Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The changing goals of Canonical

Today, Canonical announced that they are relegating Kubuntu, one of their "official" variants of their flagship Ubuntu Linux distribution, to the same status as the other distribution derivatives.

Canonical is the brainchild of Mark Shuttleworth, a dot com boomer that wanted to give back to the same community that provided some of the wonderful FOSS software that helped him becoming a millionarie. When it started, Canonical did not had any clear financial constraints, or objectives for that matter. Bug #1 in Ubuntu's bug database simply reads "Microsoft has a majority market share" Was Canonical's objective to take away market share from Windows? At the time, that seemed to be a bold statement, but the first Ubuntu releases were making giant strides towards that objective, to the point of being considered a credible alternative by many established players, including Microsoft itself.
Kubuntu, one of the Canonical projects, is an attempt to merge the friendliest Linux distribution -Ubuntu- with the desktop environment that I find that is the closest fit for a Mac or Windows user: KDE. An ideal combination for someone that switches between operating systems or is a seasoned user that wants to move away from the proprietary environments.

What the latest announcement means essentially is that the single individual paid by Canonical to develop and maintain Kubuntu will no longer be assigned to that role, and any further developments in Kubuntu will have to come from the community instead. This does not necessarily implies that there will be no more Kubuntu releases after Pangolin: for example, the Edubuntu community has managed to keep up with releases.

It's not that Kubuntu users are left in the cold, however. The next release (Precise Pangolin) of the Ubuntu family will still include Kubuntu, and being a Long Term Support (LTS) one, means that existing Kubuntu users will get patches and support for the next three years.

So what's so important about the announcement, then? By itself, very little, except for the small minority of Kubuntu users. Kubuntu had not enough user base, reputation or visibility to be worth keeping, hence Canonical has retired the single individual dedicated to Kubuntu because it does not make economic sense to keep paying him to do that.

What is important is not the announcement, is the trend: Canonical is more and more taking decisions based on economic, not idealistic, considerations.

Now, those idealistic goals are set aside more and more in search of a more mundane objective: profitability. The turning point was reached last year: they released Unity, a new desktop environment, targeted at non computer users, with an eye on using it as the interface for Ubuntu based touch devices and other non-PC environments. That was a big change that was received by the existing user community with a lot of backslash, yet Canonical is firmly resoluted to develop Unity in spite of that, and not willing to devote time or resources to keep alive an alternative to Unity.

What Canonical wanted to be at the beginning was not clear, but now it is: to be profitable.

And is hard to blame Canonical for not trying. After all, they have an extensive -read, expensive- staff dedicated to the many projects they sponsor. They have clearly invested a lot of effort -read, money- into many initiatives targetting everything from the office productivity desktop to the settop TV box, with incursions in the music store business, cloud storage, cloud OS and management, alternative packagings (Kubuntu still appears there at the time of writing this, by the way), education, home multimedia hubs, corporate desktop management and who knows what else.

All these projects have generated a considerable user base, at least in comparison with previous attempts, and helped Canonical to accomplish Shuttleworth original intention of giving back to the community, even if there are differing opinions on how much actual contribution has been made.

Yet, none of these projects seems to have generated a respectable enough line of business. Maybe some of these projects are self sustaining, maybe some of them generate some profit. But are they taking over the world? No. Are they going to be a repeat of the first Shuttleworth success? No. Are they making headlines? No. All that investiment is certainly producing something that is valued and appreciated by the open source community, but profitable is not.

At least yet. How do I know ? Honestly, I don't know for sure. What I know for sure is that any degree of significant success would be heralded and flagged as an example by the always enthusiast open source community. And that is not happening.

So Canonical is looking for profitability, big time. And if it means losing all their existing user base, so be it. Which will not be a big loss, because their existing user base is demonstrably not very profitable to begin with.

Which makes complete sense from a business perspective. If I was a millionare and had put a lot of my own personal fortune in something, I'd be expecting to see something back. Another, completely different issue, is how they can become profitable. That would mean looking into Unity, their biggest bet so far, and... well, you already know my opinion. Is a keyboard search the most effective way of finding things in a device without a physical keyboard? You judge.

Anyway, it was about time to change distro. With all due respect for the huge contribution Canonical and Ubuntu have made to build a robust, flexible and fast desktop environment. Until they stopped wanting to do that, of course.

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