Watching the Future of Canonical

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 06, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Is it just me, or is there a whiff of desperation these days around Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm? By that I mean that Canonical increasingly seems to focused on reaching profitability, and nothing else. The de-emphasis on community, the constant introduction of new services, and the increasing market speak are all in marked contrast to the Canonical of five or even three years ago.

Since Ubuntu is a privately-held company, its financial position is a matter of speculation. In 2009, Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth stated that the company was "creeping toward $30 million," the point of profitability, but that was before many of its current services were introduced. Consequently, you won't find many -- if any -- analysts who believe that Canonical is profitable today.

Assuming that's true, then going into its eighth year, Canonical is fast approaching the make or break point. Were Canonical funded by angel investors, they would have become anxious for some sign of approaching profitability several years ago.

As things are, an eight year old company that has yet to announce profitability has a credibility issue. The lack of profits isn't likely to be fatal -- not unless Shuttleworth tires of bankrolling the company -- but it might make Canonical seem like a problematic business partner to other corporations. it could also be personally embarrassing to Canonical's executives, as others question their competence.

Under these circumstances, Canonical is unlikely to be profitable and not mentioning the fact. The pressure, as they say, is on.

The Transformation
Certainly the pressure for profitability is a likely explanation for how Canonical is acting these days. Where Shuttleworth once proposed idea after idea about how to unite the free software community and improve its common circumstances, today Canonical seems increasingly in self-imposed exile.

Internally, the Ubuntu distribution still operates in many ways along the usual free software lines. Externally, however, it has become isolated. Instead of lobbying within GNOME for support for its vision, Ubuntu develops its Unity shell -- a graphical interface that has been adopted by only two minor distributions. Even Debian, the distribution to which Ubuntu has the closest ties, has been slow to include Unity as an alternative.

Meanwhile, Unity adds design quirk after quirk, the most recent being the Heads Up Display (HUD) to replace menus.  Many of these features have been imposed by Shuttleworth with discussion and even pleas for explanations silenced with lectures about the need to cooperate.

They have been accompanied by a sudden introduction of the Canonical Design Team as a group with veto power over Ubuntu's direction, as well as a contributor's agreement that reserves Canonical's right to release donated code under the license of its choice.
My point is not that such actions are evil. Rather, my point is that such actions are at odds with an organization whose main interests include strong relationships with other projects. However, these actions do resemble those of a company in close pursuit of its basic, legitimate purpose of making money.

In other words, Canonical increasingly has little in common with open source companies like Red Hat, that is often at such pains to maintain community relations that it regularly donates code that offers only long term advantages at best. Instead, Canonical more closely resembles corporations like Google, that participate in free software projects, but chiefly do so for their own short-term goals. This is a major change of priority from Canonical's earliest days.

Choosing a road

When a company develops products or services, it has two major strategies. Either it can develop a single, unique product, or try to enter a number of existing markets.

Each of these strategies has advantages and disadvantages. A single, unique product can be immensely successful, but it can also fail miserably, especially if a rival beats you to market.

By contrast, developing several products is less risky, but can easily mean that you spread yourself too thin. Usually, too, developing several products means entering an existing market and facing the difficulties of convincing distributors not just to carry your offerings, but to promote them as well.

In developing Unity, Canonical might be trying the first strategy. But, if it is, the strategy is probably a long shot. Commercial distributions never make money on the software, and Shuttleworth has said for years that his business model was selling services. At the most, a unique interface like Unity is a selling point to make the services more attractive.

If Canonical has larger plans for some unique money maker, for obvious reasons it has yet to reveal what that might be. Instead, Canonical seems intent on exploring every possible niche, with an interface usable on every hardware platform, a cloud carrier, Ubuntu TV, an Android port, and probably several others that I haven't immediately remembered.

This is a strategy I have seen before in other companies seeking profits. Often, it is a last-ditch strategy of desperation, and I see no reason to think Canonical is an exception, especially since announcements of Canonical's entry into these niches appear to be coming faster and faster.

Why is this strategy desperate? Because, in many of the niches being explored by Canonical, major competitors are already established -- for instance, Amazon in the cloud, and Apple TV in smart televisions. Under these circumstances, surviving, much less prospering, would be a major victory. At the best of times, it's a gamble, of hoping at least one product or service succeeds against the odds. Most of the time, it's not a strategy that suggests a detailed, long-ranged plan or a company choosing how to position itself.

