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Has Canonical Found the Keys to the Computing Kingdom?

There seems to be no end in sight to the bold moves and bold proclamations surrounding Ubuntu Linux these days.

First we had the debut of Ubuntu TV, surrounded by trumpets and fanfare.

Then, late last month, we had the Ubuntu for Android announcement, along with a wide assortment of grand and enthusiastic predictions regarding its significance.

Soon afterward, it was the release of the first Ubuntu 12.04 beta, complete not just with the new Head-Up Display interface but also Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth’s assertion that Ubuntu is now in the process of surpassing its proprietary rivals on the innovation front.

‘Ubuntu, the Next Apple?’

“For the first time with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, real desktop user experience innovation is available on a full production-ready enterprise-certified free software platform, free of charge, well before it shows up in Windows or MacOS,” he wrote in a blog post last week.

Then, too, there’s been the open ballot over at TuxRadar provocatively titled, “Ubuntu, the next Apple?”

Put it all together, and it seems like there must be some writing on this here wall. The only question is, what does it say?

‘It’s the Applications, Dummy!’

“If Shuttleworth thinks that Ubuntu will ever one-up Windows or the Mac on anything except 1st prize for the fugliest background color scheme, he needs to stop believing his own publicity,” opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“Ubuntu isn’t in the least competitive with either of them, not in terms of software available, and certainly not in terms of developer mind-share,” Hudson explained. “People want iOS, they want Android, they want OSX, they want Windows — and they want the ecosystem of apps, programs, services, and hardware compatibility that go with them.”Linux has its place, “but even Linus Torvalds has had to admit that the Linux user experience leaves a lot to be desired,” she added.

“This latest Ubuntu is simply not appealing compared to what’s offered by Microsoft, Apple, and Google,” Hudson concluded. “And as far as Unity goes, people already had their fill of Fisher-Price UIs with XP. ‘It’s the applications, dummy!'”

‘A Dying Brand’

Similarly, “why is anyone listening to Shuttleworth at all anymore?” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. “Has a single thing the man said EVER came true?

“This is the same guy that said he was gonna bring Linux to the masses (bug #1…massive fail), and while he talks about having 100 million users by 2015 (another massive fail, as mint is quickly becoming the hot Linux to use), has his company made a SINGLE penny?” hairyfeet pointed out.

Actions matter more than words, hairyfeet added, “and I believe Shuttleworth’s actions towards Canonical — his refusing to pour more money into a company that’s not made a dime — tell us all we need to know.”

The “thunderous sound of all those users switching to Mint,” meanwhile, “has made it quite clear that the market has spoken.”

Hairyfeet’s parting prediction: “Canonical dead in 3 years, Ubuntu desktop abandoned to the community in two. The Mint guys are smart to be getting Mint ready to use Debian pure, as Canonical is a dying brand.”

‘There Is Still a Chance for Ubuntu’

Canonical won’t be able to one-up Apple or Microsoft without a mobile phone and tablet, suggested Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

“Even if Canonical built the best desktop operating system in the world, it would not matter anymore,” Lim explained. “While Ubuntu and Unity may be ‘beautiful on the outside too — easy to use and visually pleasing,’ I do not think 99 percent of the market will find it ‘exciting.'”

Far more intriguing, offered Lim, would be a Linux distro that “tries to become Android for the desktop.

“It would also have to have similar software as Android phones, which means getting on board with Google,” he explained. “Google wants their services everywhere, and would love to have Chrome, Google Earth and its other software pre-installed on a Linux distribution.”

So, “there is still chance for Ubuntu, or some other Linux distro, to get into the game,” Lim concluded. “A Linux distribution entering into a partnership with Google would be more ‘exciting’ than any new user interface.”

‘Innovation Is Not Widely Welcome’

Indeed, “I really don’t want my UI ‘innovated,'” protested consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. “I just want to get work done, and the UI has been good enough for that for several years now.”

Rather, what’s needed now “is to have more resources spent on making sure that all of the components work together properly, and a lot more time spent making sure everything is easy to configure,” he said.

