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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Quote"Anyone can create an alternate store that supports snaps. The API is completely open as is snapd.
Can you have multiple Snap stores configured on the same system? If so, great. If not, this seems like a bad-faith argument.

You can have multiple APT repositories on the same system together: if you want one deb package that isn't in the main repository, you can add another repository without losing access to the stuff in the main repository. Likewise, you can have multiple Flatpak remotes available on the same system.

Last time I checked, I couldn't figure out a way to do this with Snap. So while someone could theoretically make another snap store, no one could use it unless they completely gave up the ability to use Canonical's store. That's a <i>massive</i> barrier to entry for any potential new store, and it also means there's no way to add a store just for a few apps that Canonical doesn't like. Unless I am mistaken and it actually is possible, in which case I would be grateful if someone corrected me.

It sort of feels like if Meta said "WhatsApp isn't a closed ecosystem! The Signal Protocol is open source, so anyone can make another messaging service similar to WhatsApp." While it is possible to make another messaging app with the signal protocol (including Signal itself), the lack of federation means new messaging apps can't communicate with the 2 billion+ people on WhatsApp.

For now, this isn't a serious issue, because Snap can coexist with all the other package formats. It will only become an issue if Snap ends up becoming the dominant means of distributing apps on Linux.
F.Ultra 23 May
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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.

While I basically agree with your post as such this last part does not compute at all. Just like Canonical, Red Hat got a lot of irrational hate for pulse and systemd to the point that it now have become a conspiracy theory of it's own where evil Red Hat in cahoots with eviler IBM are working behind the scenes for total world domination of Linux systems by replacing sysvinit with systemd...

But it still proves your point, many times, if not close to frickin always, when some one does something new or different in Linux it will always bring out the Knights of NIH on forums.

I'm a huge defender of DEB over any of these new forms of distribution package formats due to the inherent problem of embedded libraries, overhead, security issues and so on. That said, snap is probably the better one of them due to the sand-boxing (which have unfortunate side effects for desktop users that are used to be able to compromise their entire system from within Firefox) and Firefox is also most likely the perfect candidate (and so is Steam and games) for such a distribution format since Firefox embeds so many special versions of otherwise shared libraries anyway that there are basically no benefits of using a DEB (with my concerns) unless of course on would have managed to unbundle those libs for Firefox but as I have written before it would probably be easier to solve world hunger and peace (not to mention much better benefit for humanity).

Quoting: RandomizedKirbyTree47
Quote"Anyone can create an alternate store that supports snaps. The API is completely open as is snapd.
Can you have multiple Snap stores configured on the same system? If so, great. If not, this seems like a bad-faith argument.

You can have multiple APT repositories on the same system together: if you want one deb package that isn't in the main repository, you can add another repository without losing access to the stuff in the main repository. Likewise, you can have multiple Flatpak remotes available on the same system.

Last time I checked, I couldn't figure out a way to do this with Snap. So while someone could theoretically make another snap store, no one could use it unless they completely gave up the ability to use Canonical's store. That's a <i>massive</i> barrier to entry for any potential new store, and it also means there's no way to add a store just for a few apps that Canonical doesn't like. Unless I am mistaken and it actually is possible, in which case I would be grateful if someone corrected me.

It sort of feels like if Meta said "WhatsApp isn't a closed ecosystem! The Signal Protocol is open source, so anyone can make another messaging service similar to WhatsApp." While it is possible to make another messaging app with the signal protocol (including Signal itself), the lack of federation means new messaging apps can't communicate with the 2 billion+ people on WhatsApp.

For now, this isn't a serious issue, because Snap can coexist with all the other package formats. It will only become an issue if Snap ends up becoming the dominant means of distributing apps on Linux.

What he means is that it's possible for anyone to write their own competing snap utility that supports their own store, or to create their own fork of snap that supports both Canonicals store and 3d party stores. There are no requirement that a 3d party snap store use the /usr/bin/snap binary.


Last edited by F.Ultra on 23 May 2022 at 6:04 pm UTC
sarmad 23 May
"I’d say people should choose Ubuntu if their priority is a Linux desktop that just works"

As a Linux user who have tried many distros, I approve this statement. Ubuntu is really the best when it comes to needing something that just works in different edge cases. For example, switching between nVidia performance/on-demand just works on Ubuntu whereas in Fedora you need some more manual steps. Another example is Virtual Box's guest tools which installs smoothly on Ubuntu out of the box, whereas Fedora would require some additional steps before the tools are installable. And there are many other similar examples where an additional step is needed in other distros whereas in Ubuntu those additional steps are done for you upfront by Ubuntu. Nothing major, just small things here and there, but for someone who doesn't want to worry about these small things Ubuntu is a good choice.
scaine 23 May
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Quoting: Purple Library Guy
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.

Well, sure, initially. But when was the last time you heard anyone griping about it though? But people still, FUCKING STILL (sorry) talk about Mir. As you can tell, it really gets my goat!
Bestia 23 May
Quoting: SoltrummanOh 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.

It doesn't keep three latest versions. It has the current version of snap package and the previous one in case if you would want to revert to that version.

https://forum.snapcraft.io/t/managing-updates/7022

QuoteThe refresh.retain value can be a number between 2 and 20. The default is refresh.retain=3 on Ubuntu Core systems and refresh.retain=2 on classic Ubuntu systems, such as those running Ubuntu 18.04 LTS (Bionic Beaver) and Ubuntu 16.04 LTS (Xenial Xerus).

