Call Him Ishmael

Call Him Ishmael

Article from Issue 165/2014
Author(s):

It is no secret that Ubuntu isn't the coolest, new-kid-on-the-block distro sensation anymore – actually that news is already a few years old. Still, Ubuntu has kept itself in the headlines with community dramas, desktop debates, and a crowd-funding effort to launch a mobile phone. The Ubuntu vision is so vast and enthralling that it is hard for the press – and the Ubuntu management – to let it go: a single unifying Linux popping up on phones, tablets, desktops, servers, and other devices that no one has even invented yet.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

It is no secret that Ubuntu isn't the coolest, new-kid-on-the-block distro sensation anymore – actually that news is already a few years old. Still, Ubuntu has kept itself in the headlines with community dramas, desktop debates, and a crowd-funding effort to launch a mobile phone. The Ubuntu vision is so vast and enthralling that it is hard for the press – and the Ubuntu management – to let it go: a single unifying Linux popping up on phones, tablets, desktops, servers, and other devices that no one has even invented yet.

But reality is starting to sound its trumpet. The Ubuntu Edge mobile phone effort didn't work, the TV initiative isn't going anywhere, and the personal cloud/music store dream disappeared in April when Canonical CEO Jane Silber announced an end to the Ubuntu One service.

Back in January, Canonical was in the news with its annual financial statement. The company reported a net loss of around US$21 million for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2013. Canonical said the report only applies to its UK-based company and doesn't give a full accounting for its worldwide market presence, implying that the picture isn't really as bad as it looks for the UK, but the saga of Ubuntu still doesn't seem to be playing out according to the plans they all made five years ago.

Mark Shuttleworth said last year, "We could slice Canonical to something profitable pretty straightforwardly. We could slice down to the server or we could slice down to just OpenStack, and we'd be much smaller and we'd be profitable" [1].

So why don't they? Seriously, I love this idea of a dominant global Linux platform running on everything, but it doesn't seem to be working, and I'm worried they might be locked into an old dream that is already obsolete.

I'm having trouble visualizing how the mobile phone biz is actually going to make any money for Canonical. Three years ago, the mobile model was still undefined – no one really knew how it worked. But the reports are in, and it seems clear by now that all mobile operating systems lose money. The only reason to produce a mobile OS is if you are making the money back some other way. Android loses money, but Google makes the money back through search ads and links to online tools. iOS loses money, but Apple makes the money back by selling phones. Mozilla has the Firefox OS mobile system, closer to Ubuntu in philosophy and market share than either iOS or Android, but Mozilla isn't expected to make any money because it is a nonprofit, and, in fact, it gets a massive subsidy from Google, so it has no problem with paying to code its own new mobile OS.

Canonical's Ubuntu One personal cloud and music store offered a glimpse into a possible profit model for Canonical's ventures into the mobile arena, but since Canonical has ended Ubuntu One, any plans built around it have simply evaporated. The controversial smart scopes feature, which offers vendor-sponsored suggestions for desktop search queries, might generate some revenue (even if it has seriously alienated many of Ubuntu's most loyal fans), but even if the community were to forget about the privacy implications, it really doesn't look like Ubuntu will be able to fund its whole mobile operations by selling search suggestions.

According to Shuttleworth, the server business is actually in the black. The desktop system has taken a hit in its public profile by losing the limelight to Mint – and also because the once-popular Ubuntu desktop has gotten morphed in unpopular ways as Canonical pursues its "convergence" dream. But even now, lots of computers around the world are running Ubuntu or Ubuntu-based systems. When you think about it, the cost of maintaining the server version, and providing customer support for enterprise workstations, largely underwrites any cost for producing the free desktop.

If the desktop is still relevant, and the server is making money, and the OpenStack integration is proceeding according to plan, maybe it would be a good thing for Mark Shuttleworth to let go of his mobile "convergence" dream, which seems to be bringing nothing but red ink to Canonical. Of course, one could argue that he is ultimately spending his own money, and he doesn't need me to tell him how to spend it. But the real problem isn't that Mark Shuttleworth might lose too much of his own money. The problem would be if this company, which serves a vital role for the open source economy, implodes from a bad case of management burnout and owner frustration because it has been chasing the great white whale of mobile convergence rather than keeping the focus on what it does best.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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