No thanks Google, we've got Ubuntu

No thanks Google, we've got Ubuntu

Summary: Google's decision to create its own Linux distribution and splinter the Linux community decisively once again can only be seen as foolhardy and self-obsessive.

news editor
Renai LeMay

commentary Google's revelation today that it will create its own operating system will bring just one reaction from operating system enthusiasts worldwide.

"Not another Linux distribution," they'll cry.

They'll say this because if there is one problem that the Linux and open source community has suffered repeatedly over the past two decades, it's been fragmentation.

It was bad enough that the Unix operating system fragmented into several different fragments through the 1980s and 1990s. Systems administrators (like myself, earlier this decade) were forced to learn several different platforms; Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, FreeBSD ... the list was always growing longer.

But the hojillion different directions Linux has taken over the past several decades has even dwarfed that problem. Depending on what part of the world you live in, odds are that you (and sometimes the company you work for) have personally switched between different Linux distributions several times over the past decade, as one or the other gained prominence.

Personally, I started off using Red Hat, which split off into the official Red Hat version and a community edition dubbed Fedora. I toyed with Mandriva and SuSE for a while, before settling on Slackware for some years, and then moving to Debian. Throughout that time I've had to learn quite a few different package management, configuration, boot and window management systems.

Of course, I have also used a variety of Microsoft operating systems, currently Windows 7, and Apple's more focused Mac OS X and its predecessors.

Now, over the past few years some of us had begun to believe that we could see a bright light forming at the end of that confused and heterogeneous tunnel. Out of the ferocious Linux distribution wars, one contender has emerged with the seeming strength to take on the rest; at least when it comes to the Linux desktop platform.

I speak, of course, of Ubuntu.

Mark Shuttleworth's juggernaut has, over the past few years, blasted through the Linux community like his shuttle blasted into space, drawing all into its orbit like some kind of monstrous black hole.

If you attend conferences like these days, where you used to see Debian and Slackware die-hards, you'll see a massive wave of Linux laptops proudly sporting Ubuntu paraphernalia. I switched the Linux half of my home desktop PC to Ubuntu four years ago, and my media centre followed this year (saying goodbye finally to the venerable Windows XP).

The growing dominance of Ubuntu (at least on the desktop, the server room seems to have been won by Red Hat) has delivered the Linux community a serious advantage in its ongoing war against the incumbent Windows and Apple platforms because of its ability to give software developers a single platform to concentrate on, and polish to a degree not seen previously.

You can email Linus Torvalds or Mark Shuttleworth directly and get answers to your Linux questions, sometimes within minutes or hours. Try that with whoever is in charge of Android or Chrome development.

In this context, Google's decision to create its own Linux distribution and splinter the Linux community decisively once again can only be seen as foolhardy and self-obsessive.

Instead of treading its own path, Google should have sought to leverage the stellar work already carried out by Mark Shuttleworth and his band of merry coders and tied its horse to the Ubuntu cart.

If Google truly wants to design a new "windowing system on top of a Linux kernel", there should be nothing to stop the search giant from collaborating openly with the best in the business. I'm sure Linus Torvalds would have something strongly worded to say about Google's plans to "completely redesign" the underlying security architecture of Linux.

There's no doubt Google has made moves in this direction with its pledge to open-source Chrome OS, the same way it did with several previous projects; the Chrome browser itself and its Android mobile OS.

But doubts still remain about those projects also. For example, where do they fit in between true open-source projects, maintained and supported by the community, and to what extent are they extensions of Google's online advertising empire?

Android is a great mobile operating system, second only to Apple's iPhone platform. But Google still controls most aspects of Android's development. Also, anyone using Android would have no doubt that the operating system ties in very nicely with Google's cloud offerings (for example, Gmail); but things are a lot trickier if you prefer Windows Live or other rival systems.

Chrome too, is a great web browser that I use for much of my daily needs; but it's mainly still in Google's hands, and so those of us who prefer true competition to exist in the browser world take great comfort from the fact that Mozilla Firefox is completely independent and not pushing anyone's agenda.

Who are you going to trust and believe in? The non-commercial Ubuntu Foundation (and wider project), which has developed an open-source operating system second to none and virtually ended the Linux distribution wars? Or Google, which also makes free products (well, mostly) and packages advertising in (sometimes)?