“Innovation on the desktop is not widely welcome,” agreed blogger Robert Pogson. “People don’t like change. They know how to get their current desktops to work, and it is a waste of time to learn a new desktop paradigm just because some designer thinks it’s better.”

‘The World Is Moving to Larger Screens’

For instance, “I cannot see how searching for the gear-shift is an improvement,” Pogson said. “I know where the gear-shift is. I cannot see how the OS or any application popping up stuff is any better than a browser popping up stuff when I am browsing.

“When I run a computer, I want to look at the display of an application or the display of the OS, not necessarily both at once,” he added.

Ultimately, “Canonical’s innovations make some sense on tiny screens, but the world is moving to larger screens on everything but smartphones,” Pogson concluded. “I don’t see any merit for doing that on everything.”

‘Too Clever, Too Quick’

Slashdot blogger yagu was intrigued by Canonical’s new interface, but “my concern is that the evolution acceleration curve for technology, specifically how users interact with the interfaces, is too steep, and Ubuntu starts running the risk of being too clever, too quick,” he said.

“It’s hard to evangelize linux/ubuntu/favorite distro and find out users are too confused to understand and use it because every time they look, it’s different,” yagu added.

To wit: “One thing I have started to intensely dislike about Ubuntu lately is the fact that I find the user interface increasingly confusing and difficult to grasp without a lot of instruction and documentation,” agreed Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “I was evaluating gnumed for a possible user and spent the better part of an hour looking for the menus, which Ubuntu had happily hidden.”

‘It Takes Practice to Discover Stuff’

Familiarity “counts for a lot, and this is something Ubuntu is sacrificing in order to be different and out in front of the pack,” asserted Travers, who admits to having “a fairly conservative approach to design.”

The problem “is that users will find the system hard to use, and this will delay uptake,” he explained.

“There are times when you don’t want to be out in front, and this is one,” Travers opined. “It’s one of the reasons I increasingly refer to Ubuntu as a ‘UI research distro’ rather than something I would want to, say, use for actual work.

“I have also watched users struggle with the HUD,” he added. “So the idea that everything is discoverable I think is overrated. It certainly takes practice to discover stuff.”

That said, however, “we are all better off for these ideas making it out there,” Travers concluded. “The best of them will be eventually introduced into all other desktop environments.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

8 Comments

  • I’m not sure where Ubuntu is going, but after seeing the direction it’s been heading I want nothing to do with it. I’ve been searching for a distro that works out-of-the-box for about a year now for my clients that want a computer to work like a computer for about a year now and Mint is still my choice for clients. Ubuntu Server might be creditable but Debian is still the choice for those of us that know what they’re doing, or for the geek that’s learning – but it’s not for the average Joe. Shuttleworth doesn’t get it. He wants to head in his own direction and have the world follow him.. kinda sounds like a Gates story to me.

    • If you want her simply straight articles she writes several on other sites, this is her "round table" column. You see everyone that she uses in this round table comes from a completely different background such as Ms Hudson is a Linux Admin, i’m a small PC shop owner,, Yagu is more the MOR type, and of course Pogson is the rabid fanboi complete with "Voldemort syndrome".

      So Ms Noyes uses this particular round table because it isn’t gonna give her the same old "preaching to the choir" responses, Pogson will say EVERYTHING is gonna kill Microsoft..oh sorry "M$", Ms Hudson looks at everything from an admin worldview, Yagu is your average folks, and I look at everything from the point of the consumer since that is who I’m dealing with 6 days a week.

      One thing you and I DO agree on though is Shuttleworth being a few bricks shy of a load. personally i think he’s hyping Canonical hoping he can sell it since it has turned into a giant money pit with NO chance of digging its way out. Because he got lucky that one time the press still give him ink so I’m betting he is hoping he can build enough buzz to dump Canonical on somebody and then head to the hills, because lets face it, its a failure.

      Oh and just FYI, but the crazy stunts like Unity and HUD? those are the same as what MSFT is doing with Win 8, its a Hail Mary. with Ballmer its a Hail Mary to try one last time to get MSFT into the ARM arena (Protip:its gonna make Vista look like Win95) and with Shuttleworth its a Hail Mary to try to get Canonical into phones/TVs/tablets/ SOMETHING that they can actually turn a profit on and get him a ROI so he doesn’t look like an idiot when it tanks. But there is simply no way with the GPL to make money on the desktop so just like the Ballmer’s Hail Mary its a failwhale of epic proportionality.

