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Tick-Tock Goes Canonical’s Clock

This story was originally published on Feb. 28, 2012, and is brought to you today as part of our Best of ECT News series.

Bug #1 – Microsoft has a majority market share.” – Ubuntu bug tracker.

Much has changed since Canonical started on its quirky quest to “fix bug #1.” Seven years ago Microsoft was seen as stagnant, ripe for plucking. Longhorn was still MIA, and Microsoft users were busy patching XP against the latest threats.

Apple? Apple was still recovering from its near-death experience. The iPhone and the first netbook (the Asus Eee PC) were still three years in the future. The iPad wouldn’t show up until 2010. If you had a computer, it was either a desktop or a laptop.

High Hopes

MySpace had just been launched the previous summer, Facebook was just starting up, Twitter was three years in the future. Still, demand for a free desktop OS that would let people do spreadsheets and work with these nascent online services without worrying about viruses must have seemed like an easy sell for a venture capitalist. By 2008, CEO Mark Shuttleworth was saying that he only expected Canonical to be profitable “within three to five years.” Yet profits remain elusive.

In the intervening years, Moore’s Law kept putting more computing power into smaller packages at lower prices. We saw netbooks come — and we saw netbooks go. Laptops displaced desktops as the biggest sellers, only to be themselves increasingly supplanted by iPods, smartphones and tablets.

Operating system vendors also adapted. Microsoft, stung by the backlash against Vista and user insistence on sticking with XP, came out with Windows 7 — the first Microsoft OS that took less memory than its predecessor. And Apple — well, Apple didn’t do much, if you don’t count parlaying the iPod, iTunes, and iPhone into becoming the most valuable company in the world, leaving everyone else to play catch-up.

And to top it all off, there was this weirdly named thing called “Android,” from Google of all people, another free Linux-derived OS, but targeted at all those new smart devices instead of the desktop.

All this gouged a huge hole in Canonicals pre-iDevices plans for Ubuntu.

Time for Plan B?

Venture capitalists pretty much always have an exit strategy. The usual trajectory is to build up a user base and revenues, then find a buyer or investors so they can “cash out.” What sort of exit strategy could Canonical envision, with such a changed playing field? The desktop/laptop business, Ubuntu’s target, was becoming obsolete. Worse, from a venture capitalist point of view, it had lost its “shiny.” It was seen as old, stodgy and boring.

Canonical’s response was a series of failed initiatives.

As the iPhone and iPad crazes nuked conventional wisdom about how people wanted to use computers, Shuttleworth decided that the future of Ubuntu lay in smart devices. Ultimately, he would sacrifice everything else to pursue this goal. Among those sacrificed would be the many users who had stuck by Ubuntu despite increasingly buggy releases.

The new mobile-centric user interface, Unity, provoked a lot of disunity among the existing Ubuntu user base, who were predominantly desktop and laptop users. Their complaints were ignored. The party line was “This (mobile+touch) is the future. Get over it.”

In retrospect, however, the most important failure was the “Android Execution Environment” (announced in May 2009, quietly dropped in 2010). Just how important this decision would be only became apparent at CES 2012.

Moore’s Law wasn’t done messing with Canonical just yet.

With the iPad selling for between US$500 and $1,000, a low-cost Linux-based device must have seemed to Canonical like a license to print money. Surely that would be technology that investors would want a piece of.

And then Amazon came out with its own $199 tablet, complete with a virtual warehouse of content available from day one.

That had to hurt. In the space of a week, tablets became cheap commodities, and any potential Ubuntu devices would have to compete with Amazon not just on price but on content — and content is still king, whether your content is e-books and movies or a music or app store.

Plan C and Beyond

Canonical still had a back-up plan for this year’s CES. The stakes were high. After failing to deliver on previous promises of OEM Ubuntu smartphones and tablets, Canonical needed to do something — anything — to salvage its credibility.

With no Ubuntu tablet or smartphone deals to demo, it quickly customized software from to release a half-baked UbuntuTV. There were lots of promises of what it would be like in the future, but what was missing was critical: There were no content deals. Without Android support, it was already obsolete the day it was announced, as Lenovo showcased an Android ICS TV at the same CES.

There’s no reason for a manufacturer to bother with UbuntuTV. Those who are not already using Linux can either modify the freely available samygo software themselves or use Android.

So where does that leave Ubuntu and Canonical? At best, Unity without Android support is currently relegated to the basest of bargain-basement devices such as the $190 Ubuntu Webbook. Even this is not really attractive next to today’s sub-$200 Android tablets and smartphones.

A History of Abandonment

Given Canonical’s history of abandoned users and product announcements that come up short in execution, Shuttleworth’s most recent goal of 200 million users by 2015 doesn’t compute. There’s simply no path from “declining OS vendor” to “competing on an equal footing with Microsoft, Apple and Google.” It’s the sort of rhetoric a CEO would say to rally the troops, but it’s become obvious that it’s already too late. Ubuntu users, many feeling betrayed, are migrating elsewhere.

