Has Ubuntu bitten off more than it can chew?

Is Ubuntu the world’s most successful failure? By far the world’s best-known Linux distro (if you discount the disputable case of Android), it’s achieved what once looked impossible: an easy-to-install, easy-on-the-eye Linux distro that doesn’t immediately alienate anyone without a PhD in computer science.

It’s met a punishing biannual release schedule with almost metronomic precision for a decade, embedded an app store long before Apple popularised the concept, and resides on tens of millions of PCs and servers worldwide. And yet…

Despite arguably offering a better desktop interface than Windows 8, Ubuntu remains a resolutely niche OS. Its share of the worldwide PC operating system market has never exceeded 1 or 2%; most web analytics packages fail to even recognise it as an OS in its own right, instead lumping it into a generic “Linux” bucket.

Despite arguably offering a better desktop interface than Windows 8, Ubuntu remains a resolutely niche OS

That’s hardly surprising when you consider how difficult it is to buy an Ubuntu system on the high street – the Saturday boy at Dixons thinks Ubuntu is the new striker at Chelsea. Even ordering systems online from “close” partners such as Dell is challenging.

Yet, despite failing to make a significant breakthrough in the consumer PC market, Ubuntu is accused of selling out by members of the open-source community.

The attractive Unity interface has, ironically, split the userbase, with many accusing Ubuntu of dumbing down. Linux Mint is now the most sought-after distro, according to DistroWatch.com’s page-hit rankings. Meanwhile, free software zealot Richard Stallman is urging users to boycott Ubuntu, branding it “spyware” because of the way it sucks up user data to serve search results for Amazon. (Ubuntu developer, Canonical, denies the charge.)

Given that it seems to have plateaued in a declining PC market, perhaps it’s no surprise that Canonical is developing versions of Ubuntu for TVs, smartphones and tablets. This is an ambitious four-screen strategy that even Canonical CEO Jane Silber admits is risky, not least because users can’t easily install Ubuntu on the other three devices the way they can on a PC.

So what does the future hold for Ubuntu? Is the poster child of Linux distros overstretching itself? Or is it primed to become the next Android, an open-source alternative to the closed worlds of Apple and Microsoft?

Four-screen dream

The first glimpse of Ubuntu’s attempt to break free of the PC came more than a year ago, at CES 2012. At the far end of the hangar-sized South Hall, on a stand dwarfed by those of home-entertainment giants Sony, Samsung and Sharp, stood a single television running the Ubuntu TV interface.

With no stadium-sized screen, deafening loudspeakers or scantily clad models to attract attention, most of the 150,000 attendees in Las Vegas merely ambled past – if they even made it to the back of the hall in the first place.

More than a year later, that Las Vegas demonstration unit is probably still the only public sighting of Ubuntu TV. Canonical admits it’s been tough convincing manufacturers to take a gamble. “We’ve had, and continue to have, good conversations with TV manufacturers,” Canonical’s Silber told us. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to announce a product launch date; it’s down to the TV manufacturers.”

What’s the hold-up? Major manufacturers such as Sony, Samsung and Philips have their own firmware installed and commercial content deals to go with it. Those Netflix and YouTube icons aren’t placed on smart TVs out of charity, in much the same way bloatware vendors buy their way onto your PC desktop. Canonical doesn’t have the financial muscle to buy its way onto TV sets, and so must rely on consumer pull to convince manufacturers to take a chance.

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