What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

Summary: You can use Ubuntu in the cloud, on servers, on the desktop, on tablets and smartphones, but can the popular Linux distribution play in all these spaces?


The first Ubuntu circle of friends logo.

Ubuntu has come a long way since it's first circle of friends.

Once upon a time I knew exactly what Ubuntu was. Built on top of Debian Linux, it was the most popular Linux desktop around. Today, Ubuntu is in the clouds, on servers, tablets and smartphones, and, oh yes, it's still on the desktop. By spreading its energy in so many directions it's hard to see what Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, really wants from Ubuntu. So what exactly is Ubuntu today? Well, here's my overview of Ubuntu 2012.

First, Ubuntu is still very popular on the desktop. It may no longer, however, be the most popular desktop Linux. Mint, which is built on Ubuntu, is arguably the desktop Linux of choice for experienced Linux users.

That's because Ubuntu switched its interface from the popular GNOME 2.x style desktop to the more beginner friendly Unity interface. Now, Ubuntu is getting ready to switch its interface again to an even more entry-level user friendly interface: Head-Up Display (HUD).

A first look at Ubuntu Linux's Head-Up Display (Gallery)

At the same time, Ubuntu has decided to abandon its KDE Linux distribution: Kubuntu. Kubuntu will still be around, as Kubuntu developer Jonathan Riddell wrote but "in the same way as the other community flavors such as Edubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu." That is to say, Ubuntu will supply software resources but no developer funding to keep Kubuntu afloat.

This comes as no surprise since, as Riddell admits, "it has not taken over the world commercially and shows no immediate signs of doing so despite awesome successes." So moving forward, Ubuntu is now fully committed to only its GNOME-based HUD interface.

At the same time though, Ubuntu is also trying to make a stronger play for the business desktop. Canonical recently released the Ubuntu Business Desktop Remix. This is a version of Ubuntu, which is based on Ubuntu 11.10. This edition will come with five years of support. It includes the Open JDK 6 Java run-time environment along with some proprietary software such as Adobe Flash Plugin and VMware View.

Some users object to these proprietary programs, but Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's founder, defends this move. Shuttleworth wrote, "Everything in the remix is available from the standard Software Centre. ... No secret sauce for customers only; we're not creating a RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux), we already have an enterprise-quality release cadence called LTS (Long Term Support) and we like it just the way it is. This is a convenience for anyone who wants it. Having a common starting point, or booting straight into a business-oriented image makes it easier for institutional users to evaluate Ubuntu Desktop for their specific needs."

These changes have lead many long time Ubuntu users to switch to Linux Mint, with its new GNOME 2.x style Cinnamon interface. That said, Ubuntu still remains popular with many users as its recently showing as top desktop distribution on the LinuxQuestions annual user survey shows. My question is, as Canonical divides its attention in so many other directions will it be able to keep its popularity

A walk through Mint Linux's new/old Cinnamon desktop (Gallery)

For example, Canonical also wants to compete with Red Hat and SUSE in the server space. Ubuntu has been making serious efforts as a server since 2009 . In some server spaces, Ubuntu has done very well for itself.

For example, Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution on the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud. Ubuntu, which is now using OpenStack for its own cloud efforts, has also been making progress in the private cloud market. However, Ubuntu has not been successful in getting corporate customers to switch from RHEL or SUSE to Ubuntu.

At the same time, most of Canonical's efforts seem to be going to smartphones, tablets, and TVs. The idea here is to use the Unify/HUD interface to provide a universal interface for devices.

A quick look at Ubuntu TV (screenshots)

This is all well and good. I can see Unity making a fine tablet or TV interface. I can also see Unity/HUD becoming a popular interface for the desktop. I know people who want to get their hands dirty with Linux's controls don't care for it, but then Mac OS X has shown that there are far more users who want an easy-to-user interface than know the ins and outs of, in Apple's case, BSD Unix. I can also see Ubuntu continuing to do well on the cloud. I'm not at all sure it can make great gains on the small business or enterprise server space.

