Where Ubuntu (and others) Went Wrong

Ubuntu has lead the way in promoting Linux, yet it hasn't done everything perfect.
Posted December 29, 2015

Matt Hartley

Ubuntu and other popular distributions offer their users a great user experience, great support and frequent updates. Recently there have been reports circulating that Ubuntu has a far greater user base than originally thought. When you combine these things together, it seems like Ubuntu (and distros based on it) are at the top of their game. On the surface I'd agree with this. However, there are some critical areas and missed opportunities that continue to be glossed over. In this article, I'll share areas where I think Ubuntu and related distros went wrong.

ChromeOS wins

Most people believe the first walled garden OS based on Linux for the desktop was ChromeOS. In reality, the first was called Zonbu based on Gentoo. Like ChromeOS, Zonbu was made available on specific computers and had a limited selection of software. Zonbu also provided cloud storage, like ChromeOS. Where Zonbu failed is in its software options and poor hardware offerings. Worse, even simple apps like a document scanning application wasn't available to Zonbu users. The final nail in Zonbu's coffin was that you couldn't install your own software.

ChromeOS is also based on Gentoo. Unlike Zonbu however, ChromeOS has Google's web-based products at its disposal. This means ChromeOS users can extend their computer's abilities by installing ChromeOS extensions. ChromeOS also out-shined Zonbu in its hardware offering as well, from low-end Chromebooks to the higher end Chromebook Pixel. Meanwhile, Zonbu only offered lower end offerings.

Both ChromeOS and Zonbu provide a very limited desktop experience. ChromeOS manages to navigate these waters as Google targets less advanced users for simpler tasks. Zonbu more or less did the same, but they lacked enough marketshare to really gain the following found with Google's offerings.

ChromeOS is gaining tremendous marketshare, though not because it's better than other Linux offerings. Instead they're winning due to availability, price, consistency and ease of use.

Ubuntu is better than ChromeOS

I believe Ubuntu and distributions based on Ubuntu are far better than ChromeOS. Ubuntu offers a far greater selection of software and it can be installed on just about anything. The downside to distributions that aren't designed to be walled gardens is that it's far easier to experience confusion and errors. An example of this would be comparing a self-driving car to a driver controlled vehicle. To crash a driver controlled vehicle, one only needs to aim the car at a wall and hit the gas pedal. Same idea applies to distributions like Ubuntu. You're provided with a level of control that allows for success or failure, depending on what the end user chooses. Unfortunately this level of control isn't a great idea for everyone.

My vision for distributions like Ubuntu is to fill the gap that ChromeOS fails to. Despite its occasional hiccups, I think Ubuntu is ready to do this. Sadly, 99% of world has no idea that distributions like Ubuntu even exist.

Tasks over platforms

People don't run operating systems, they run applications that allow them to accomplish tasks. The Adobe Photoshop user runs the software on OS X because they know the work flow and it provides an expected result. This is also true for the Windows gamer, as the game titles they enjoy are already available for their platform. Very few people genuinely care about the platform itself. They care about the overall experience provided instead.

When presenting the idea of Ubuntu to folks, it's important to determine what they're trying to accomplish and identifying useful software to get the job done. I think Ubuntu should have custom ISO builders made available. The concept would be similar to SUSE's studio service, but with greater focus on building an ISO for specific tasks vs desktop environments.

Now there are Ubuntu spins for media creation, etc. But this requires users to stumble upon the websites for these projects. I think providing a SUSE-like studio service provides a real advantage in the eyes of those looking at alternative operating systems.

Presentation matters

Ubuntu marketing is pretty much non-existent. I've seen greater success from Ubuntu spins than with Ubuntu proper in terms of clever marketing. Considering the fact that the company that supports Ubuntu is a for-profit company, I think their marketing efforts to date are far too reliant on community outreach.

Don't misunderstand me, the Ubuntu community is a large part of what makes Ubuntu a great distribution. But it frustrates me when I want to share Ubuntu with people and I have zero material to show them. My options are random podcast episodes, poorly put together YouTube videos and the occasional article.

Wait, it gets better. When someone wants to buy something running OS X or Windows, you better believe both operating system websites provide very simple partner links to purchase a new computer. Ubuntu? Well, this page says it all.

I was blown away by links to Windows computers. The exception was the Amazon link, which provided an obscure assortment of low-powered systems and older laptops. The irony is there are multiple vendors ranging from System76 to Zareason that offer Ubuntu computers. Instead, the Ubuntu site links to Windows offerings. Clearly, Ubuntu is very focused on desktop adoption...right? Perhaps not so much these days.

The last issue is locating an Ubuntu computer in popular stores. Now I don't fault Ubuntu for this as retail space is a multi-billion competition. This is an area owned by Microsoft, Apple and Google. So my expectations here are restrained. Still, not seeing an end-cap describing what Linux has to offer is a bit of a downer.

Stop ignoring great opportunities

Windows 10 offers a great opportunity. It's full of update errors, older hardware incompatibility and a number of other issues that won't be addressed for at least a year or more. Unlike Linux, which can find itself ripe with errors at times, Windows users are completely dependent on Microsoft to fix these issues. With distributions like Ubuntu, you're free to switch desktop environments, kernels, even the ability to roll back your OS to an earlier version. These features mean users are spending less time telling their computers "no" to prompted upgrades and more time focusing on tasks that matter to them.

We need to make sure the message to potential Linux users is about what they can do with Linux and how, unlike other operating systems, Linux won't get in their way. In this case, Ubuntu is the distribution of choice due to its popularity.

Here's what's going to happen instead

If nothing else, all we need Ubuntu to offer is greater focus on where to buy pre-installed hardware. Instead, they're focused on server computing and mobile offerings. There will likely be zero cloud-backup solutions for software and user data. And my guess is you can forget about getting a serious Ubuntu desktop/laptop provider on their home page.

To matters worse, I'll also continue to hear about how all of my suggestions are unneeded because Ubuntu already has such a wide user-base. After all, there's no need to cater to casual users because making things easier is bad….for some arbitrary reason.

To be clear, I love Linux and I've used it exclusively for many years. I quite happily run Ubuntu MATE and Arch Linux because it allows me to accomplish the tasks I need to get done. Going forward, the only Ubuntu based distro I can reliably refer to people is Ubuntu MATE because they're addressing things that make using Linux easy. Software discovery, a consistent user experience, a great community and the ability to purchase the OS pre-installed on the website.

I firmly believe the future of Linux on the desktop is going to be driven by Google. And sadly, I don't see this changing anytime soon. On the flip-side of this, I'll continue to champion Linux and related projects as I think they're important.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tags: Linux, Ubuntu, Open Source App

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