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An interview with Ken VanDine, Ubuntu desktop lead at Canonical

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Another fresh interview for you today, this time with Ken VanDine who is responsible for leading the way for Ubuntu on the desktop at Canonical. This will form part of a mini-series — the first already up with Aaron Honeycutt from System76.


GOL: Can you first introduce yourself and tell us what you do?

"I’m Ken VanDine, leading the Ubuntu Desktop team at Canonical.  I’ve been here for over 13 years now, and working on the Linux desktop for well over 20 years."

GOL: How did you get started with Linux and what attracted you to it?

"Curiosity… From the time I was a young child, I just had to know how things worked.  I would take my toys apart to figure out how they worked before ever playing with them.  As I got older, that translated into computer hardware, and soon after software.  I discovered Slackware Linux in 1993 and never looked back.  It was simply amazing to have access to the source code, seeing how it worked, and I quickly immersed myself into open source software as a means to quench my thirst for how software worked."

GOL: What’s it like to work for Canonical as the Ubuntu Engineering Manager? What’s your work setup like?

"Having the opportunity to work on the Ubuntu Desktop all these years has been quite the privilege, and really the highlight of my career.  During this time I’ve been able to work on many exciting projects and contribute in different ways.  Now I get to be more involved in setting direction and leading an amazing team of some of the best developers around, it really doesn’t get any better than this! "

GOL: What projects are you directly involved with / working on right now for Ubuntu?

"I lead the overall development of the desktop, which includes the distro, enterprise desktop, WSL, developer experience, and gaming experience.  With the gaming experience team being the newest, I’m the primary driver for that until we staff that team."

Pictured - Ubuntu 22.04 LTS

GOL: Does Canonical regularly speak to other businesses and developers, to try and get them to support Linux and Ubuntu?

"Certainly, we have relationships with many interesting companies, which is awesome.  And now that we’re starting to get involved in the gaming scene on Linux, we’ve found ourselves creating some more interesting partnerships."

GOL: Canonical recently announced another push into gaming. It seemed like Canonical and Ubuntu let things slide on that front — so why now?

"I would contest that we haven’t really let it slide.  For example, we’ve had long standing relationships with partners like NVidia to ensure users are able to easily use the best driver for their hardware.  But yes, we are upping our game, and getting involved in much deeper ways.  So why now?  Momentum… The landscape for gaming on Linux is improving, at a steadily increasing pace.  This momentum has sparked increased enthusiasm.  It’s the right time to increase our investment and help be a catalyst to continue to fuel that momentum.  Our engineers have the unique background to make a significant contribution to that growth, which we’ll all benefit from."

GOL: Going by various stats (like Steam), Ubuntu has been regularly falling as the main choice for Linux Gaming. With the likes of Arch and Manjaro pulling in a lot. Why do you think that is? Any more interesting plans to pull people back?

"I think this is primarily due to web searches done by users looking to solve various problems getting their games to work.  There is a wealth of information that leads to distros like Arch.  Our top priority will be to ensure users can get their games working without the need to consult those sites.  The next goal will be to improve the resources available to help users on Ubuntu when needed."

GOL: So right now, why should someone go for Ubuntu over Pop, Manjaro, Arch, Fedora and others?

"Those are all fine distro choices, and people should choose what they are most comfortable with.  I’d say people should choose Ubuntu if their priority is a Linux desktop that just works.  We work hard to provide the best user experience possible, not only with the everyday desktop experience but also ease of access to the best drivers, bug and security fixes and out of the box access to the best selection of high quality applications.  And let’s not forget our certification program that ensures that many desktops and laptops are supported."

GOL: What are you particularly excited about for the future of Ubuntu?

"Dare I say the year of the Linux desktop?  Nah… Linux has reached a point where that can no longer be the goal post, we must look well beyond that.  I’m really excited about all the ways Ubuntu is meeting the daily challenges of so many use cases, ranging from robotics, IoT, cloud, to desktop deployments in large enterprises and home users playing video games.  Ubuntu is everywhere, and I’m really excited to be part of this journey."

GOL: For all the critics of Snap packages, anything you wish to say to them?

"Ubuntu users aren’t the critics of snaps, and I’d argue that users are less concerned with how they get their applications.  Of course we have strong opinions on how to deliver high quality applications, in a secure and reliable way and it’s our mission to do just that.   We do hear what people say and we take the mission of providing the best possible experience very seriously, so we are always looking for legitimate ways to improve the platform."