  • Shuttleworth is not an ordinary venture capitalist. He’s a new rich boy playing with his toys. He confronts rudely his users every other day at bug reports. He’s an immature computer programmer. He’s not a business man, he just made a fortune on a lucky day, many years ago. And you know what? Most of this is actually positive for Ubuntu. Why? Because he’s passionate about his playground and he might have enough money to burn on it for a long long time. Remember what was the first thing he did when he got the money from the Thawte deal? He went to space!! We don’t really know how much money he has to spend on his playground, but that is what will determine the future of Ubuntu for a while. If it’s plenty of money, he will happily burn it forever. If it’s short, he might kill Canonical when his pockets are running just too low… or get the money from a servers business, just to keep the boat afloat and keep playing with this toys.

    Shuttleworth, like most infantile company owners, is good at PR. He has a passion for what he does and that sells well. That’s another good point for Canonical’s survival.

    He’s now entertained with that HUD idea. Great. Hope it lasts. While he’s at it, some of his designers, such as John Lea, are actually implementing a very interesting _and easy to use_ desktop UI. Menus won’t be hidden anymore very soon, and it will be very easy to have a fully discoverable desktop with that silly HUD thing just fading away like windicators faded away. Even Jono Bacon publicly says things along the lines of "you know Mark"… He will also play the whole day long with UbuntuTV, an hypothetical Ubuntu phone what will come -if ever- so late no one will care, and the tablet everyone is saying Unity is designed for (it actually isn’t. Unity, and more importantly Ubuntu apps, without a keyboard and mouse aren’t usable at all). But while he’s having the time of his life with his pet projects, Canonical employees will keep churning a more and more refined desktop experience.

    It’s totally false that Unity is massively hated. Numbers have shown Mint has still like a 30 times smaller user base. Those who are fleeing are die-hard old time Linux users. Many others are liking Unity because there’s a lot to like in it, especially for casual users and novices, while power users choices are around the corner.

    So, let the kid play with his toys and let the adults surrounding him do the money work (servers) and keep the desktop evolving.

    Oh, and about that persistent "post-PC era" meme: it might be true for consumers, but no office worker is going to use a tablet for her daily duties, no engineer is going to use a phone for designing, no animator is going to rely on a mobile device to do her job, etc., etc., etc. In other works, don’t expect *work*stations to die any time soon.

  • @qst4:

    Worse yet than not embracing innovation is
    1) embracing innovation for innovation’s sake;
    2) embracing innovation because someone tells you that their innovation SHOULD be embraced because THEY did it (Shuttleworth);
    3) refusing to learn from others more knowledge than oneself.

    Regarding this last point, most of the people involved in the creation of this article are unbiased–at least where FOSS is concerned–and speak from a base of broad experience. Indeed, some have had not unkind words regarding the actions of Canonical and Shuttleworth from time to time.
    What you are reading is the vented frustration of being kicked in the teeth one too many times, by extremely knowledgeable and experienced people who, like me, feel betrayed by the lofty words and promises of Mark Shuttleworth.
    Two suggestions for you:
    1) you want and like innovation; that’s obvious. Last time I heard, there were hundreds of Linux distributions. Simply go to Distrowatch, and browse for innovative distros to your heart’s content. You’ll find a lot which are far more innovative than Ubuntu.
    2) You seem like a sharp person. I seriously doubt that you’d buy an piece of multimedia gear without checking on the internet to get a feel for other people’s opinions, taking into account (if possible) the credibility of the opinion-giver.

    Perhaps you’ve already employed stage (2). In that case, good for you. That’s the beauty of Linux/UNIX: if one distro doesn’t work for you, there are a wealth of others to choose from (well, as regards Linux, anyway. But, again, since you like innovation, check out the FreeBSD and PCBSD UNIXes).

