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Has Canonical Found the Keys to the Computing Kingdom?

By Katherine Noyes
Mar 12, 2012 5:00 AM PT

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

Has Canonical Found the Keys to the Computing Kingdom?

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.

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