GOL: Considering we have Flatpak, AppImage, deb, rpm and so on. What do you think about how fractured packaging is on Linux? Does Snap not add to the problems for developers?

"There is fragmentation, which isn’t surprising. I will say out of the packaging formats you mentioned, Snap is the only one that has really seen any success from ISVs.  There’s a reason why you see official snap support from major ISVs, but not the others.  Snap was one of the first packaging formats to address issues like sandboxing.  Other packaging formats following suit shows snap was on the right track.  The benefits of snap and the single source of truth store are must haves for any major vendor."

GOL: One of the potential problems with Snap is that the server side is solely controlled by Canonical and is basically proprietary. Will this be opened up? Do you see it as an issue that needs sorting?

"Anyone can create an alternate store that supports snaps.  The API is completely open as is snapd.  Having a centralized store is actually one of the strengths of the ecosystem.  ISVs want that single trusted source for apps.  I think the tremendous success we’ve had with ISVs adopting snap is in no small part due to this concept.  And I ask, is it really a problem?  Snap is completely open, anyone can see what’s being executed on your system.  The internals of the store that handles metadata just isn’t interesting."

GOL: Are you buying a Steam Deck? What are your thoughts on what it means for Linux Gaming overall?

"I haven’t yet, I wish I had reserved one earlier.  It’s a great device, and Linux was the obvious OS choice for such a device.  Valve has done a fantastic job of pushing compatibility technologies to make Linux a viable platform.  All their work has really done wonders to bring more games to Linux and I look forward to seeing where that takes us."

GOL: What’s your own personal computing setup like?

"My primary system is a Thinkpad T14, with a couple of 24” displays attached via a USB-C dock.  But of course I have quite a bit of additional hardware necessary for development and testing."

GOL: What are your top 5 favourite games to play on Linux?

"Oh, that’s a tough one.  I’ve always been partial to racing games and really enjoy any of the Need for Speed games. I’ve also been really into Raft lately as well as playing LoL, Valheim and RDR2. I’m more of a creator than a gamer, however I do have a passion for enabling users to get the most out of their Linux desktop experience."


Big thank you to Ken for joining me on this.

I'll have more interviews to come, stay tuned! Get in touch if you want to be interviewed.

Article taken from GamingOnLinux.com.
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62 comments
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Loving the interviews Liam. Solid and challenging line of questioning. Keep them coming!

As an Ubuntu user who always tends to circle back around to his roots I must agree with Ken on Ubuntu having an unparalleled user experience. It's possible the distribution just resonates with me personally but I've always loved the aesthetic and what I consider to be a very solid user interface (a quite subjective metric, but there you go).

Any how, I'm happy with 22.04 so far. Debs, snaps, flatpaks, and appimages all coexist on my system and gaming and general usage are a sheer joy and superb experience. We're all spoiled for choice these days between the sundry options at our disposal.

Great time to be a Linux desktop user
Great talking points you brought up, huge props for addressing the issue of Snaps heads on without sugar coating it.
I'm not convinced by much of what he says though. Sounds rehearsed, like appointed suit talk. Bunch of uninsightful non-answers just pushing the usage of Ubuntu no offense.
Soltrumman 23 May
QuoteUbuntu users aren’t the critics of snaps, and I’d argue that users are less concerned with how they get their applications.

As a Ubuntu user since 06.06 snaps are probably the biggest misstep up there with MIR and we all know how well that NiH-project turned out.

My biggest gripe with snaps are that the user experience of snaps is so much worse than DEBs or flatpaks. On Ubuntu 22.04 it took 15 seconds to start Firefox on my old laptop, fifteen seconds. I replaced it with the flatpak-version of Firefox that actually starts in a reasonable time. 6 years and no meaningful improvement to snaps start up times, great work, super focused on the user experience.

Oh and it keeps the three(!) latest versions of all snaps, last time i checked that was a hard coded number. Thanks Canonical, i don't need my disk space anyway, just fill it with old snaps. Oh while your at it maybe you could mount all snaps as loop devices just to make a mess? Cool.
And i _love_ the snap folder in my home directory, just love it, because that's the only folder where sandboxed snaps can write to, such an elegant solution.

So yes, Ken, Ubuntu users are critics of snaps. Before 22.04 i just left snapd be and moved on, nothing important was "snappified" so i did not care, that changed big time when an application i need and use daily as my main browser, Firefox, became much worse by being a snap.

I'm sincerely hoping that none of Canonicals gaming efforts are being wasted on snaps, if that is the case they can just save their time and effort and not do anything at all and Ubuntu users will be better of for it.