If further confirmation were needed, the orphaning of Kubuntu to “focus on our core products” has that smell of death around it of a company reorganizing the deck chairs. The problem is that having damaged both the Ubuntu user base and the brand — what’s next?

The Shark Tank

There are some serious issues standing in the way of Canonical regaining credibility. Imagine the reception Shuttleworth would receive if he were to appear on “Shark Tank” or “Dragon’s Den.” “How long have you been working on this? What were last year’s profits? Oh, there weren’t any? You’ve lost how much?!? Stop this madness! The market is trying to tell you something! Listen to it!”

As a venture capitalist, Shuttleworth should be hearing the same message from his own inner voice. There have been too many missteps, and now there is no realistic hope of recovery. Certainly the rest of the world knows it. Every announcement Canonical makes of future greatness is greeted with open skepticism, and many of the once near-fanatical defenders of all things Ubuntu are now very vocal critics, evangelizing for “ABC”– Anyone But Canonical.

It’s Not About Android

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Ubuntu could have stayed relevant if Canonical hadn’t tossed aside its user base to pursue Unity and tablets. Microsoft certainly knows the value of retaining users via backward compatibility. Apple provided a path for users during the switch from Power to Intel. Instead, Canonical blew off Ubuntu users to chase after the new “oh shiny,” resulting in Mint becoming the new Ubuntu.

Canonical is now just the latest example of how open source so effectively routes around damage. There will be no significant OEM deals, certainly none giving Ubuntu 200 million users. There will be no UbuntuTV at your local big-box electronics store. Eventually, an unprofitable Ubuntu will be “Kubuntu’d” — left to the community to maintain.

Oh, and that Bug #1? Two years from now, when XP is mothballed, it’s a safe bet that XP will still have more users than Ubuntu ever had.

Addendum: Canonical’s latest announcement, Ubuntu running on an Atrix smartphone when docked, is old news. Here’s a video of Debian running on the same hardware last summer. No wonder even Matt Asay, Canonical’s former COO, is saying Canonical needs to focus on just one market.

For the curious, this was written using LibreOffice on Fedora 16.

Barbara Hudson's daughters and her dogs are a large part of who she is. As for computers, she's been writing code for longer than she really wants to admit. Now that she's returned to independent development, her current focus is on creating simpler and more secure code libraries. Her dream project? Creating the ultimate chess program. You can contact her at [email protected].


  • While I don’t disagree that 200 million is more of a lofty goal than a realistic plan, all of the bloggers constantly commenting on user’s dissatisfaction with Ubuntu are doing little more than blowing off blogger steam, imho. I work with lots of people who use Ubuntu, and I can assure you that while some of them don’t prefer Unity, they’re doing just fine, since it’s 1 apt-get commands to use XFCE instead. I’m offering both XFCE and Unity to the people I support, and I’m seeing a number of former Gnome users move to XFCE – then slowly migrate to Unity as they try it and get over the "it’s different" immune system response.

    Even the "data" offered to support the idea of a mass exodus from the evil Unity interface is laughable – DistroWatch search statistics somehow taken as gospel.

    What a tempest in a teapot, full of sound and fury, signifying … well, you know the rest.

    • Sorry friend but you are wrong, and here is why: Ubuntu simply has NO return on investment…none. Shuttleworth has already said he’s not gonna sink more of his money in and with no current way to turn a profit how will they survive? Answer, they won’t which is why Canonical has been flailing around, first trying to jump on netbooks, then Unity and trying for smartphones, then UbuntuTV, these are NOT the actions of a company trying new approaches, this is a company bleeding to death trying to stop the blood loss and failing.

      In the end Canonical will be gone in 3 years, maybe 4 if they cut the desktop loose and try to stick with server. it has been proven time and time again one simply can’t make a living with desktop Linux. Server yes, because corps will buy support, desktop no. Just look at the list of dead companies, Mandriva, Linspire, Xandros, Novell, gOS, I could probably go on all day. As much as I’d like there to be a true "third way" it would probably cost north of 100 million to clean up all the bugs and polish Linux to equal or surpass OSX Lion and Win 7 and where is that money gonna come from? OEMs can pay the cost of Win Home with trialware so for them its "free" and nobody is gonna buy CDs in enough numbers to make a desktop Linux a viable product.

      I’m sorry friend but Shuttleworth is finding out what many of us already knew, that there simply isn’t a way to monetize linux in the consumer desktop space. The current Ubuntu users will simply migrate to Mint (which many already have and Mint itself is migrating to Debian pure, could it be they see the writing on the wall for Canonical as well?) and Canonical will quietly fade away just as the other desktop Linux companies I just named. in the end one can’t stay in business and not turn a profit and there just isn’t any way to "sell" desktop Linux friend, its not got a prayer.

