Ubuntu – where is the focus?

I have been an avid Ubuntu user for the last few years, and have become a staunch supporter (well, at least as far as my mouth goes). There are many compelling reasons for me to use Ubuntu: It’s free, it does what I need, it has a wide selection of free software available from a local mirror of Ubuntu packages.

Plus (have I not mentioned?) Ubuntu has an excellent support community. In fact, just about any problem you may encounter will be resolved with a quick search, and you will most likely find the answer in the Ubuntu forums. Ubuntu has become, in my eyes, a rallying point for the Linux community. They have the vision and the clout to take Linux forward into the desktop (and even mobile) market (and hey, server market if they wanted).

Lately though, there are rumours and whispers of discontent doing the rounds. A lot of unhappy thoughts have been expressed about Unity, the new desktop that Canonical have been working on (originally for netbooks), that is to replace the standard Gnome desktop in the upcoming release in April. Partly this had to do with the fact that you would need capable 3D hardware to support it (although they have since announced a 2D version of Unity to be shipped with Natty Narwhal, the next release, as well).

Unity is not the only big change that has happened over the last few releases though: There appears to be a lack of direction (or is it commitment?) which is reflected in the way default desktop applications are being swapped out: First Pidgin is replaced with Empathy, then F-Spot is axed in favour of Shotwell, and I believe Banshee will be replacing Rhythmbox in the next release. While there may be good reasons for these changes, I’m not sure this constant flux resounds so well with end users, especially when looking at the level of maturity of some of these replacement applications.

On the one hand, I feel I must applaud the daring with which Canonical is reinventing the Linux desktop through Ubuntu. I feel that this is exactly what Linux needs; a company that is bold enough to step out there and provide some in-your-face alternatives to the dreary world of Gnome and KDE and X11. If you read Mark Shuttleworth’s blog, you will get some idea of where this is all headed, what with ideas of Wayland replacing X11 some time in the future.

On the other hand, I have my doubts. Mainly because I think the pace with which Ubuntu is introducing new applications and features and tinkering with the desktop paradigm is leaving the average desktop user behind. I find this to be a strategic imbalance with Ubuntu bug #1 on Launchpad – “Microsoft has a majority market share”. (It is real – check it out).

This is a fine vision to have, and I truly believe that with the right approach and contacts and marketing (it need not be multi-million dollar, grass-roots seems to work quite well) Ubuntu can truly make a big dent in Microsoft’s desktop market share.  But to try and grab that market share out of the grubby hands of Microsoft is going to require more (or perhaps less) than an out-of-this-world, you-saw-it-here-first desktop.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for innovation. The question is simply this: Does Ubuntu intend to be a test bed for innovation of new features, or is its aim to compete with Mac and Windows? If the answer is the latter, I believe greater stability is needed when it comes to desktop releases. The reason is simple: The bulk of users fear change. And if life-altering changes are introduced every 6 months, that is not good for users.

Look, maybe Mark and his team know something we don’t. After all, the world is changing, and the percentage of the market comprised of youngsters to whom all technology is immediately obvious and intuitive is perhaps making up more and more of that market. But my (admittedly limited) first-hand experience tells me otherwise.

So what am I saying? I believe that if Ubuntu wants to be taken seriously as a competitor in the desktop market, to go up against the big boys, then the focus must be in two areas: Usability and Stability. In terms of usability, the team at Canonical needs to sit down and think hard about what works for users. And then they must codify it and develop a long-term plan around it, and only then, after all that, should they implement it. And then, when they need to make changes, they must introduce them carefully and incrementally, and (very important!) make sure the impact is communicated to the users accordingly. The last thing we want is for people to boot up the newest release and say: “Hey, this is not the desktop I was used to!” and vote with their feet.

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