But, and here's where I come to a problem, I don't know that Canonical can execute all these plans at once. Dropping Kubuntu, whle painful to some users, was a smart move. Still, the company isn't that large to begin with and it's recently undergone a major reorganization. Individually I see most of these changes as being for the best. Collectively though... I don't know. I fear Canonical has bitten off more than it can chew. What do you think?

Related Stories:

Shuttleworth: Don't blow a gasket over enterprise Ubuntu remix

Mint's Cinnamon: The Future of the Linux Desktop? (Review)

Linux users cautiously optimistic about Ubuntu's Head-Up Display desktop

Ubuntu plans shift to mobile

Beyond the desktop: Ubuntu Linux's new Head-Up Display

Topics: Software, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

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  • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

    How long does it take for linux to grow up? Its been around for 15 years and look at the lack of progress it has made in that time. That's just it, linux doesn't know what it wants to be so it fails at everything. Then you have Mark Shuttleworth who quit his job at Canonical so there goes driving that company in any direction. Linux lacks any type of focus so it tries to be everywhere but people just get annoyed by it. Now that I think about it, if ubuntu/linux was to go away no one would notice or care. That is something Canonical, Shuttleworth, and Torvalds should consider. Just kill off the linux platform as it serves no purpose.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      @Loverock Davidson-
      What a surprise - Loverock can't see that non-windows systems have a place in computing systems.
      25 years of computiing support - from IBM Mainframe systems, through the horrors of Windows 3.0, through to the point where I have a real choice in what I use for home, fun and work systems. I have an ubuntu 'server' (parentheses because it is PC grade hardware) running mail, web site and file/print sharing.
      I am struggling at the moment with the route Linus is going on the desktop, but Windows 8 has no real appeal for me either.
      I use Windows 7 at work and think it is probably the best work desktop implementation I have ever used, although I was blown away by SunOS 4 in the early 90's, which made Windows look like an old Dodge pickup competing with a Mustang.
      I like the diversity, I also like the ability to chose 'horses for courses', and as a basic desktop right through to server system, linux definitely has a place in my clients' offices.
    • Alexander the Penguin

      @Loverock Davidson- I'm so glad you post - it truly brightens my day!

      In 4Q11, Linux ran 53% of smartphones, 39% of tablets, 64% of servers, 81% of mainframes, and 91% of supercomputers. A little more "lack of progress" and Linus will weep like Alexander for more worlds to conquer!
      • A couple corrections

        Linux is not Android and Android is not Linux. If you want to talk about Desktop Linux, 1% coverage.

        For smart phones, Apple still kills Android in the profitability arena. That little fact will eventually kill the Android based hardware makers.

        Same goes for the 39% of tablets. By the way I own 2 Androids and an iPad, Apple wins hands down

        91% of Super Computers, well, only sort of. The versions of Linux on these beasts is highly customized to the point where it's barely recognizable as Linux.

        64% of servers is another statistic (Lies, damned lies and statistics). If you had said, Web Facing Servers, you might be right. Overall servers? Yet more fud from the uneducated.

        Better luck next time
      • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

        @Cynical99<br><br>Hey the clown is back again, I always get a good laugh reading your comments, but I can never figure out if you're doing a loverock or if you're just not too bright.<br>Have you found out what microsofts server sales are yet? you know all those servers "apparently" invisible to the Web hidden behind firewalls, hence "apparently" impossible to know how many are really out there?<br><br>Please tell me what kernel Android runs on.<br><br>Please tell me what kernel supercomputers run on.<br><br>You also forgot all those embedded Linux devices, I guess they don't run on Linux either right? or are you just jealous that Linux is dominant in more than just one area, "cough"... windows.<br><br>"Lies, damned lies and statistics" so you don't like statistics yet you use the 1% Linux desktop myth, it looks like you only use statistics that favor your argument, I see those double standards of yours coming out again.<br><br>So now you appear to be claiming that smart phone OEM's that use Android aren't making any money? and are all going to eventually go under because Apple makes more profit than they do?<br>Just out of curiosity how is windows phone going? I guess Nokia is going to eventually go under too right?<br><br>Keep those hilarious comments coming.
      • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

        @Cynical99 "Android is not Linux... Apple still kills Android... By the way I own 2 Androids..."

