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Software rendering's virtual pipe dream

Another decision that was made relatively late in the development cycle also seems to haunt this Ubuntu release. When the developers decided to drop the 2D accelerated version of Unity in favour of a solution that allowed them to concentrate on improving the 3D version for all platforms, the idea seemed perfectly reasonable. After all, one code base is easier to maintain and improve than two. So the decision was made to drop Unity 2D and instead hook up the 3D accelerated version to the llvmpipe driver on systems that don't have a graphics card capable of 3D rendering. This works by essentially emulating the 3D chip in the CPU, leading to much higher processor load but neatly sidestepping the graphics hardware issue.

This approach works well even on relatively old computers and low end laptops. Granted, it does not work for minimalistic devices such as the Raspberry Pi but that particular device is not able to run Ubuntu anyway, for altogether different reasons. Where Ubuntu 12.10 runs into trouble, however, is when the operating system is being virtualised. Users who install the current release of Ubuntu in an application such as VirtualBox will immediately notice almost unbearable sluggishness. The desktop basically becomes unusable and the only remedy is to install an alternative desktop interface, such as Xfce. Since Unity 2D has been completely removed, users no longer have the option of reverting to this.

This problem is due to the nature of virtualisation, where the CPU is already doing a lot of heavy lifting. On most systems, it just does not have enough headroom left to also manage graphics acceleration through llvmpipe as well. But the removal of Unity 2D also hurts Ubuntu badly on systems-on-a-chip (SOCs) such as the ARM devices that, unlike the Raspberry Pi, Ubuntu does actually run on. Most of these systems have proprietary graphics drivers which, in several cases, are not available when installing Ubuntu on them. Being based low-powered ARM chips, these devices are hopelessly outclassed trying to keep up with the demands of llvmpipe as well.

These problems were heavily discussed by Ubuntu developers on mailing lists and in bug report threads and the team working on this issue actually made some headway in improving the performance in later betas of Quantal Quetzal, but the problem still persists. Being faced with these issues in the final product, one has to wonder whether leaving Unity 2D in the distribution for at least one more release would not have been a better strategy in the end.

Web rules on the desktop

As previously mentioned, Ubuntu now includes the ability for users to associate their accounts on popular web services with their local Ubuntu login. This will integrate the account with appropriate applications throughout the system. For Twitter, for example, adding an account in the centralised Online Accounts interface will automatically populate the pre-installed Gwibber microblogging service with this Twitter account when it is opened the next time. Adding a Facebook account will add contacts to the built-in contact list and photos to the Photo Lens, and entering a Google account will automatically set up GTalk credentials in the Empathy instant messaging client. Adding Google or Flickr credentials also allows the Shotwell photo manager to import photos to a user's profile on these services without asking for authentication again.


Zoom Ubuntu 12.10 sets out to blur the line between native and web applications

Improvements to Canonical's cloud synchronisation and storage service, Ubuntu One, make it easier for users to share and search files. Music bought from the Ubuntu One Music Store can now be streamed to machines without the need to download the files.

The new Web Apps feature in Quantal Quetzal brings even more online capabilities to the desktop with the intention of blurring the lines between native and web applications. With Web Apps, Ubuntu aims to make web services such as Twitter, GMail and Last.fm first class citizens on the desktop. Adding services such as this as a Web App in Ubuntu works automatically through the Online Accounts dialog. When a user logs into Twitter for the first time, for example, the Online Account window will pop up and allow them to add the account to Ubuntu. From then on, they will be able to launch the Twitter Web App from Unity's launcher and the Dash and, for many services, the available options have been integrated into Ubuntu's HUD.

Web Apps also have access to Ubuntu's built-in notification system and sound menu as well. This makes it possible to, for example, control an embedded music player on a site such as Last.fm from the widgets in Ubuntu's sound menu, making it possible to pause the playing song and skip back or ahead even if the Web App window is minimised, just as with the native Rhythmbox media player included in Ubuntu.

Support for Web Apps is maintained by the Ubuntu developers and the community and web sites that do not provide an API are essentially scraped to provide the integration. Since the underlying technology is relatively simple, changes in a web site that would break the integration can be responded to quickly.

In testing at The H, the feature did work quite well, although the pop up notifications that let a user add a site as a web app have the annoying habit of disappearing into thin air when they are not clicked on immediately. What makes this a problem is the fact that they will not reappear when the user visits the site again and there is no intuitive way to invoke this functionality manually.

Next: Old and new for quality

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