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Should Canonical can Ubuntu?

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Hands up if you have used Linux in one of its various incarnations for the desktop. Well if you are reading this blog, chances are you have done that. Like many other geeks and aspiring geeks I have dabbled with using Linux specifically Ubuntu and I must say after the initial novelty of using something other than Windows, or Mac OS for that matter, I have been rather casual about it.

Zimbabwe has also seen a fair amount of excitement about the adoption of Linux resulting in the formation of a local Ubuntu community, made up of volunteer IT professionals that met every first Tuesday of the month. Various local companies such as YoAfrica have also tried to inspire the local market to adopt Linux.

A prominent Linux evangelist has been Mark Shuttleworth who, like other FOSS supporters contends that the ‘free’ cost of this software is of great value to African countries. After selling his digital certificate business Thawte to VeriSign for US $600 million, Shuttleworth took a break and became the first African cosmonaut by taking a $20 million jaunt in space. I’m not sure he has recovered from that head above the clouds sensation as indicated by his quixotic adventure in promoting Linux through his company Canonical.

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Although Linux has been grabbing market share in the enterprise space because companies like IBM., Hewlett-Packard and Dell place Linux on more than servers they sell. This success is demonstrated by the fact that about 70 percent of the servers running on public cloud computing systems such as Amazon’s EC2 rely on Linux.

To succeed on the desktop, Linux needs to penetrate the office. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a single Linux to go up against Windows 7. Instead there is a highly fragmented field of hundreds of different Linuxes, each with its own learning curve, skill set and maintenance needs. Even the top five distributions (Linux Mint, Ubuntu, Fedora, openSuSE and Debian) cannot offer a big enough user base to attract adequate support.

While Linux Mint is fast growing the most popular flavour of Linux today is Ubuntu which is eveloped by Shuttleworth’s company Canonical. Based in London the company has more than 200 full-time employees, but its total work force stretches well beyond that, through an army of volunteers. An additional 1,000 volunteers work on the Debian project and make their software available to Canonical, while over 5,000 spread information about Ubuntu on the Internet. And 38,000 have signed up to translate the software into different languages.

To compound the confusion in the Linux camp the latest release, Ubuntu users are given either the minimalist Gnome 3 version of the user-interface, or a proprietary iPad-like interface called Unity. The unintuitive nature of the latest releases of Ubuntu have driven many a long-time Ubuntu user ballistic. Even Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux, has called Gnome 3, in particular, “an unholy mess” and is known to have unceremoniously dumped it.

Despite this dire verdict by the father of Linux, its enthusiasts see a bright future for the free operating system. Next year about 18 million PCs, or 5 percent of the total market, should ship with Ubuntu preloaded, according to Shuttleworth (next to 92% for Windows)

Given that Ubuntu has a low, low price tag of $0, how does Canonical pay its bills and keep the lights on? The company receives revenue from companies like Dell that ship computers with Ubuntu and work with it on software engineering projects like adding Linux-based features to laptops. Canonical’s annual revenue is creeping toward $30 million.

That figure is puny next to Microsoft’s billions which is on the verge of releasing Windows 8 and its OS business generates over $20 billion per year. Windows 8 will be available in nine separate editions up from three flavors for Windows 7. The Microsoft Store lists Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate from $199, $299, and $319, respectively (upgrade prices are a bit less).

Indeed in the corporate world those license fees add up but the sheer number of different Linux versions and their different learning curves and support requirements mean that system administrators are not willing to take the plunge. In business, the biggest single computing cost is not software licenses, but the salaries of the support staff. And as far as licensing fees are concerned, the biggest single cost by far is not for operating systems but for enterprise applications. So companies will get Windows, pay and forget about support hassles.

The dim prospects of a Linux dominated desktop are further illustrated by the manner in which Microsoft squashed the nascent Linux challenge in China, potentially the world’s largest PC market. At the turn of the century prompted by military and security considerations the Chinese Academy of Sciences promoted a Linux version called Red Flag Linux. Beijing’s city government started installing free open-source Linux operating systems on workers’ PCs. This was the prelude to a planned rollout of the software across Chinese government installations.

In response to the perceived security threat (since Windows was made by a US company) in 2003 the Microsoft offeredChina and other countries the right to look at the fundamental source code for its Windows operating system and to substitute certain portions with their own software. Today, when China uses Windows whether in the President’s office or in its missile systems it can install its own cryptography.

Ironically Microsoft’s biggest friend in the Peoples Republic is piracy. By 2001, Microsoft executives were coming to the conclusion that China’s weak IP-enforcement laws meant its usual pricing strategies were doomed to fail. Gates argued  at the time that while it was terrible that people in China pirated so much software, if they were going to pirate anybody’s software he’d certainly prefer it be Microsoft’s.

Today Microsoft openly concedes that tolerating piracy in China has turned out to be Microsoft’s best long-term strategy. That’s why Windows is used on an estimated 90% of China’s 120 million PCs. According to Bill Gates “It’s easier for our software to compete with Linux when there’s piracy than when there’s not.”

With such formidable odds against it Linux (in all its desktop incarnations) seems doomed to the fringes of computing, forever the preserve of geeks and hobbyists. Given that consumers love choice that would be a real shame.


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