The snap packages are at /var/lib/snapd/snaps. And if you would like to get rid of the old versions of snaps there is this handy script.

https://www.linuxuprising.com/2019/04/how-to-remove-old-snap-versions-to-free.html

I wonder how many normal users check their loop devices. I'm using Ubuntu since 8.04 LTS and I checked it only once there was all this drama about snap. Just out of curiosity and then I added the alias as suggested by others so it filters out the loop devices. And the loop devices don't show up in programs such as Nautilus, Nemo, Gnome Disks and Disk Usage Analayzer.

The snap folder also isn't a problem for me especially considering that I have the hidden files always visible. There is an experimental flag that will migrate contents of that folder to ~/.snap/data on new snap installs and refreshes.

https://forum.snapcraft.io/t/experimental-flag-for-hiding-snap/28509
scaine 23 May
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Quoting: F.UltraWhile I basically agree with your post as such this last part does not compute at all. Just like Canonical, Red Hat got a lot of irrational hate for pulse and systemd to the point that it now have become a conspiracy theory of it's own where evil Red Hat in cahoots with eviler IBM are working behind the scenes for total world domination of Linux systems by replacing sysvinit with systemd...

Ah! I wonder if that passed me by because I'm not a Fedora/Redhat fan. I knew there was a lot of hate for Pulse/SystemD initially, but a) it died out (eventually) and b) I wondered if it was just Poettering-hate. Maybe it was Redhat-hate instead. Seems that folk don't like the companies behind Linux for some reason.

Quoting: F.UltraBut it still proves your point, many times, if not close to frickin always, when some one does something new or different in Linux it will always bring out the Knights of NIH on forums.

The Knights of NIH! I love that!
My main problem with snaps was storing user data in ~/snap. I've already resigned myself on the dotfiles front, so can't we just use ~/.snap or something? I'm pretty much fine with flatpak storing their stuff in ~/.var and anyone who uses KDE and Mozilla knows the amount of dotfiles they still like to create outside of the XDG specification. I've resigned on that front, and I don't really care where I get my softwares anymore so long as I can get it and it works - though in that regards, I really would like an easy interface like Flatseal for Snaps as well.

My problem with Ubuntu overall is that I don't feel like I get a lot of benefits from using it? Like, if I want stability, then there are better options. If I want fast updates, there are better options. Ease of use? Same. The only real advantage of Ubuntu is that it's a "reference model" of Linux as a whole, so getting support is easier, but new Linux user onboarding is done better in other distro still and in the long term a lot of the documentation works cross-platform (I still consult the Arch wiki a lot).

I don't think Ubuntu is that bad, but I personally am not sure what advantage I'd have over Mint, Pop, Zorin, Feren, or even Fedora, Manjaro, and Garuda which are all distro that I regularly look at or use.
Eike 24 May
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Quoting: scaineb) I wondered if it was just Poettering-hate.

That was my impression as well.

And while I can't say much about this person, in general I'm of the opinion that social competence does matter, not only technical one, as open source should be about working together.
Nocifer 24 May
Quoting: The Ubuntu GuyCuriosity… 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. [...] 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.

[...]

...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.
For a guy that grew up taking his toys apart and getting awed by having access to source code, this second statement comes off as more than a bit hypocritical. But then again, as @AgainstAllLogic says, most of the replies read more like a carefully constructed PR stint rather than his own opinions, so I'm more inclined to feel sympathy for the poor sod having been reduced to a corporate mouthpiece, rather than anger at him.

Quoting: scaineWeird that Canonical gets hate for that
Quoting: scaineBut when was the last time you heard anyone griping about it though? But people still, FUCKING STILL (sorry) talk about Mir
Canonical gets hate for Snaps because this is one of the few Linux techs that is not made and can't be used (as is) for the benefit of the whole community, but is rather a very heavy-handed attempt at making Canonical into a FOSS overlord.

Also, Pulseaudio may be off the hook nowadays (it helps that it's actually gotten great over the years) but let's not forget WHOSE fault it was that it got its bad reputation in the first place (hint: it wasn't Red Hat). As for systemd? It still regularly gets all the hate it can take from anti-systemd zealots. It may have been dimmed/obscured somewhat due to the Linux community having been flooded lately by new users who only care and talk about the Steam Deck etc and don't give a rat's ass about systemd and FOSS issues/politics in general, but I assure you the hate is still there in huge amounts (just take a stroll at e.g. Phoronix :P).

Quoting: F.Ultrathe Knights of NIH
That's absolutely great, I'm stealing it :)

Quoting: fenglengshunMy problem with Ubuntu overall is that I don't feel like I get a lot of benefits from using it? Like, if I want stability, then there are better options. If I want fast updates, there are better options. Ease of use? Same.
IMHO the real advantage of Ubuntu is that it's stable enough, gets fast enough updates, and is easy enough to use, *all at the same time*. And it's also pretty and refined to look at, has great support from app vendors (who still mostly consider it as "the" Linux OS) and is easy to find assistance for any issues you have with it. Sure, there are distros that do one or more of these things better, but all of them? And out of the box? Nope. Personally, I still use Ubuntu as my go-to distro for new users - or I would if it wasn't for this whole Snaps getting shoved down my throat business.

That's why Canonical (not Ubuntu) is so "hated": because it once was the FOSS community's hope for the open Desktop, but in the end all it's proved to be is a crude Apple wannabe trying to create its own version of a walled garden. And in the process they've kind of destroyed (or they're about to do so) one of the best distros there ever was.
Gregor 24 May
My only wish is that the development of Unity would be continued. I like the Unity desktop more than any other.
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