      • I’m also "sorry my friend" but you’re making just too many assumptions. What exactly are you going to say when 4 years from now Canonical’s Ubuntu desktop is alive and well?

        You definitely couldn’t "go on all day" citing failed Linux desktops. You probably cited all that did.

        Every serious number out there shows the Ubuntu user base is still MILLIONS ahead of those few using Mint, even after those imaginary "huge migrations" (it’s like 20 to 0,5 millions, if I’m correct, but even if you cut Ubuntu’s share in half and duplicate Mint’s, you’ll see what’s popular and it’s not what Distrowatch says).

        Your assertion that "Mint is going Debian" is even less accurate. It’s still an experiment and just too rough, despite being old enough to have become their main choice. They’re sticking to Ubuntu. There must be a reason why…

        Again, "my friend", let’s make an appointment 4 years from now. I’m willing to bet real money that Ubuntu will still be thriving, despite their many mistakes (and hoping they learn from them…).

        • Its nice to see someone that believes in fairies and pixie dust, don’t change reality though. You HAVE to pay your bills or guess what? you don’t have a company, the doors close, the power is turned off, end of story. Canonical simply has NO return on investment, none. Name ONE product they have that is selling in any real numbers? You can’t because it doesn’t exist. Look at every. single. company. that has stayed afloat selling FOSS and its been the support model that has kept them going, see RHEL as an example. Show me a SINGLE desktop Linux that is turning an actual profit, just one friend. You can’t, it doesn’t exist.

          Canonical dead in 3 unless Shuttleworth breaks open the checkbook which he has already said he won’t do. Do you HONESTLY think that they would be flailing around like they are, and running off the user base in the process, if they had ANY viable business plan? They ARE dying, they know it, they are throwing crap at the wall and hoping beyond hope that something sticks before the bank account runs dry. Hope and pixie dust won’t keep the lights on friend, you watch.

          • LOL, I was expecting you to list more failed Linux desktops, as I know you can. And after that you could start on all the various vertical markets and application software that have been waylaid along the way by proprietary companies, probably hundreds.

            I too see Unity as an attempt to secure a place on either a handheld or tablet in the hopes of securing some companies money, which I hope they can do.

            They should just outright focus on two-screen and one-screen tablets and go head to head with Apple. They would have a shot at tablets specifically. But the bloat will kill them on smaller devices.

            However I have no doubt that even if they live past 3 years, that the move to Unity is going to devastate their number of desktop users, already has. Why take a chance that they will continue to provide fixes and support for any other desktop (KDE or Gnome) given their stated direction is Unity. Does not matter that I can not install Unity and install either KDE or Gnome instead…why even go there based on their stated focus?

            And Unity on the Desktop, sorry not going to go there, ever. Feels like a blind alley to me, been down enough of those over the last 30 years.

            And when I purchase a tablet or another smart embedded handheld device, it must run Linux, the first thing I will want from the Linux distro that I run, is a tiny RAM memory footprint, under 256MB, ideally under 128Mb (there are many of those available today, right now and we all know it…because they existed 6 years ago) that way even if the device has 1GB, 2GB, .. 8GB, 16GB or more of RAM memory,even with Triple paths (ZaResaons new laptops) since the OS does not need that extra memory above 256MB, the applications will just run faster…as it should be.

            I would only consider Unity on a future tablet/handheld if it can be robust and under 256MB of RAM and I can install apps from other (non canonical repositories). As for netbooks, laptops, desktops, yea one is on Mint, another is on Debian and I am considering Arch…liked Ubuntu, when 10.04 support is no more, I will say Aloha (as in Goodbye, not Hello).

            Hey Canonical, if you have not figured it out yet, the app store model, ala Apple’s Store is dying, so that will not be a source of revenue in the future for anyone. A non proprietary store, charging for your service/added value to "build" the software to run on your device…now that has possibilities.

            Servers…I have an older IBM PC running ubuntu 8.04 as a server and love it. Only 256Mb of RAM, so it does not do too much more than allow me to test development in a small memory footprint, but it works great. Obviously my next server will run Debian or CentOS. If Redhat continues to create problems for CentOS, I will just stick with Debian. The risk of a blind alley, technology wise via lack of support would drive me there and I would effectively limit my risk in the process.

            Loved your comments.

            @hairyfeet I for one think you are on to something here.