You can email Linus Torvalds or Mark Shuttleworth directly and get answers to your Linux questions, sometimes within minutes or hours. Try that with whoever is in charge of Android or Chrome development.

Google makes great products. But it's currently trying to tread a nice middle ground between completely embracing the open source community and keeping control over software it has developed. That's an impossible patch to walk and one that leaves it open to being criticised for the same sort of arrogance operating system vendors have been accused of for decades.

Topics: Google, Linux, Open Source

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  • perspective

    First some perspective: Linux has 1% of desktop operating systems online. Is Google taking on the Linux market? Wow that would be weird. Kind of like Federer seriously going after an unseeded player.

    Google doesn't care about the desktop - they care about the data. Google's business is automated customer intimacy. Getting granular information on a user's activities on the Internet is the best way to do this. The best way to do this is to provide the user with the most direct path onto the Internet. Hence, Android and Chrome.

    Reminds me of the zen story about the dog tied to the cart. The dog can fight it, or he can trot along happily beside it. No matter what the dog chooses to do, the cart will roll in one direction.
  • Good point.

    Also, Google can't afford the delay that interacting with the Open Source community entails. It likes to get the ball rolling in its own terms and then invite the community in.
  • Linux market share

    Linux might have 1 per cent of the desktop market, but that 1 per cent is an incredibly influential 1 per cent.

    I don't know any real computer geek that's not running Linux in some shape or form and normally it's on most of their infrastructure.

    I'm talking about people here who know their way around a motherboard, can install stuff etc :)

    Linux has never been stronger, it's not going away, and it's here to stay. Just like Windows and Mac OS X.

    And as for Google not caring about the desktop ... they should care about users! Not just about advertising revenue :)


    Renai LeMay
    News Editor
  • ubuntu

    Why should Ubuntu be the only option?

    (It's a horrid OS but we will leave that aside for the moment). The whole poin of Open Source is choice, variety and customisation.

    If Ubuntu never did what Google want why should they modify their vision for it. That's, well, silly. Look are Chrome - they could have built on Mozilla's platform, but they didnt. They went their own way and created a great alternative!
  • The More, The Merrier....for all consumers.

    It should be quite obvious Google has bigger plans than competing with Canonical/Ubuntu. I'm quite confident their plans involve a certain companies grossly bloated marketshare in Redmond Washington USA. Even though I currently use Kubuntu I would be more than happy to see Google further reduce Microsoft's perverted stranglehold on the computer/software industry. As long as its anything but Windows/Microsoft underneath its fine by me.
  • fair points, but...

    > "Linux might have 1 per cent of the desktop market, but that 1 per cent is an incredibly influential 1 per cent."

    What you mean is "incredibly noisy" :)

    And no argument from me about the idea that the users of Linux have a heightened technical awareness. I also agree that Linux has staying power (ahem, I'm using Ubuntu now).

    But I'm talking about the normal people out there, the ones that don't give a damn about tinkering in the guts of an OS. They just want it to work so they can tweet and FB and shop, etc.

    And this is why Google is going to wipe the dial of anyone that gets in their way between them and their objective - end user data. That's the beauty of their business model: they make a cool toy for end users to play with, which is invariably free (yay!), and then just harvest user and usage data in exchange. It's the ultimate Complementor. Because Google make their money elsewhere, they can give very nice products away free; and the more people use the products the more data Google gets and the more value the data attains.

    It's a totally different model to either Microsoft or the Linux fanboys.

    Anyway, we should pick this conversation up over a beer!
  • Semantics

    Google is no more "taking on" the linux market than it is the Windows & OSX market. The only reason "linux" has been highlighted is because it will enter the consumer computer market via the same means & space that Ubuntu has been fighting to get a hold of. Namely, netbooks.

    In that sense, it will be competing with Microsoft's Windows 7, which will be pre-installed on most netbooks.
  • There will be more...

