Ubuntu 9.10 is the best desktop Linux yet. The eleventh Ubuntu in 10 years, it reflects the value in the evolutionary path chosen by Canonical under Mark Shuttleworth: regular, incremental upgrades, each focusing on different aspects of the OS experience.
There have been plenty of mistakes along the way, but the result is superb — usable, flexible, reliable and secure. It pays attention to real computer users doing real quotidian work — a rarity in IT in general and in OS design in particular. It is also unbeatable on price. Yet despite a decade of solid improvement and, of late, near-universal approval from the cognoscenti, it has a desktop market penetration in the low single digits. There is no technical reason for this, and so Ubuntu 9.10's technical advances will do nothing to help.
In the enterprise, the barriers to take-up for Ubuntu on the desktop are like standing stones, the legacy of the ancients. Most business IT is based on infrastructure policy decisions made decades ago, loved by the priesthood and highly resistant to change. Ubuntu may be a better class of stone, but it will take a move to the cloud to really move things on.
The consumer world is more interesting. Ubuntu gives retailers the chance to sell hardware with higher margins and more control. Logical economics suggests this would lead over time to a considerable presence. Instead, it is entirely absent. Whatever is keeping Ubuntu out of the retail channel is not technical, economic or practical, and not the result of an untrammelled free market.
It is instructive to compare the desktop with the mobile market. In the absence of any one actor maintaining a monopoly level of control over a channel, open source is flourishing alongside multiple proprietary options. There are many other factors that differentiate mobile and desktop, but none as striking — and as mobile, desktop and cloud converge, none that will get more important.
So while Ubuntu can be seen as a failure on the figures alone, it is succeeding in important ways. As an indicator of how badly broken the desktop OS market is, it is as vital as a canary in a coal mine. As a source of innovation, of community involvement and as a focal point in keeping Linux relevant to real people, it is unmatched.
Oh, and did we mention? It's also a very fine operating system.