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Canonical's Quest for Greatness

Canonical's Quest for Greatness

"We announced in November that we would be taking Ubuntu to a lot of new devices," said Peter Goodall, product manager for Canonical. "We've been very popular in the PC desktop and server space. We have done really well. We realized that to take Ubuntu into the next generation, we needed to move beyond the traditional PC and server and move into devices like tablets, TVs and even cars."

By Jack M. Germain
04/10/12 5:00 AM PT

Canonical, the commercial developer of the Ubuntu Linux operating system, seems at times to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. Some testers and industry watchers alike have praised the company's innovative Unity desktop shell and the Heads Up Display (HUD) bolted on top of it in this month's release of Ubuntu 12.04, the Precise Pangolin.

But that praise is not universal. Others have criticized Canonical's drastic changes for further fracturing the thread that binds Linux distros together.

The Linux blogosphere has been filled lately with a lot of banter about Canonical's new design directions having basically ruined the Ubuntu distro for the desktop with its new interface.

Those negative vibes so far are not enough to make Ubuntu's designers question their vision. And reports of user defections failed to make a strong impression. Ubuntu officials even deflected the rising tide of user angst with Canonical's decision to pull the plug on Kubuntu, the dedicated KDE desktop alternative to the GNOME desktop shell. All of these factors are contributing to at least the perception that a lot of Ubuntu users are turning to the Linux Mint distro as their new favorite OS.

"One can expect a certain amount of pushback to all the changes we are making. But all of the changes involve the user taking control of the operating system. To that end we are doing what we feel is really important," Peter Goodall, product manager for Canonical, told LinuxInsider.

So in the wake of this turmoil and controversy, LinuxInsider took a closer look at where Canonical is going. We went behind the scenes to get a sense of what is going on with Ubuntu.

Clearly, Canonical moved the Ubuntu OS from the ranks of a newcomer distro in October 2004 to a major business player today. But has Canonical moved too quickly or reached too far in charting a new direction for the Linux desktop? Is Canonical simply suffering the slings and arrows thrown at an overzealous development mission? Is Ubuntu just feeling some growing pains? Or is Canonical's vision becoming hopelessly fragmented and blurred?

Choice Encounters

Depending on how fervently you feel about open source and your free OS, you could answer all of those questions with yes-and-no responses. After all, people use the Linux OS because they want change and they want choices. So why turn tail on a company that gives you plenty of both?

"The very nature of a general purpose operating system makes it hard to pick your battles with respect to the audiences you are serving. Ubuntu has been innovative and has garnered success from that, but it is still in a position of offering different constituents different capabilities," Al Hilwa, program director for applications development software at IDC, told LinuxInsider.

Offering users choice is why there are so many different Linux distros. For all of its innovation, Canonical is really onto something, noted Amanda McPherson, vice president of marketing and developer programs for The Linux Foundation.

"It was a gutsy move by Canonical. Linux thrives on giving users lots of choice," she told LinuxInsider.

King of the Hill?

Canonical's founder and former CEO Mark Shuttleworth may have poked the caged tiger with a stick recently when he bragged about Ubuntu's innovation. He asserted that Ubuntu surpassed Windows and OS X in innovation.

Ubuntu has not only been one of the leading desktop Linux OSes, but also recently dethroned Red Hat Linux Enterprise (RHEL) as the leading server OS in the enterprise. Add to these successes the ongoing references from company officials about development of a mobile Ubuntu OS and even an Ubuntu tablet.

Still, one person's self-assessment of success is another person's target of finger pointing. After all, how does one measure innovation?

"Innovation is not an easy metric to measure. I think Ubuntu should be measured on a different scale from that perspective. Its appeal and user base is not the typical consumer, which is where Windows or OS X are aimed," said Hilwa about Shuttleworth's claims to fame for Ubuntu.

Or Princely Precise?

Perhaps Canonical is entitled to bragging rights for what it accomplished with the latest Ubuntu release. After all, in order to successfully sell any Linux OS, developers need a crusader's approach.

"Shuttleworth is taking a very impressive leadership role. He put his money where his mouth is with Ubuntu. He hired user interface designers to help research this," said McPherson.

Or are Canonical's marketing instincts the driving force pushing the for and against reactions? Hilwa thinks that it might be.