Talking the talk
Still another reason to wonder what Canonical is the increasingly market-oriented comments being made.

Shuttleworth himself, as Canonical's main public face, is a prime example of the move to a marketing perspective. In the past, Shuttleworth has talked about technology and community, and, more recently, usability. He hasn't dropped these topics entirely, but in the last few years, his public comments have taken on a distinct marketing tone.

It's not just that, in his latest blog about the beta release of Ubuntu 12.04, Shuttleworth thanks readers for supporting "Ubuntu, Canonical and myself," as though he were the CEO, and not merely the first among equals in a cooperative venture. It's not even that he cherrypicks comments, igoring anything negative, or writes non-sequiturs like, "It’s only right that the benefits of that shared wisdom should accrue to everyone without charge, which is why contributing to Ubuntu is the best way to add leverage to the contributions made everywhere else."

These characteristics add to the impression, of course, especially when concepts like free software are evoked to Canonical's benefit. But the most obvious indication of the switch to marketing mode are the increasingly inflated claims.

For example, last year, Shuttleworth announced that Canonical's goal was to have two hundred million users in four years.

Even if Canonical's claim of twenty million users in October 2011 is accepted (which it should not be, since the basis of the figure has never been explained), this goal would require Ubuntu to grow at a rate of over seventy-five percent each year -- a rate higher than it grew in the previous four years. While the figure of two hundred million may sound inspiring, it hardly sounds likely.

Similarly, in his most recent blog, Shuttleworth claimed that Ubuntu 12.04 marked the first time that "real desktop user experience innovation is available on a full production-ready enterprise-certified free software platform, free of charge, well before it shows up in Windows or MacOS."  Anyone who follows development of the KDE 4 release series would question this claim -- and for that matter, anyone who uses virtual workspaces.

Of course, the qualifier "real" could be used to dismiss any questioning of the claim, because it has no objective meaning. But in my experience, such easily debunked statements are the stuff of hard sell marketing -- the type usually associated with executives eager to make the sale. It's not the language of a corporate founder basking in success.

Nearing the moment of decision
None of these observations is meant to accuse Canonical of anything. Still less are they meant as a prediction of whether Canonical will eventually succeed or fail. However, taken together, they do suggest that Canonical is now in its end-game -- and that its executives are increasingly anxious about what might happen. Very soon now, either Canonical becomes profitable and enters a new phase of its history, or else its efforts at empire-building collapse, and takes the company with them.

In one sense,what happens is of no interest to me: I have no financial interest in Canonical. In another sense, the outcome is of deep interest, because what happens to Canonical and Ubuntu will affect all of free software. But at this point, all I can say for sure is that, assuming I am right, Canonical should have an interesting next few years.


  • upgrade?

    You call it development? I would rather call it degradation.

    Why update manager in 10.04 lies about "update to 12.04"? It should be called downgrade, not upgrade.

    That unusable abortion called unity, is not the biggest problem, because in repository there are many alternative window managers, (however they don't have official support).

    Ubuntu documentation sucks totally. Even their "Official Ubuntu Book" teaches bad security practices (like installing individual deb packages from random sources on the internet - hint: there is no deb signature verification in Ubuntu). Why a book for newbies if they teach them bad practices? It is better to not have any documentation than to teach bad things. User documentation should be reviewed by security team before publishing, otherwise it should not be published. This really shows how they care about their users.

    They focus on such unimportant things like GUI instead of making the core OS better.

    Now they want to produce OS for TV's - which means supporting the evil blu-ray format and collaborating with hollywood, and may be even some DRM...

    Humanity towards others? yeah....

    The only thing that it has advantage over Debian is 5 years official LTS, and wider user community.
    But now I really want canonical and ubuntu to die so the choice will be much easier.

    They really didnt contribute much to the least compared to other projects. Initially they polished Debian and made it easier for new users. And it was something positive. But now they added just another irrelevant gui, that is even functionally inferior to the previous one...