        Don't look now, but you're arguing with *yourself*! :-D

        In any event, claiming it's not *REAL* Linux if it's successful is a tautology. Linux is a kernel. Android runs on it. Windows Phone 7 (if you can find one) doesn't.
      • 64% of servers? Then why are server sales

        at 78% (or something) for WIndows based units.

        And don't say because they don't have a choice, that they ship with the OS installed. You can get any server from the OEM's without the OS for less.
        William Farrel
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      @Loverock Davidson- I thank God (Mark Shuttleworth) every time I don't have to use old IBM programs or appalling Gatesware!
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      @Loverock Davidson- You do that math on Windows to arrive at 15 years? what is 1991 from 2012?

      Maybe we're happy where Linux is at right now?

      Fail some on this:

      pfred1@spot:~$ uptime
      16:17:21 up 61 days, 16:01, 1 user, load average: 0.22, 0.17, 0.16

      The only thing that annoys me is you.

      Linux isn't a platform you plank.
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      Ubuntu appears to be spreading itself thin, but I think its following a plan that is difficult to see when just looking at the pieces. Apple has a desktop OS, a tablet/phone OS, a server OS, and is working to expand to TV. Microsoft has a desktop OS which will soon be unified to a tablet OS and a phone OS that runs the same kernel, a server OS and is breaking into TV via Xbox. Ubuntu... well you see my point by now. It is entering into every playground the big boys are in, and catching up to them quickly.

      The primary differences are price (Ubuntu wins) and apps (Ubuntu loses). That said, with more apps moving to the cloud, Ubuntu stands to make rapid gains. I think SMB's will grow to appreciate a centralized, low-cost computing universe that is at least as stable as the more mainstream options and that can offer what every other platform can offer through virtual machines when those needs arise.
    • Hello???

      @Loverock Davidson- Excuse-me, when did you land in Earth? Or when did they release you from that institution...? Just make a little research on what run in the Supercomputers... I think you will find a purpose for Linux, at least one...
  • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

    Ubuntu does not play well in any space so far. Its not the most popular on the desktop (Mint), not the most popular on servers (Redhat, CentOS and plain old Debian are all more popular) and it cannot be purchased on a phone or a tablet. Why is Ubuntu even worth writing about today? Linux is relevant, but not Ubuntu.
    • RE: Linux is relevant, but not Ubuntu.

      @rshol Just like Debian is relevant for Ubuntu, Ubuntu is relevent for Linux Mint. No Debian, no Ubuntu or Linux Mint Debian edition. No Ubuntu, no Linux Mint. However, that said, could hedging one's bets be the driver behind Linux Mint Debian edition?
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

        @Rabid Howler Monkey

        Linux Mint is providing an easy to install Debian. The Debian Edition links to the Debian repositories, not to the Ubuntu repositories. Debian has larger repositories than Ubuntu does.

        Simply Mepis and Antix did the same thing a couple of years ago, for the same reasons. Ubuntu is trying too hard to compete with Fedora for the 'Bleeding Edge' groups. The result is too many hangs and crashes for some users tastes.

        Going with Debian gives the users a more reliable system, without the occasional craziness of Ubuntu.

        Debian offers three levels of software, with a fourth for those who are fanatics.

        <B>Stable</B>, for servers and systems that absolutely have to work. It takes a couple of years to get the bugs out, so software in Stable is usually 'old'.

        <B>Testing</B>, for general use. This software is getting the bugs out, and is usually much newer than the versions in 'Stable'. Usually less than 6 months old. Testing is generally compatible with Ubuntu, though since Ubuntu compiles with different flags set, a Debian package might not run on Ubuntu, or vice versa. (Only about 80% success).

        <B>Unstable</B>, "Sid". These are packages that are certified to run, but often crash. These are close to the latest. Once they have enough issues resolved, they move into Testing. Comparable to Fedora.