    There's many reasons to pick on Google but being current isn't one of them. Get used to the idea of more Linux and BSD derivatives not less. The "operating system enthusiasts" are the ones experimenting with tools like T2, OpenEmbedded, poky, nix and the like to build purpose-built solutions. Ubuntu Desktop is great but it's still part of a dying paradigm.
  • No thanks Ubuntu, we've got Debian

    Funny, a lot of this article applies to the phrase, "No thanks Ubuntu, we've got Debian."
  • I think you're missing the point

    We're not talking about just another "run-of-the-mill" distro here. Google's intent with this OS is to move users away from local processing and data storage toward a web-based platform. This OS is little more than the browser, and this was done very much on purpose. Many who love Ubuntu will stay with Ubuntu, because what it does (it provides a rich and easy to use desktop experience) is completely different from what Google's OS will do (get users surfing the web as quickly as possible and provide easy interfaces for all the services hosted by Google)
  • guys you're just funny

    Guys, you're just funny! Why didn't you cried "No thanks Google, we've got Firefox/Opera/Konqueror/Safari/IE/<your favourite browser goes here>" when they released Chrome? No, you thought that chrome is great idea! Why just you can't give Google do what they want?
  • who cares

    who cares google can do what they like.
    it is just getting linux even more publicity /lime light. Us who already are on linux whatever distro already know what it is about. I hope google can get some free marketing for other distros too (spread the momentum!)
  • Better this way

    Google has the hearts and minds of the common person, much more than Microsoft now does. This is good for the Linux community as a whole. As for people's claims that users have to muck around in the guts of the OS: nonsense. This is 2009, not the 80s and 90s.

    By the way, no thanks Ubuntu/Debian/Fedora, I've got Gentoo, where I -can- muck around. xP
  • Sorry, but Ubuntu doesnt "Just work"

    Come on folks, lets get real, Ubuntu only works for computer engineers. I am a computer engineer and use Ubuntu but would never try to get my wife or children on the system. Believe me I tried and it failed miserably. An OS that just works, boots quickly and is light on the interface and secure does not exist today (maybe Mac OS). I welcome Google Chrome OS, something needs to shake up the OS industry. The only group that is doing that for the masses today is Apple.
  • Another OS?

    Another OS? What´s the story? There are a lot of GNU/Linux OS in the civiliced world, so, add another GNU/linux distribution, I see this pointless. And Ubuntu, I don´t have nothing against Ubuntu, but you might have a lot of RAM to run it in your machine(I remember now a joke about when you will need a 128GB of RAM, someone said a 3D rendering software, I quickly thought in Ubuntu 10.X). Sorry Google,I've got Slackware and Debian. I prefer a brand new installed Debian or Slackware than Ubuntu. Remember "Use the Wheel". ;^).
  • Every disto fanboy is the same

    We created a new distro, due to the deficiencies in the available distros. That's what makes OSS great.
    ---- years later ---
    Please don't make a new distro, ours is good enough. New distros just splinter OSS.
  • iPhone = best platform?

    "Android is a great mobile operating system, second only to Apple's iPhone platform."

    What makes iPhone the best mobile operating system? I have an iPhone and it makes calls just the same as any other platform. The fact that it can run only one application at a time, not to mention the horrible application approval process, makes it the worst in the smartphone field in terms of application support in my opinion.
  • good article

    we dont want another half baked life time beta products form google.Google did good job in search and we are very happy for you. But we dont want to be victim of you business rivalary or somthing like that. Microsoft is best with OS and those who dont want MS OS they have other linux based options. focus on your core search becasue bing is coming after you. very fast.

    stop this non sense and stop being evil.
  • Chrome OS will not compete with Linux

    Google is looking at a platform that is in its infancy right now: Portable internet devices. Netbooks are the current iteration and they pretty much suck. A tablet or something like an iPhone or iPod Touch is the where Google wants to go. Chrome OS will be on those devices that are used for accessing the web and getting email. Simplification.
  • .NET

    Even if you're right, fragmentation isn't always a sufficient condition for perpetual difficulty and inconvenience. Take .NET, for example. Do you think it's possible that with increasing fragmentation a .NET-esque system could develop unifying the principles of interaction with the more complex elements of the various Linux OS's?

    Either way, I wouldn't be surprised if Google was trying to take on the 1% Linux market. Really, what were they trying to do with Chrome? Take on IE? I think they have this idea that if they can release enough stuff that integrates together, eventually they can suck people into it.

    If I could suggest to Google how they might actually gain some significant portion of the market share outside of the search world I would suggest two things: Make computers, then put out commercials for the computers.

    The general problem companies have in trying to gain market share from Microsoft is that the vast majority of people don't know why it is important to use one browser over another and they don't have enough confidence in their ability to quickly learn a new interface. If Google decided to manufacture computers with the same power as PC's but less expensive and loaded with Google's software, then, if they were to invest some capital into "coolness" and "easiness" geared TV ads, I think they could actually accomplish something.