ARTICLE

The Hybrid Desktop

by | Mon 1 Feb 2016

OK, folks, I want to share a random idea that cropped up after a long conversation with Langridge a few weeks back. This is merely food for thought and designed to trigger some discussion.

Today my computing experience is comprised of Ubuntu and Mac OS X. On Ubuntu I am still playing with GNOME Shell and on Mac I am using the standard desktop experience.

I like both. Both have benefits and disadvantages. My Mac has beautiful hardware and anything I plug into it just works out the box (or has drivers). While I spend most of my life in Chrome and Atom, I use some apps that are not available on Ubuntu (e.g. Bluejeans and Evernote clients). I also find multimedia is just easier and more reliable on my Mac.

My heart will always be with Linux though. I love how slick and simple Shell is and I depend on the huge developer toolchain available to me in Ubuntu. I like how customizable my desktop is and that I can be part of a community that makes the software I use. There is something hugely fulfilling about hanging out with the people who make the tools you use.

So, I have two platforms and use the best of both. The problem is, they feel like two different boxes of things sat on the same shelf. I want to jumble the contents of those boxes together and spread them across the very same shelf.

The Idea

So, imagine this (this is total fantasy, I have no idea if this would be technically feasible.)

You want the very best computing experience, so you first go out and buy a Mac. They have arguably the nicest overall hardware combo (looks, usability, battery etc) out there.

You then download a distribution from the Internet. This is shipped as a .dmg and you install it. It then proceeds to install a bunch of software on your computer. This includes things such as:

  • GNOME Shell
  • All the GNOME 3 apps
  • Various command line tools commonly used on Linux
  • An ability to install Linux packages (e.g. Debian packages, RPMs, snaps) natively

When you fire up the distribution, GNOME Shell appears (or Unity, KDE, Elementary etc) and it is running natively on the Mac, full screen like you would see on Linux. For all intents and purposes it looks and feels like a Linux box, but it is running on top of Mac OS X. This means hardware issues (particularly hardware that needs specific drivers) go away.

Because shell is native it integrates with the Mac side of the fence. All the Mac applications can be browsed and started from Shell. Nautilus shows your Mac filesystem.

If you want to install more software you can use something such as apt-get, snappy, or another service. Everything is pulled in and available natively.

Of course, there will be some integration points where this may not work (e.g. alt-tab might not be able to display Shell apps as well as Mac apps), but importantly you can use your favorite Linux desktop as your main desktop yet still use your favorite Mac apps and features.

I think this could bring a number of benefits:

  • It would open up a huge userbase as a potential audience. Switching to Linux is a big deal for most people. Why not bring the goodness to the Mac userbase?
  • It could be a great opportunity for smaller desktops to differentiate (e.g. Elementary).
  • It could be a great way to introduce people to open source in a more accessible way (it doesn’t require a new OS).
  • It could potentially bring lots of new developers to projects such as GNOME, Unity, KDE, or Elementary.
  • It could significantly increase the level of testing, translations and other supplemental services due to more people being able to play with it.

Of course, from a purely Free Software perspective it could be seen as a step back. Then again, with Darwin being open source and the desktop and apps you install in the distribution being open source, it would be a mostly free platform. It wouldn’t be free in the eyes of the FSF, but then again, neither is Ubuntu. 馃槈

So, again, just wanted to throw the idea out there to spur some discussion. I think it could be a great project to see. It wouldn’t replace any of the existing Linux distros, but I think it could bring an influx of additional folks over to the open source desktops.

So, two questions for you all to respond to:

  1. What do you think? Could it be an interesting project?
  2. If so, technically how do you think this could be accomplished?
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