          • Nice to see someone else sees what is going on, but tablets will NOT save them, and here is why: Android. Google has spent over a billion bucks making sure Android "just works" and they have such a lead and such a full and robust market that frankly there is no point for tablet ODMs to go with Ubuntu, it just doesn’t make sense. heck they’d be better off with WebOS which was already built to run on low footprint ARM devices rather than try to take a shoehorned Ubuntu. Oh and I didn’t name more dead Linux desktops because what is the point? There is NO Linux desktop vendor that hasn’t died or is dying, none. You just can’t sell a free OS, simple as that. Google gets its money from ads, RH gets its money from support, there is no way to monetize Linux on the consumer desktop.

            Now back to Ubuntu, no way they can get the footprint down to what it would need to be to run on tablets, and frankly your 256Mb is too generous because you have to be able to run user apps as well and Ubuntu has always been RAM heavy. basically they bet the farm on the desktop without having a business plan and now that the money has started to run dry NOW they are trying to switch, just as they did with netbook Edition and UbuntuTV but its just too late, they don’t have the time and resources to build a low footprint tablet OS with what little they have left in the bank. If they would have started this 3 years ago maybe but you can’t just pull a low footprint ARM OS out of a hat, it takes a good couple of years to build it into a solid platform and that’s time they just don’t have.

            Finally on servers, while there are a few I’m sure that use ubuntu server frankly most server admins I know use CentOS or Debian pure, lets face it Ubuntu’s main claim to fame is consumer bling and ease of use and in a server that’s not required. Frankly you can set up most server roles with nothing but a CLI or a very basic LXDE style UI, the extra bling of Ubuntu isn’t a real selling point. heck even MSFT has gone more minimal with WinCore and Powershell because they know that a heavy desktop simply isn’t needed in a server role, and without their bling what makes Ubuntu any better than Debian?

            So I’m glad you enjoyed the comments but I just call it like I see it and Canonical just doesn’t have a prayer, the only reason they exist at all is because a rich guy threw some millions behind the idea but now even he won’t spend another dime so without their sugar daddy Canonical is doomed. No ROI and no source of income equals dead company, the only question is how long will it take.

          • I guess you have access to Canonical’s financial status, right? Since it’s not a public company, only so you can have the knowledge they aren’t making any money and they can’t pay the bills or their 500+ employees’ salary. Right? Right?

            Or maybe you are Mark Shuttleworth’s best friend and know for certain he’s paying every single cent from his own pocket, he’s running out of cash and he won’t put any more into Canonical after three years from now.

            Or, or, or maybe you are Spiderman, have climbed the Milibank tower, entered Canonical CEO’s office, got a look at their contracts files and this is how you know for a fact they don’t have made any, with anyone, so there’s definitely no future for the company.

            No, no, no, wait: you are Superman and have seen all this using your ultravision. Or, why stop there: you are God and are omniscient.

            Sadly, it looks like you’re nothing more than the classic geek mumbling about things you don’t have a clue about.

            My friend.

          • Apparently I do have ONE superpower and that is the combination of eyes and common sense.

            WHY would you completely alienate your userbase when you are #1? Simple because that userbase brings NO revenue. Lets look at what the company has done in the last few years, shall we? Ubuntu Netbook Edition, now gone, a deal with Yahoo to sell their search results, which looking at Yahoo financials apparently came to much ado of nothing, a deal with Amazon to sell MP3s, if anything would have came of that Amazon would have used it as a bullet point to brag about in its rivalry with Apple but nothing, then at the CES there was first Ubuntu tablet but as the article pointed out when kindle Fire slaughtered then suddenly there was a hastily put together UbuntuTV which is just Samygo with an Ubuntu shell. Finally there is Shuttleworth himself who has already said in interviews he will NOT sink more of his money into Canonical.

            Now any ONE of these could be seen as a possible misstep, but taken together? It shows a pretty obvious pattern for anyone with eyes. Each and EVERY one of the moves in the past 3 years by Canonical has either been 1.-An attempt to develop a revenue stream or 2.-As with cutting loose of the Kubuntu developer an attempt to cut losses.

            Mark my words and mark them well, Ubuntu dead in 3 years. Without sugar daddy Shuttleworth giving them more millions they simply have NO source of income, none. Tell me friend HOW do you think they are making money? Selling T-Shirts? the ONLY companies that have EVER made a living with FOSS have used the enterprise support model ala Red hat, or sold their own hardware ala TiVo, that’s it. that’s all. Canonical isn’t a hardware company so number 2 is out, and desktop users don’t buy support contracts so number 1 is out. Again if you think I’m wrong show me how they are making money? You can’t because they don’t, its that simple.

            In the end a company without a source of revenue simply can’t survive, there has to be a way to pay the devs, the building, the lights and water and power, all of these bills MUST be paid for a company to survive. The way Canonical has been doing that is by using Shuttleworth’s money but that well has run dry. What is their new source of revenue? it doesn’t exist. tell me friend how much have you BOUGHT from Canonical? Didn’t think so. TINSTAAFL my friend, everything has a cost, even FOSS.

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