To win desktop, Canonical changes the rules

New Ubuntu 12.04 beta marks one path to Linux future

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Today's announcement of the beta release for Ubuntu 12.04 LTS is sure to dominate the Linux news headlines, but the coming of Precise Pangolin means more than a snazzy new desktop.

Okay, not really, I was just trying to be dramatic. It's really a snazzy new desktop.

But that's the whole point--one that many detractors of Canonical, Ubuntu, and Unity seem to consistently miss in their quest to smack Mark Shuttleworth and crew around.

For years--indeed, for over a decade--I have heard calls from Linux advocates and fans for a viable and useable desktop platform that even Grandma can use. And yet, here we are in 2012 and the one vendor that is trying to give Linux fans--and the rest of the user community--exactly what they want gets smacked around for it.

I find it rather strange.

This is not a love letter for Canonical, not by any means. If you want that, go read Shuttleworth's blog announcement of the 12.04 beta release.

It is easy for critics to look at the way Canonical does things and point out the problems with the distro. And those concerns are valid: Canonical and the Ubuntu community has damaged the upstream relationship with the GNOME Project (though there was some damaging on the part of the GNOME devs, too, in fairness). And I uncomfortable at best with Canonical's high praise for community practices, while at the same time knowing that the company will shift direction however it pleases to meet its commercial needs.

(This practice, by the way, is not unique to Canonical and Ubuntu. Red Hat and SUSE Linux do it, too, its just that the have a more indirect connection over their respective Fedora and openSUSE projects.)

But, despite these flaws that I perceive, I still think that ultimately Canonical is doing exactly what has to be done to succeed in the mission it (and the rest of the Linux community) has set before it: be a commercial success on the desktop.

The Linux community has, these many years, convinced itself that it needs to have a desktop platform. I freely admit that I have been part of the chorus making the call for such a platform. Indeed, I have nothing against the idea even today. But I also have to acknowledge the inevitable: in the battles for the standalone desktop to date, Linux has consistently lost.

That's not a popular statement, I know. But while great strides have been (and continue to be) made in desktop interfaces within the Linux ecosystem, thus far it has not been enough.

There are three things the Linux desktop needs to gain traction and start succeeding in the overall war for the desktop: a great interface, a rich set of applications, and face time.

I would argue that the first criterion has been met. There is a wealth of strong desktop interfaces available for Linux users. And yes, Unity should be counted among them. Even though I personally don't like it, who cares? Many people do, just as I am currently grooving on Cinnamon, and others like KDE-based interfaces.

For the second criterion, here is where Linux has been a step or two behind. While there have been certainly good attempts to match and even exceed the application sets available on Windows and OS X, this has been an area of weakness for Linux. We have met this weakness with a bit of denial--"what do users need with all of those apps, anyway?"

There is improvement happening, though: software as a service proliferation is eliminating the entire notion of platform compatibility. If you have a browser, you can run the app. Well, that's the theory, at least.

Which brings us to the third criterion: face time. You can build the best operating system on the planet (and some would say Linux meets this high standard) but it will mean very little if no one knows about it. Even today, among my technical friends, I meet people all the time that have never tried Linux. And my non-technical friends have very little idea about Linux' existence, let alone its capabilities.

The very simple truth is, if you build it, they may not come. The lack of significant OEM contracts has always hampered the deployment of Linux on the desktop. That may seem like sour grapes to some, and maybe there is a little of that attitude in my thinking. But I also know that people didn't choose Windows because it was all that great. They just accepted it because it was on the machines they bought. And they went to MacOS and OS X as an alternative because Apple, like them or not, are pros at marketing.

This is the challenge that a company like Canonical has to face: a saturated desktop market and a platform playing catch up with applications. Is it any wonder they are pushing so hard towards the consumer device market? While some would argue that this sector is saturated, too, there's still a lot more relative space to play in the mobile and entertainment device sectors.

The drive to these sectors isn't a product of Shuttleworth's massive ego: its a calculated move to get the Linux desktop the face time it desperately needs. People need to see Linux in order to like it, and every move Canonical makes is focused on getting that done.

So yeah, we have some right to raise questions about how Canonical does things, since they are still dealing with the broader Linux community, but I think it's a little disingenuous to try to kick the legs out from under them when all they're doing is what we wanted all along: trying to win the war for the desktop.

Is Canonical's way the only way to succeed? Absolutely not. But right now they are the only commercial vendor with a strong investment in making the age of the Linux desktop a reality, so credit should be given where credit is due.

And in a war where many battles are being lost, sometimes you have to change the rules in order to win the war.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Zettatag and Open for Discussion blogs and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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