"Is the R&D agenda focused, for example, on server or client? Is it focused on developers and open source refugees, or is the intent to take it aggressively to a broad market? These are fundamental issues that any vendor of a broad product like a Linux operating system has to grapple with," he suggested.

A Matter of Growth

From Canonical's viewpoint, growing a better OS will not find unified acceptance. But progress is the goal, despite the potential loss of some users it might create.

"Over the years, we worked with numerous PC vendors to create a product that works. With all the changes, we have done a lot of user testing. So we know what works and what people enjoy using," said Canonical's Goodall in discussing negative user reactions.

The release of Ubuntu 12.04 is seeing expected results. Canonical does not necessarily expect everybody to like all of the changes. But the company is committed to doing its best to design the right solution that that works best for the majority of people, Goodall said.

"We are mostly seeing our users coming to us from other operating systems. We wouldn't grow too much if we were simply targeting existing Linux users. There are plenty of computer users around the globe. Everybody knows that the vast majority of them are Windows users," he added.

Attraction Action

Goodall downplayed accounts of massive defections from Ubuntu to other distros that were not drastically changing the look and feel of the GNOME desktop. Canonical was basing its design decisions on a greater good. Instead, the company is working with what draws users to Ubuntu.

Canonical's researchers have been seeing for years that people are installing Ubuntu for numerous reasons. One big reason is to refresh an older device. Another is the Linux convert who bought a new device and found that the operating system it came with just ran too slowly, he offered.

"By word of mouth and by reading articles about Linux and Ubuntu, new users come to us in search of a better operating system," said Goodall.

Perhaps Ubuntu's performance is becoming one of its leading attractions. One of the things people find in converting to Ubuntu is that it has a very low hardware requirement, he added. That makes it suitable for older computers.

No End in Sight

One of Canonical's main focuses leading up to this release cycle was optimizing performance to get around a sluggish performance aspect, explained Goodall -- but he insisted that any accusation that Unity and HUD are taking Ubuntu too far afield are wrong.

"A lot of it is retargeting our focus in terms of what we've done. Through this process we actually learned quite a bit about what people enjoy about computing," Goodall said. "In terms of our base user interface, we really have had a single focus. That really hasn't changed. There are variants of Ubuntu. We will continue to provide different user shells, but our standard will remain the same."

Canonical will stay the course rather than yield to user defections or agree that the company's innovation is contributing to fragmentation within the Ubuntu OS. That question about Linux fragmentation needs a combination of answers, he noted.

Factoring Fragments

"One of the things people love about Linux is it has such a range of choices. But when you get into the commercial end of using an operating system, people just want something that works. No, I do not see any fragmentation within Ubuntu itself," said Goodall.

Another consideration is how your device is Linux. For example, users are confronted with a lot of different devices and distros. Often it comes down to using a choice that simply works. Ubuntu users want to surf the Web, write their documents, etc. All that matters to them is that it really works. How it does it does not matter to them, he explained.

"I can't see us ever locking down the user interface so you can't try out other desktop options. We will always have that," concluded Goodall.

What's Next?

Canonical's release of Ubuntu 12.04 is really the culmination of all the optimizing and research designers have done for the last few years. It is a long-term release. Moving forward, the company will begin to make plans for the next long-term release. But designers will still have a release every six months leading up to that, according to Goodall.

Now that the user interface is hardened, Canonical will continue to work on improving the core operating system. That will integrate a shift into more consumer devices.

The design concern will focus on how the user changes behavior while working with each device. The goal is not creating an operating system that runs the same on every single device. Instead, Canonical is creating an operating system that works well on all the different devices, noted Goodall.

"Integrating HUD is still in its infancy. Ubuntu will continue to develop the technology it created several years ago. The goal is to help users better interact with their computing devices," he said.

Device Influx

Canonical is already well on its way to giving consumers Ubuntu-based hardware beyond Ubuntu-powered desktops and laptops.

"We announced in November that we would be taking Ubuntu to a lot of new devices," Goodall said. "We've been very popular in the PC desktop and server space. We have done really well. We realized that to take Ubuntu into the next generation, we needed to move beyond the traditional PC and server and move into devices like tablets, TVs and even cars."

With that in mind, it is easier for Ubuntu users to accept the shift away from traditional menus. Newer hardware devices need more efficient and easier-to-use interfaces.

"It's not that we are getting rid of traditional menus altogether. There still are menus. It will evolve to the point where people won't even think about menus any more," said Goodall. "That's really the goal."


Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.


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