Has Ubuntu bitten off more than it can chew?

Shuttleworth’s stated ambition to make Ubuntu a visually attractive alternative to Windows and OS X – he stood down as CEO of Canonical to focus on UI design – has alienated some of the Ubuntu fanbase.

Accusations of “dumbing down” or creating a “Fisher Price-style” UI have been thrown at Shuttleworth by users who are happy opening the terminal and installing application packages with a line of code.

Ubuntu 12.10

Many have deserted to less flamboyant, more traditional-looking distros such as the top-ranking Linux Mint. Canonical can rightly claim that no other consumer distro has Ubuntu’s OEM support, but support from PC manufacturers in Western markets is hardly effusive.

Canonical regularly cites Dell as one of its closest partners – “a staggering 850 Dell retail outlets in India and 350 in China feature Ubuntu PCs,” it claims in marketing materials – but in the UK, even finding a Dell system with Ubuntu pre-loaded is a challenge.

They’re rarely advertised, if ever, and a search for Ubuntu on the Dell website returns results for PCs where various editions of Windows are listed above Ubuntu. “Windows 7 or Windows 8 – choose the operating system that suits you,” reads the banner at the top of the page for the Dell Latitude E6430 Premier, one of the few you can configure with Ubuntu. Not that the average consumer would even notice.

A lot of our customers who upgrade every six months would be pretty well served by a rolling release

Ubuntu also finds itself under attack from within the open-source community. The decision to integrate Amazon results into OS search results provoked accusations of selling out and compromising user data. The Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman – a man who could start a fight in a phone box if it accepted coins that were minted using proprietary machinery – labelled it the “Ubuntu spyware” in a typically scathing online polemic.

He urged users to boycott Ubuntu, claiming that it “behoves us to give Canonical whatever rebuff is needed to make it stop this. Any excuse Canonical offers is inadequate; even if it used all the money it gets from Amazon to develop free software, that can hardly overcome what free software will lose if it ceases to offer an effective way to avoid abuse of the users.”

Shuttleworth hit back at the “trolls” accusing Ubuntu of passing on their data to its shopping partner. “We’re not telling Amazon what you’re searching for,” he wrote on his blog. “Your anonymity is preserved because we handle the query on your behalf. Don’t trust us? Erm, we have root. You do trust us with your data already.”

New release schedule

With the PC market stalling and Ubuntu failing to record any significant growth in market share, you can see why Canonical might be tempted to divert its efforts to the sexier growth markets of televisions, tablets and smartphones.

Indeed, a recent Google Hangout discussion among Ubuntu developers prompted media reports that Canonical was doing just that, with plans to drop its six-monthly releases and rely on the biennial LTS releases instead.

That’s a case of putting two and two together and coming up with three and a half, according to Silber. Yes, the developers were debating dropping the six-monthly releases, but it was only a “very, very early-stage discussion” and no conclusion had been reached.

What’s more, the motivation for dropping the interim versions was to introduce new features more, not less, frequently. “When we started Canonical and Ubuntu in 2004, and we said we’re going to release Ubuntu every six months, the reaction was ‘you guys are crazy, nobody can put out a full OS every six months – that’s just madness’,” says Silber. “Now, everybody does it. Fedora does it every six months, SUSE does it every six months; we showed how it could be done. Now six months seems a really long time.”

The new schedule would allow developers to trickle out new features when they’re ready, rather than waiting for arbitrary six-month staging posts. “A lot of our customers who upgrade every six months would be pretty well served by a rolling release, because what they want is the latest and greatest all the time. Every time we do one of those releases, we stop doing other development work.”

Whether it’s on the PC, or on the three other form factors, Ubuntu’s developers are going to have plenty on their hands over the next couple of years. Whether their work ends up in the hands of millions of consumers is less certain.

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