    Best of luck, and

    Warmest regards…

  • What disappoints me about the comments in the article and the talk-back comments is that every one seems to be happy with the stat-quo. Fine, direct all the personal attacks against Shuttleworth, but also acknowledge that he has been brave enough to try give Linux desktop a fresh look. I’m new to linux, but I choose Ubuntu over Mint, largely because the first thing I saw with Mint was the Windows flavored start menu. I’m done with windows and I’m sure lots of other users feel the same. I hate working with the windows like WIMP architecture and find it far easier to get things done using Gnome 3/Unity or MAC OSX style interfaces. The one truth about the world is change. If you refuse to be flexible about change you will be left behind, which is the way I feel all linux distros are heading if they don’t make a greater push to innovate and distinguish themselves from other OSes.

  • There is no need for a comment. I’ve been saying for a long time that Shuttleworth suffers from delusions of adequacy; that his high-handed dealings with his user base would be his downfall; that he and Canonical were dead men walking; and less than one week after I wrote that Shuttleworth and Canonical were late (as in the late Sir Winston Churchill), Shuttleworth pulled the plug on Kubuntu.

    Hopefully this outpouring of sanity on the part of your ‘contacts’ will be enough to stop your incessant gushing over all things Shuttleworth and Canonical. Because of this, your credibility is almost non-existent.

    I still chuckle every time I remember a classic Noyes title (I paraphrase; some informative articles I save. Yours I don’t).

    "Ubuntu xx Is Coming Next Week. ARE YOU EXCITED?!"

    Puh-LEEZE!

    Give us ALL a break, and quit shilling for Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical.

    And, please: find some new sources of opinion, if anyone else will talk to you. I get the impression that you don’t use any other sources (it’s really tiresome knowing by heart who you are going to use as a source of expert opinion in any article carrying your byline) because (a) no one else will talk to you, and (b) it’s free exposure for people who otherwise don’t get much–and to come across as "experts".

    Nothing personal, mind you; simply purely objective, constructive criticism for you and your employers.

    Warmest regards…

  • And thus I think credit should be given where credit is due, his "I just want to get work done, and the UI has been good enough for that for several years now" couldn’t have been more of a bullseye if he used a laser guided smartbomb to hit the target. The current WIMP UI has been maturing and refining for nearly 30 years now and most importantly it gets out of peoples way and lets them do their REAL work, which is what ALL OSes should be striving for, to be as least intrusive as possible on the workflow of the users. after all nobody is sitting down for a day of wobbly windows and Unity junk, they are sitting down because they have a task they need their computer for, be it work or entertainment.

    Sadly canonical, despite how much so many hate Unity, really has zero choice in this matter. the simple fact is, which I have been arguing for years is a flaw with the GPL model when it comes to certain use cases, Canonical is bleeding money and dying. there is no ifs, ands, or buts about it. it is obvious from all their flip flopping (remember "We’re a desktop company NOT a server company" which they stated repeatedly when they first came out?) is them desparately trying to find a model where they can make enough to survive but they are quickly finding out on the desktop that it doesn’t exist.

    Look at the history of Linux on the desktop and the field is littered with the dead, gOS, linspire, Xandros, novell, soon mandriva will join them and Canonical i predict will be a part of that list as well. The simple fact is, whether the community wants to accept it or not, is that it will take a minimum of 50-100 million to bring Linux desktops up to the level of OSX Lion and Windows 7, everything from regression testing to more complete docs to QA to serious work on the driver model and without the funds volunteers aren’t gonna spend months or even years of their lives on such thankless work, its just human nature.

    So the community is gonna have to decide which is more important to you, the GPL or having a real competitor to Windows and OSX? Because no company is gonna sink the millions required for just a "gee thanks" from the community, they are gonna want a ROI. the only companies that have profited from GPL software have used the services model and that model simply won’t work on the desktop. what’s really needed to keep Canonical from being the last company who tries to offer a true Linux desktop is a new license, a "you’re free to look at and modify the code but if you distribute you gotta pay" license so companies like canonical can actually get paid for fixing bugs instead of trying all these crazy moves hoping to find some hardware they can sell. you DO want the bugs fixed and real Linux boxes on shelves, so you will have drivers and support, right? so what’s it gonna be?

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