        <B>Experimental</B>, These are packages that are submitted, but that are not assured of running. This is for those who don't mind when the system goes down. If you must run the absolute latest, this is where you will find it on Debian. These are usually packages created directly from Upstream, with nothing fixed. But, at least half of the packages don't really work as advertised.

        I hope this helps you.
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      Any hard data on actuall usage of Ubuntu and new king of Linux Desktop Space ?

      And BTW when did you seen products successful before it entered market ?
      • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?


        Ubuntu still has more total users, but Limux Mint has more new users. The actual user base is generally established by sales figures. Since neither distribution (distro) is sold, there are no user base figures. That's after all why Gartner says that there are only 1% of desktop users on Linux. That's all that are purchased with Linux pre-installed. The vast majority of Linux desktop users just buy a windows machine, and then replace Windows, or install Linux beside Windows. Best guesses made by comparing visits to Web Sites vary widely, giving figures anywhere from 0.05% (Microsoft Help) to 20% or more. Microsoft's own estimate in late 2008 was 8-10% It's almost certainly a bit larger now.

        Microsoft isn't worried, as at least 2/3 of Linux users 'dual boot', meaning that they still use Windows, and often purchase Microsoft products as well as using Linux.

        Home use of Linux lags Corporate server use, and leads Corporate Desktop use. Corporate desktop use is known, and is around 2% globally.

        Linux is preferred in many corporations for server use because one Linux server can replace up to 5 Windows servers, using the same Hardware. The differences are in the Unix background of Linux verses the desktop background of Windows. Linux server administrators get paid more, but the corporations need fewer of them.
  • Using existing user base for beta-testing GUI experiments?

    I was an ex-Ubuntu user. I changed to LinuxMint since 2011 because I am scared of the schizophrenic pace of changes in the GUI of Ubuntu. I can cope with changes but I am not convinced at all that the new changes in Ubuntu are really productive. I have the feeling that Canonical is using the customer base to experiment with GUI genetic manipulation. Hoping that one day they can come up with a right combination. In the next version 12.10, I suppose icons, menu, and HUD will all be removed. The OS will guess what you want to click and will do that for you.

    On a desktop with a 24 inches monitor (yes, it's luxurious, but it actually costed me 25% of a 19 inches CRT monitor 7 years ago), any GUI gimmicks like global menu, HUD, hiding scrollbar, etc. just to save a dozen of pixels is just ridiculous.
    • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

      You do realize of course that you can always choose at log-in time, your choice of the new Unity, or your preferable old Gnome / Gnome "classic", do you?
      You can even choose KDE if you want (provided you install it on top of Ubuntu).
      Just logout and then log in again.
      (I admit that the default skinny scrollbar is an annoyance)
      Claude Balloune
  • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

    This would be a nice question to ask Mark Shuttleworth or Jane Silber...
  • RE: What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?

    "What does Ubuntu want to be when it grows up?"

    Who knows? They keep overhauling the UI. Maybe someday something will stick, but I doubt the new HUD will.

    "Now, Ubuntu is getting ready to switch its interface again to an even more entry-level user friendly interface: Head-Up Display (HUD)."

    It's a fancy search engine with suggestions. Or a King's Quest game, if you're not already familiar with the application. Time to play "Guess the right word to use your app!!"

    Basically, it takes the problem the Office ribbon was supposed to fix and makes it 100 times worse.

    There's nothing even remotely "entry-level user friendly" about the HUD.

    The GUI became popular for a good reason: It's easily discoverable and usable. People don't want to search - they just want everything to be there, ready to be clicked. Nobody wants to learn hundreds of text commands to use an app, sorry. And they certainly don't want to re-learn them for every new app, either.

    If this were truly the future of UIs, then Windows and MacOS would have never been invented. iPhones would have never become popular, either. GUIs are the future, not search engines.

    Sorry, the HUD is absurd. A search engine is a last resort, not a primary interface. Especially not for a graphical UI.