Canonical's Next (And Hardest) Steps - InformationWeek
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Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Canonical's Next (And Hardest) Steps

Look forward, not back. That's a philosophy Mark Shuttleworth wants to bring to Ubuntu, and by extension to the rest of Linux as well. In a conference call on Monday, right before the release of 8.10 at the end of this month (happy Halloween!), he laid out what's in that release right now and some high-level goals for the future.

Look forward, not back. That's a philosophy Mark Shuttleworth wants to bring to Ubuntu, and by extension to the rest of Linux as well. In a conference call on Monday, right before the release of 8.10 at the end of this month (happy Halloween!), he laid out what's in that release right now and some high-level goals for the future.

What's key to keep in mind about 8.10 is how it's designed to bring in things from the Linux community as a whole -- the new Gnome and KDE desktops, the new network connection manager -- and to implement those things in ways that try to add genuinely new functionality. The feature rundown's already been covered in a fair amount of detail by my associate Antone Gonsalves, but certain things fairly cry out for commentary.

One major point that was made, and something I asked about in detail, was Canonical's presence at desktop environment and experience summits -- the places where the Gnome and KDE folks get their future directions. What did Canonical want to do there, or learn from such things? I asked. The answer was twofold:

1. To keep a relentless focus on the high-quality integration of many disparate pieces that already exist in the Linux space. The whole point of open source is to have a broad pool of solutions that others can draw on, so why not use as much of it as possible instead of re-re-reinventing wheels? "This [integrating existing open source solutions into Ubuntu] is an area where I feel we've already set a very high bar for the industry," Mark said, "and if something's possible with free software right now, we want to also make it possible to do that in Ubuntu without fiddling about to make it happen."

2. To add new technologies or capabilities to the desktop space whenever possible. "That is something new for us," Mark pointed out, "since we've focused before on high-quality integration and not the creation of brand-new components except where needed to achieve very specific results. We have a culture of wanting to make sure that anything we do is part of the broader ecosystems in which we work [like Gnome/KDE], but to shake things up we have to pioneer and make the case to them to embrace what we've done. If we sit around and debate for two years about what to do, everyone else -- Apple and Microsoft, mainly -- moves forward."

He cited three major technologies that would be a part of this: the pervasiveness of touch technology (something that Microsoft itself also has been investing heavily in for some time now); integration of 3-D interaction as an adjunct to productivity and not just as eye candy; and the continued linking of the Web into the desktop. The last is something we've seen tentatively before in Linux with the likes of gOS, but Mark's ambitions -- even if they're still vague -- are again not to just copy what exists but move a generation or two ahead whenever possible.

What troubled more than a few people, me included, was the fact that Canonical is still "not cash-flow positive", as Mark put it, and with its current roster of offerings it doesn't expect to be for another two years or so. This isn't something that can be ignored -- Canonical is, after all, a business -- and I had a feeling many people would pounce on it as a sign of impending disaster. The Guardian, for example, was especially negative -- the opening line for its article was "Linux has always been a financial disaster on the desktop" (disastrous for whom, exactly?), and its way of elaborating on that bordered on flamebait:

Ubuntu's main chance on the desktop has already come and gone. It would have been great if it had become the standard on netbooks. However, almost all the netbook manufacturers want to be able to tweak their adopted Linux and/or add their own software. Linux is now in decline on netbooks ...

In decline? The netbook market has barely gotten started. Likewise Ubuntu's involvement with same; its Netbook Remix edition isn't even a year old, and attention's just now started turning to it as a good, unified solution for netbook technology.

It also quoted Mark as saying "I don't think it will be possible to make a lot of money, or maybe any money, selling the desktop" -- which is correct, but they left off the rest of his sentence, which was "and that's a good thing." Meaning the desktop in whatever form it comes in -- Windows, Mac, Linux, or even Android -- is a commodity now. The point isn't to make money by selling desktops per se, but to use it as a doorway to other revenue generators: cloud services, support, upscale / boutique hardware, etc.

I've been hammering on this for a bit because, yes, it's valid to criticize Canonical for not yet turning a profit -- although even that might be questionable; how many enterprises of their size go profitable after only a couple of years, especially ones that are attempting to do a little trailblazing? But it's not valid to assume the Canonical business model is broken or that "Linux on the desktop is unsellable" because profitability isn't there yet for them. (I have the feeling when and if Canonical does go into the black, the next likely criticism will be that the open source vendors are only making billions of dollars instead of billions and billions of dollars.)

I've been setting up 8.10 on my own machines here in my office, and I now use it more or less full time on my notebook. It's gotten all the more seamless and streamlined with each revision, and there's far less of the now-how-do-I-get-this-working? confusion that's plagued end-user Linux for way too long. Canonical and Ubuntu have achieved competence and are now striving toward genuine excellence, and from where I stand that's more than worth waiting for. No one, certainly not Mark Shuttleworth, thinks it will be easy -- and that's a big part of the reason to try.

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