Sorry for the rant, just frustrated with how bone headed Canonical can be when it comes to their pet projects.
AsciiWolf 23 May
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Nice interview, but I really dislike how Canonical is forcing Snap. Also, it's really sad that Ubuntu is one of the few distros that have really bad Flatpak support with outdated Flatpak/XDG portal packages, no Flatpak support in their GNOME Software fork etc.
scaine 23 May
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Quoting: SoltrummanAs a Ubuntu user since 06.06 snaps are probably the biggest misstep up there with MIR and we all know how well that NiH-project turned out.

I've covered before how ridiculous calling things "NIH" is. It's literally how Linux evolves and becomes better. Weird that Canonical gets hate for that, but no-one bats an eyelid when Redhat decide to replace the entire sound system, or indeed, the entire fucking init system.

Flatpaks have lots of problems too - go google how well Steam runs as a flatpak. But it's gotten better. Flatpaks, generally, will get better.

So will snaps. People need to stop shitting from a great height on something that doesn't even need to affect them.

  • Slow start up on Firefox - install the deb until it's fixed. It will get fixed.

  • Don't like the snap folder in your home? Neither did I - easily fixed with a .hidden file.

  • Snaps too big? Well, last I check was a while back, but Firefox was around 200Mb. If you're on a low-resource system that you care about Mb instead of Gb then sure, maybe snaps aren't for you. But then, neither are Flatpaks or AppImages.

Can't speak to the Loopback issue because in 20+ years of Linux, I've never, ever had to check my /dev/loop devices. Ever. Maybe I'm lucky that way.

But bottom line, why all this weird hate? It feels like the usual anti-Canonical sentiment. Other, far worse technologies aren't grilled like this. I just don't get it.
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For what it's worth, I started using Ubuntu some 11 years ago, and stuck to Ubuntu for quite a few years. This year around February I installed Ubuntu 21 again. I would agree with Ken's statement that they haven't let it slide.

On the other hand, we users have started distro-hopping and some of the distros have really brought up some really nice and unique features to the table. And then we started comparing Ubuntu to those. I'd say that Ubuntu just has more competition nowadays.
scaine 23 May
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Quoting: GuestWell snaps are being forcibly pushed on people, so it's worth discussing the matter.

Yeah, they should be discussed, definitely, and improved. But it's rarely covered in a consistent way. Canonical get a lot of flack for stuff that nearly every other member of the Linux community gets a free pass on.

Canonical are definitely "forcing" snaps, because they're a success story on other Ubuntu platforms like IOT and the independent vendors that Ken mentions. Hopefully they address the various shortcomings in the desktop clients quickly, because rightly or wrongly, they're already pushing people away from desktop Ubuntu.
CyborgZeta 23 May
Quoting: scaine
Quoting: SoltrummanAs a Ubuntu user since 06.06 snaps are probably the biggest misstep up there with MIR and we all know how well that NiH-project turned out.
Flatpaks have lots of problems too - go google how well Steam runs as a flatpak.
I've been using the Steam Flatpak since December, and it runs pretty good. You don't get to use the latest Mesa though; have to wait for the SDK/runtime to update.

Personally, I don't like Snaps on the desktop. I hear they're fine for IoT or whatever, but I don't use any of that stuff. I'm a Linux desktop user; I don't have a server, an SBC for IoT, or anything like that.

I'm not a programmer or developer either. Just a regular computer user.


Last edited by CyborgZeta on 23 May 2022 at 4:50 pm UTC
DefaultX-od 23 May
As an Ubuntu user, I really appreciate what Canonical and Ubuntu community does! All I want is Ubuntu to drop gnome and mke FlUnity a real thing! And Snap is the answer! Unlike IBMpacks, it can be used for literally anything. I have auto-cpufreq deamon installed as a snap. Can you do the same with IBMpacks? The answer is no!
Quoting: scaine
Quoting: SoltrummanAs a Ubuntu user since 06.06 snaps are probably the biggest misstep up there with MIR and we all know how well that NiH-project turned out.

I've covered before how ridiculous calling things "NIH" is. It's literally how Linux evolves and becomes better. Weird that Canonical gets hate for that, but no-one bats an eyelid when Redhat decide to replace the entire sound system, or indeed, the entire fucking init system.
Hang on a minute. I'm pretty sure there was, in fact, a lot of hate over the "init system" thing.
And I mean, any new sound thing on Linux gets an automatic pass as everyone hopes against hope that it will be better than the last one.
So, no, I'm not seeing the contrast.
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