Should Ubuntu Adopt KDE Plasma as Default Desktop? [Opinion and Analysis]

5 min

With the recent GNOME 40 design change and Ubuntu decides to follow the “wait-and-watch” principle for its adaptation, we analyze whether Ubuntu should adopt KDE Plasma as its Default Desktop, saying goodbye to GNOME.

Ubuntu operating system is probably the most used and popular Linux distribution today. We can not deny the fact that, whatever Linux desktop popularity increased today compared to the last two decades, most of the credit goes to Ubuntu. And the wide online support available for this distro in form of a wiki, forums, etc.

Although mainstream Linux desktop still has a long way to go to compete against Windows, still the progress is steady. Thanks to Ubuntu and other distributions.


If you look at the history of Ubuntu in the last couple of decades since its inception, there have been times when Ubuntu changed its default desktop offerings. When Ubuntu released its first iteration in Autumn 2004 as Ubuntu 4.10 (Warty Warthog), it features the GNOME Desktop environment (version 2). Then eventually after 5 years of GNOME, Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) decided to discard GNOME (version 2) in favor of the Unity desktop from Ubuntu 11.04 (Natty Narwhal).

At that time Unity was “work-in-progress” and promises a completely new take on the Desktop. Although it was primarily used for low form-factor devices such as Netbooks, Ubuntu decided to feature Unity as a full-blown desktop environment. Unity changes your traditional top-bar, bottom-bar, menu-driven desktop experience with a “HUD”, dynamic search.

Many criticized Canonical for this decision, many upstream developers also thought that diverging a standard desktop leads to multiple desktop environment support for a single application. For example, GTK based apps such as GIMP might need changes to support both Unity and GNOME. 

Fundamentally, GNOME and Unity were different. They behave differently, their window manager, compositors are different. GNOME uses mutter whereas Unity uses Compiz.

Coming back to GNOME, Again

This decision didn’t last long. In October 2017, Mark Shuttleworth (founder of Canonical) decided to branch out from Unity completely and adopt GNOME desktop again. With the release of Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, Ubuntu officially moved to GNOME as an official desktop offering. This is mainly because of Canonical becoming a public company with IPO coming up at that time. In a nutshell, it is a cost-saving step where adopting GNOME Shell is better for return on investment, instead of supporting Unity and it’s development. GNOME has already established a base of developers, testers, and user base which translates to quality software with minimum investments compared to Unity at that time.

From Canonical’s standpoint, it is a fair business decision. After all, it is a commercial company, deals with profits while providing a free and ready-to-use operating system to its end users with commercial support around it.

GNOME 40 Design Change

From the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, until now, Ubuntu always adopted the latest GNOME Shell and associated packages while releasing the respective versions. For example, Ubuntu brings two short term release per year with one long term support release (LTS) in five years.

Before GNOME 40, GNOME release cadence was twice a year (typically in March and September). And Ubuntu releases following GNOME, in April and October.

So, Ubuntu users always get the latest upstream packages from GNOME Desktop in new Ubuntu releases. But with GNOME 40, things change.

In September 2020, the GNOME team announced that the versioning scheme with releases of GNOME changes completely. As per the announcements, there would be only one major release per year starting from version 40. That means fewer releases of GNOME per year.

Recent GNOME 40 Decision

Not only the release cadence, but the GNOME 40 also brings a complete redesign (almost) of its current GNOME 3 Shell which was there for a decade. For example, the activities overview, doc position change from vertical to horizontal, and many more fundamental changes that GNOME 40 brings.

This compels the Ubuntu team to decide not to feature it for its April 2021 release of Ubuntu 21.04 Hirsute Hippo and stick to GNOME 3.38. From the Ubuntu team’s standpoint, it is a good decision. When you change something fundamentally in a desktop design like this, which was there for a decade, you don’t know what would be the usability problems, user feedback, and acceptance unless you release the final version. No QA can find those out before the release.

Ubuntu is used by millions today. And suddenly a new change force those users to “unlearn” and “learn” a new way of doing things.

Is Ubuntu Ready for other desktops as official flavors?

At this time, we do not know when Ubuntu starts accepting GNOME 40 in its releases and whether they want to adopt this design change at all. Or, Ubuntu wants to fork the GNOME 3 shell separately and continue. Many questions which we have now and only time can provide answers.

That said, GNOME is not only the popular Linux desktop environment out there. There is around 50+ desktop environment out there in Linux overall. But only a few are popular and active. If I list down the popular Linux desktops in terms of the user base, stability, and usability, only the following comes to my mind:

  • KDE Plasma
  • Xfce
  • MATE
  • Cinnamon

Others are either too lightweight, too heavy, or too slow in development.

And I think, hypothetically if any day in the future, Ubuntu decides to pivot-out from GNOME and consider alternatives, only KDE Plasma is a perfect choice in my opinion.

Why KDE is ideal?

KDE Plasma 5.21 Desktop (test)
KDE Plasma 5.21 Desktop (test)

If you used Qt-based, KDE Plasma 5 (current series), you may have noticed its super performance, the features it offers as an out-of-the-box, wide range of KDE Applications, and of course the great KDE Framework.

The entire KDE project moves fast and has many stable iterations in its development life cycle in a year. That means you get stable releases while getting better desktop features.

The KDE Application list is huge and you can get all types of KDE software for your needs. Like in GNOME, you do not need to install many extensions for basic tweaks, features. 

If I look at it briefly, the followings are the major advantages of KDE Plasma over GNOME if Ubuntu decides to switch:

  • KDE Plasma desktop has long support of 1.5 years (for LTS versions) with extended security support
  • Very Active development
  • Separate modules – KDE Framework, Plasma Desktop, and KDE Applications
  • Upstream distribution KDE Neon is available (latest plasma-desktop version)
  • Already Kubuntu Flavour featuring stable KDE Plasma is present
  • Built-in tweaks and features
  • Top class free applications are available as KDE apps such as Krita, KSnip, KDenlive, Dolphin, Okular
  • No need for additional software such as Tweaks, or additional GNOME extensions.

Closing Notes

In the Software world, no one actually knows how it would be perceived by the users unless you release the final version of a product. That said, the Ubuntu team may think of considering moving away from GTK based GNOME to better alternatives for a long term stable user base. The time and effort can be minimal, as Kubuntu flavor is already there. The only concern is the enterprise desktop deployments of Ubuntu where a fairly large migration strategy needs to be established including the training for users who never used KDE before. That would not be a huge issue, as KDE Plasma is design-wise Windows-type with a panel at the bottom, application menu looks like Windows. The only critical piece of this puzzle is the commercial nature of Qt technology on which KDE is based on. Ubuntu team might need to work around Qt license for commercial Ubuntu flavor.

At this time, it is unclear about the direction of Ubuntu concerning GNOME 40 and its adaptation. We will see what the future holds in the coming days.

The views and opinions expressed here are personal and belong solely to the blog owner. All the views and opinion is only expressed as analysis and not intended to hurt anyone else’s opinion. The featured image author is antonioguillem and it is used in “good faith” and for representation only.


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