What now feels like a very long time ago was actually only a handful of years. Back in 2010, Canonical knew exactly what its future would hold and had a plan on how to get there. It wanted to build one OS for all devices: phones, TVs, tablets, the desktop, servers and beyond. It wanted the device to be irrelevant and the OS to be agnostic.
Unfortunately, while the company knew exactly what it was doing, its loyal Ubuntu desktop user base didn’t.
The desktop and server versions were the only thing that existed back then, and Canonical wasn’t ready to share its full vision of the future, which meant that when it first launched its Unity UI back with Ubuntu 10.10, users really, really hated it. This wasn’t all that surprising to Canonical’s founder Mark Shuttleworth, but he did tell us this week that he’d do things a little differently if he had the chance.
We knew back then that we were lining up these things to come in and we had to move the desktop into line. So we said ‘Fine, we’ll build Unity, a bunch of people will go use different flavors of Ubuntu – the Gnome thing, the KDE thing, the Mint thing, and we’ll encourage all of those things’, because we wanted people to stay with Ubuntu but to get the desktop experience they wanted…
The mistake that I made there, and other people should learn from it, was that it was absolutely clear to me that lining all of those things up was worth doing. The problem was, if you were an Ubuntu desktop guy, suddenly your desktop changed. There was no tablet, there was no phone, suddenly your desktop changed. Now when I think about it’s like ‘duh’, change without justification for the change is going to piss people off.
Now when people see this [Ubuntu across multiple devices] they’re like ‘holy fuck that’s wonderful’, but that’s because they can see it [now]. With hindsight, I wouldn’t have touched the desktop [until later].
Nearly five years down the line, the controversy of the shift in 2010 is largely academic – most users are now on Unity and there are already smartphones on the market running Ubuntu. In a couple of months, there will be something approaching a flagship level device – the MX4 Ubuntu Edition – on sale.
There are also images of the tablet OS set to flash for certain devices too, though there is more work to be done there, with final tweaks and optimizations still being made. The impressive thing is that it’s basically all the same code, it just adapts to whichever device it’s being used on.
For example, if you’re using a tablet and plug in a keyboard or mouse, it recognizes that and changes the way some information is displayed. Pull down the notification bar with your finger and you’ll get a slightly different display than if you click it with your mouse. The interactions are pretty smart, if you’re willing to learn another new OS.
However, despite knowing it has huge developer support and offers a slick multi-platform experience, I can’t help but wonder if it’ll ever breakthrough into mainstream consciousness beyond the tech world. Shuttleworth doesn’t share that concern, and says that isn’t really the aim anyway.
There’s an audience for whom Ubuntu would make a fantastic computing experience. I think even if we were on the Samsung [Galaxy] S6, it would be a specialist computing experience, because that ecosystems already formed. We’re not doing it to go and punch Android in the nose and [to say] ‘we’ll steal your market.’ We’re doing it because personal computing is evolving and if we want to be in personal computing we’ve got to evolve with it, and we bring our own kind of sense of beauty and our own collection of apps and our own vibe and thing to that. We’re not going to be at 90 percent share in three years, it’s not going to happen.
It’s a 1.0, but it’s a fabulous 1.0. I think there are some things that we could really lead, so for example this idea that ‘this is my tablet and this is my PC,’ I really think we’ve done a classier job at that than the other guys who are chasing convergence. We’re smaller, we had to do it more thoughtfully, we had to do it at our pace.
To me that looks a hell of a lot more comprehensible than some of the things we’ve seen [from competitors].
What Canonical wants is to be the big fish in a small pond right now. Most people buy a Windows PC if they need a computer and an Android or iOS phone if they want a new handset. Shuttleworth thinks what Canonical is offering right now is the best convergence option available anywhere.
If you buy a convergence device, if the best one in the market is this, then you might attack it a different way. We have to be here [in the smartphone market], but we also have to ride the disruption, that’s what I think will carry us.
It’s not that we’re going to muscle our way into a phone world, it’s that we want to lead a convergence world. That’s an attractable proposition.
In the multiple times I’ve met with Shuttleworth, he’s never failed to be upbeat about the possibilities for Ubuntu. There are also yet more new plans afoot that he wasn’t ready to share. But then that’s hardly surprising from the man that thinks what’s going on with Ubuntu right now is more exciting than returning to space.
I hope to do it again.. it’s just that we’re not doing anything really interesting. Look at what I’m doing here, look at this. This is really interesting…
Space is amazing, I kept up with a lot of folks that I got to know, I love it when they fly, I would love to be up there with them because it’s a great environment. But low-earth orbit, been there; space station, been there; Soyuz, trained on that. I really want to go again, but I want to go again when we’re going deeper, going further.
I want to kick the tires on something new.