  • I read it different

    To me, this all has a different meaning. The first day I've seen the concept of Unity, I had a strong feeling that there is a deeper idea behind it than to create another desktop for Linux, and when I've seen the Ubuntu-Android integration and Ubuntu TV, it started to make sense to me. I would say, the reason that Canonical is opening so many directions at this moment is the fact that it simply can - Linux as the platform and the Unity concept as the user interface are so universal that conquering any new device is just super easy.
    And there is one more feeling, to me the concept of Ubuntu-Android integration is a start of another revolution in the way how we live with the systems around us - one device with data and operating system (the smartphone with a good computing power), and all the other devices (PC-like docking station, TV, whatever...) will only provide different views on the same data and the same system. Great! Great! I am falling for it since the first second and I really can't wait to have it home. This is a science-fiction of my early years finally coming to life.
    And, BTW, at this moment, I am far from being Ubuntu or Unity fans - but this movement changes the place.
  • Whatever, I'm put off by the Unity interface

    I've been regularly using Linux on my notebook and desktop PC since late 2008, starting with Sabayon Linux 3 provided by Linux Magazine. Thanks to you.

    The following year I migrated to fedora 9, then to Ubuntu 9.04 and loved it for its stability and support for peripheral devices such as 3G-USB modems, multimedia, etc.

    However, several upgrades later, I ran into the new Unity interface, with Ubuntu 11.04 and disliked it, though it still let me switch back to the classical Gnome layout but 11.10 did not allow that.

    I find Unity cumbersome to navigate which slows down my work, compared to the simple layout of classical Gnome.

    Also, I found Ubuntu versions from 10.10 onwards to be buggy. For example, by default, Evolution on 10.10 would print out three copies, so I had to be vigilant and set it to one or waste paper. There were other issues of course, including improper support for my Brother printer in 11.04.

    Regretting my upgrade to 11.10 on my main work PC, I migrated all my files and address book to another more powerful PC running 10.04 LTS and have made that my main work PC, while I erased the hard disk of my old work PC and installed Linux Mint 12 instead.

    Ideally, I'd like to move away from Ubuntu and its derivatives and have installed Debian 6.0x on a PC and at present, would like to use Linux Mint Debian on my main work PC but am deterred, since migrating all my files is a pain, so I'll stick with Ubuntu 10.04 on my main work machine.

    I'm a tech-savvy journalist, not a computer scientists, so while I support the free and open source software cause, predictability of my work-tool and the need to get my work done quicily and efficiently is a paramount concern for me, and I believe for most ordinary users out there.

    If the free & open source communities want wider acceptance of F&OSS software, they must take the ordinary end-users' needs and concerns into account.

    The Mint interface isn't as simple as the classical Gnome layout which Debian has retained but is still much better than Unity and is more stable. Moreover, Mint Debian appears to be lighter on memory resources than Mint derived off Ubuntu.

    Ideally, I'd like to use straight Debian but its strict commitment to free components in its distribution, requires much post-installation work to install whatever non-free components which are required but otherwise, Debian is a great distribution, which is the lightest on memory resources, despite the huge size of the distribution, which is a pain to download.

    So for now at least, Mint Debian is my best practical choice.
  • meh

    who cares, seriously... 8 years in teh game and desktop linux still at around 1% market share.. that means all canonical ever succeeded at doing was take some madriva users and bring them to ubuntu, right?
    sad story, but increasingly irrelevant.
    in the meantime google introduced linux to everyone's lives and personally i'm very happy with android on my phone and debian on my notebook.
    nothing at all in our world depends on canonical's success or failure.
  • Shuttleworth's make-or-break point?

    Assuming that you are correct, then the question is the degree to which Shuttleworth's personal (reputed) fortune has been expended on a big, and potentially hugely profitable, business gamble. And whether, of course, his gamble has failed. The Self-Appointed Dictator For Life (SABDFL) has been dictating a lot recently, with increasing micromanagement of issues that appear to be far outside his personal expertise.

    Perhaps the Canonical MOTUs should be provisionally planning a future as Ubuntu MOTUs?
  • there is nothing wrong seeking profit..

    I don't think there is anything wrong in seeking profit as far as canonical or any Linux distribution company is concerned, times have changed so does the way of doing things......... its more like survival for the profitable. Mandriva is one such example, Mandriva lacked both enterprise and consumer oriented services result, it is on the verge of extinction, eventhough at a time it enjoy the same status of ease of use and software availability as Ubuntu we see today, Fedora has a backing of Redhat, and open suse also enjoy the support from Novell, Debian has strong community support, Canonical has to make profit if it wants to continue the Ubuntu development.

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