Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Canonical continues to amaze and confuse Ubuntu users and developers alike

With the most recent Ubuntu Developer Summit wrapped up, many are looking at Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, and scratching their head. I'd assume no greater amount of head scratching is going on anywhere else than in the developer community. Canonical has become a confusing company who's CEO, Mark Shuttleworth, seems to be a confusing man.

At the last UDS,  Shuttleworth shocked attendees by saying he wanted a push for 200 million users on Ubuntu in 4 years. Ambitious, to be sure, but everything in the Ubuntu world seemed to be aligning perfectly to bring those users in: the new software center, the introduction of the new Unity desktop environment, look and feel redesigns, everything.  Linux developers were overjoyed because, a 200 million user base also means 200 million potential software users as well. Everyone got to work trying to make Ubuntu as user friendly to newbies (especially those coming from the Microsoft Windows world) as possible. Everyone was excited and ready to go.

Now, less than one year later, that push seems to have changed. The push this time around isn't to hit that 200  million user mark but rather to push Ubuntu onto smartphones and tablets. Now, granted, having Ubuntu on those devices is going to increase the Ubuntu user base. But it's not going to help the legions of developers who've spent the last year fervently developing for the desktop and who now find that their creations probably won't work on tablets or the ARM archetecture that many tablets run on. To those developers, they must either completely scrap their work and start over with the new focus (which might change again next year) or continue to develop for the desktop with the hopes that more users of Ubuntu of mobile devices will also translate to more users of Ubuntu on the desktop (which it might).

I think Canonical and Shuttleworth are missing a huge point with this push to smartphones and tablets: on these devices, operating system doesn't really matter. With a huge section of computing moving to the cloud, users are being abstracted further and further away from the hardware and the system that drives it. It doesn't matter that your device will run Ubuntu because, ultimately, the software you're going to run will run on anything. Tablet users aren't likely to interact with the underlying OS in any meaningful way. They'll click to start a web browser, browse to their favorite web applications, maybe play music or video, but having Ubuntu on a device, overall, will make very little difference in the lives of most users.

Personally, I believe Canonical is shooting itself in the foot with this new push. Focusing on the desktop market makes sense because, on the desktop, the operating system you use matters. It ties into the software you use, the service you use, everything. On tablets and smartphones, it doesn't and Canonical is going to lose what little chance it has to hit that 200 million user number if it doesn't abandon the schizophrenic 'we want to be on everything' attitude and focus on their core.

The desktop, contrary to what ZDNet might way, is not dead. There's a lot of users to be won there and a lot of money to be made. Canonical would do very well by continuing to polish Unity, provide developers with great tools to develop new and compelling desktop applications, deepen the desktop-cloud tie-in, and focus on giving desktop users the absolute best experience out there.

That said, I would still kill to get my hands on an Ubuntu based tablet. So maybe all hope isn't lost after all.

What do you think? Does the operating system that runs your mobile devices matter that much to you? Would you buy an Ubuntu tablet or smartphone? How do you feel about the new push to mobile? Leave a comment and get in the discussion!

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