to work in complete synergy on one desktop be it an Ubuntu desktop or an Android desktop.

    I am all for this.

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  • ldrn

    “Aaron Seigo’s right. We are being duped.” As it turns out, nope, no duping involved — you both just made the mistake of assuming Canonical was being somewhat sane about it. ;)

    So… a new display server for phone and desktop and QML desktop, eh?

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