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Angst and Anxiety Over Ubuntu's Chosen Path

By Katherine Noyes
May 30, 2013 5:00 AM PT

After all the bold moves Canonical has made regarding Ubuntu in the past few years, it's not exactly any secret that a significant portion of the Linux community remains unconvinced as to the wisdom of its chosen path.

Angst and Anxiety Over Ubuntu's Chosen Path

Indeed, it was just a few weeks ago that the project decided to launch its very own package format and installer, resulting in more than a few raised eyebrows among FOSS fans.

"I don't know what's wrong with Canonical," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl at the time.

Well, the ever-reflective team over at TuxRadar recently took that very question and ran with it. "Has Ubuntu lost it?" was the bold question du jour in the latest issue of the team's "Linux Format" magazine, and it's sparked quite a conversation in the bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere.

Ever hoping in vain for a quiet, relaxing week, Linux Girl ordered another Canonical Caipirinha and got to work.

'The Market Will Decide'

Linux Girl

"Has Ubuntu lost it? Well, I don't know," began Google+ blogger Brett Legree. "I'm not a billionaire running a multimillion dollar company, and I'm sure that Mr. Shuttleworth & Co. have plans they're not sharing with us.

'Sometimes, as armchair observers, we may not understand the reasons why companies do the things they do, so we will have to wait and see what the market says -- the market will decide if Ubuntu has lost it," Legree added.

"From my own personal perspective, I continue to watch Ubuntu with interest, to see where they will go," he said. "I run it in virtual machines mostly these days, but I am using other distros on bare metal. This is nothing against Ubuntu -- it just means that it does not meet my own specific requirements."

'In the End, They Failed'

Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, had a stronger viewpoint.

"The short answer is yes," Travers told Linux Girl.

"The problem with the free/open source consumer desktop is there is no real money to be made in marketing it to consumers," he explained. "A consumer that wants it will download it for free. A successful distribution in this area is going to be one which reduces the costs to everyone -- the tech support guy, the consumer, the hardware vendor -- and so a common operating system there may well take off, but it will almost certainly not be centered on a single vendor the way Ubuntu is."

While Canonical set out to conquer this space, "in the end, they failed, and so increasingly turned to looking for what will convert the masses instead of keeping existing users happy, and eventually resorted to gimmicks to raise revenue, such as Amazon affiliate revenue via adware," Travers noted.

'They Would Have to Open Up'

What would Canonical have to do to conquer the desktop with Ubuntu?

"In my view, they would have to really open up the Ubuntu community and development process, actively seeking to be a small player in a big market, and then seeking to carve themselves out a modest niche in the Ubuntu market," he concluded. "This is exactly what Red Hat has done with regard to Linux and Red Hat offshoots on the server, and this is why they have been successful while so many have not."

Ultimately, "I think the way forward is likely to be with a distro like Debian," Travers added.

'As Good as It Gets'

"Overall Ubuntu is as good as it gets for the Linux desktop," opined Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor. "What is a problem is Unity.

"I thought Unity was okay at the start," Lim explained, "but with each version I like it less and less. I am not too concerned with Amazon getting information on what I search for -- I have never been fond of Dash, and I really just do not like Lens, and this has nothing to do with privacy."

Rather, "Unity shows that Canonical is still of the belief that building a better desktop is the golden path to success in the consumer market," he said. "They should have stuck with the equally unpopular GNOME 3 and focused their resources on improving the other parts of Ubuntu."

'Too Much Like M$'

Ubuntu needs to "get over the 'one interface for all form factors' it's shoving down everyone's throat," opined consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. "'Better than Windows 8' is an awfully low bar and still worse than the interface it replaced."

Similarly, "Ubuntu GNU/Linux has lost 'it' if 'it' means the best traditions of FLOSS seeking the best performance from our IT," offered blogger Robert Pogson. "In the real world, Canonical is a business and they have a right to leverage their market share of GNU/Linux desktops with OEMs, businesses wanting advertising and retailers.

"It's too bad they are willing to risk security and privacy to accomplish their business plan," Pogson added. "That's too much like M$ for me."

On the other hand, "Google does some of the same by monitoring searches/browses for information to enhance their business," he pointed out. "As long as that brings improved performance to users that's probably acceptable. Giving information to third parties may not be."

Fortunately, "anyone uncomfortable with big business' involvement with GNU/Linux has plenty of alternatives such as Debian GNU/Linux," Pogson concluded. "They won't sell you out for any price."

'I Don't See That Happening'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet wasn't sure what, exactly, Ubuntu had to lose in the first place.

"It's been how many years now, and they have yet to crack even 5 percent of the market," hairyfeet told Linux Girl. "They have MAYBE 25 percent of the already teeny-tiny Linux market.

"For them to 'lose it' they have to have something to lose, and so far the only thing I've seen them lose is Shuttleworth's money," he said. "I still say that if they don't find a viable market, they will be lucky to keep the doors open by 2016. With Intel coming out with sub-$250 Win 8 tablets and Google spending a billion a year on Android, I don't see that happening."

'The Wrong Answer'

The real issue is that Ubuntu "wants to go in a direction that Linux has not gone in, which is to take Linux to the mass of people who have never used it," opined Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien. "And they have concluded that to do this, they need to change some things."

As the old saying goes, "if you do what you have always done, you will get the results that you have always gotten," O'Brien pointed out.

"We know that Linux as it has traditionally been offered can get 1 percent of the market, but that seems to be a ceiling," he said. "I don't know if Ubuntu has the right answer, but I am certain that doing things the way we have always done them is the wrong answer."

'Many Users Have Left'

Of course, "people and distributions do evolve," Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. pointed out. "Definitively, Ubuntu is no more than just a 'friendly Debian.' But in their quest to become a successful 'Linux for human beings,' they (specially guided by Mark Shuttleworth) took a very particular path."

Specifically, "they have made some concessions, they have sort of imposed some changes to become 'a huge (commercial) success,' and we can see where they got," he added. "Many users (especially the more GNU/Linux FLOSS, community oriented) have left, and many new users seeking something that works and is easy to use have come. C'est la vie."

In short, "I don't think they have lost their mojo," Gonzalo Velasco C. concluded. "I think they are looking for something, and they have the right to do it. We have the right to like and use it (Ubuntu) or not."

'They've Become So Ubiquitous'

Last but certainly not least, "no, Ubuntu hasn't lost it," Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone told Linux Girl.

"They've made some decisions lately that may have cost them some fans, but that's really to be expected," Stone explained. "Moving forward means leaving something behind, and sometimes people don't like to do that. I don't necessarily like all of their recent decisions either, but they're still an amazing distro that a good number of other distros use as a base."

In fact, "they've become so ubiquitous that it's no surprise that their DistroWatch ranking is dropping," Stone suggested. "All that is is a hit counter on the distro's page. So many people already know about Ubuntu that they don't need to go to DistroWatch or even care about Ubuntu's page there."

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 and Google+.

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