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What Happened to Ubuntu’s Innovative Unity Web Apps?

Am I the only person who misses Unity web apps?  

The feature debuted in the  Ubuntu 12.10 release , and it was, in my opinion, far ahead of its time.

In one broad stroke Ubuntu valued the web as something than an “other place” to get stuff done. Websites and web services could interact directly with the desktop experience in a way that felt truly innovative at the time.

Mac OS X added support for web push a few years after Ubuntu let websites send notifications to the desktop, and it took Microsoft even longer to catch up.

What Happened to Ubuntu’s Innovative Unity Web Apps?

Browsing Reddit from the HUD

Web-push support is only a recent added to Google Chrome for Android, Windows, Mac and Linux, with WhatsApp and Facebook among the first services to support it.

But Ubuntu was doing all this on the desktop, off its own bat, years ago. 

Unity Web apps could integrate with Ubuntu features including:

  • Messaging Menu
  • Unity Launcher (e.g., showing unread count)
  • Sound Menu
  • HUD
  • Desktop notifications

I could glance at my Gmail unread count in the Ubuntu messaging menu; find a Feedly icon in the Unity launcher; sift through subreddits straight from the HUD; and be kept abreast of breaking news alerts through native desktop notifications.

The feature was awesome. Plenty of websites worked with it . It helped to blur the lines between desktop and web.

And then it broke.

Why Did Ubuntu Ditch Unity Web Apps?

‘Ubuntu made a huge leap in pioneering the integrated web — but then took a step backwards’

The short answer is Ubuntu didn’t drop Unity web apps per se. It just changed the way they worked.

There are a few reasons for this, all of the related to the burden of maintenance.

In a bug report filed in 2014 Canonical’s David Barth explained that the implementation, which relied on Firefox and Chromium add-ons, was a factor:

“Our initial approach at using an extension to implement [web app integration] proved to be problematic.”

This is fair.

Mozilla Firefox was to block unsigned extensions (the unity-webapp-addon was side loaded) and Chromium was to follow suit by limiting extension installs to only those from Chrome Web Store (unless in developer mode).

(Of note, the Ubuntu unity plugin packages were retroactively purged from Ubuntu 14.04 LTS in 2015 ).

What Happened to Ubuntu’s Innovative Unity Web Apps?

It was also argued that the user experience was less than ideal; users preferred their installed web-apps to open in a separate window and not, as Firefox was (then) limited to, opening them a new tab.

Of course, open-source being what it is a chromeless Firefox mode was created and proposed, but it was never merged. Ubuntu’s developers said (at the time) that they simply didn’t wish to add “…any further craziness on top of the other million changes we’re making”.

Again with the burden of maintenance.

But perhaps the biggest drawback was the way in which the feature relied on third-party websites, as Canonical’s Michael Hall told me:

“The problem with [the old version of Unity webapps] was that we were injecting code into websites to make it work, and if those websites changed anything about themselves it could break our injected scripts.”

This feature made use of Greasemonkey and Userscripts to scrape and pass on “unread counts” and the like.

Ubuntu Touch Web Browser Arrives

In Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, the parts that made the feature novel were missing entirely.

Sure, you could still installed web-apps through the Ubuntu Software Center but these apps had zero system integration beyond adding an app launcher.

What Happened to Ubuntu’s Innovative Unity Web Apps?

Further still, web apps switched from opening in the full-fat Firefox to a slimmed down Chromium-based browser called “web browser” (the same app as found on the phone).

Although promised , the Ubuntu Web Browser app never received any of the Unity desktop integration that the (supposedly less desirable) Firefox/Chromium experience allowed.

Even the (arguably perennially pointless) Amazon web app wasn’t spared, going from  mildly useful (you could right-click to access a quicklist, making it easy to ‘jump’ straight to, say, your orders page, etc) to an unwanted, web-wrapped bookmark in a browser that wasn’t very good at rendering it.

Ubuntu made a huge leap forward by pioneering an integrated web on the desktop. It took a notable step backwards when it put the web back in its box.

Good Ideas Always Return

What Happened to Ubuntu’s Innovative Unity Web Apps?

The good news for me, and for anyone else who was a fan of this feature, is that the converged Unity 8 desktop Will likely bring many of these neat integration back.

Ubuntu on phone and tablets makes heavy use of HTML5 and web technologies for many of its apps (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, pretty much 90% of the apps in the Store).

The burdens of the past won’t be shouldered, with “…the new webapps used in Unity 8, we’re (mostly) using just the W3C standards, which offer less functionality, but should be more stable.”

However it returns I sincerely hope it does. Mobile has blurred the edges of what “web” is. It would be great to see Ubuntu provide a seamless approach to it again.

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