Ubuntu and the future of the Linux desktop

Does Ubuntu point the way to the real future for desktop Linux?

I will admit to being a Linux desktop nonbeliever. It feels a bit like yesterday's battle fought with the wrong weapons: geekiness rather than ease of use. There's a chance--still a slim one, but a chance nonetheless--that Ubuntu will change that.

In three separate places today I read reviews of Ubuntu's new desktop (7.10). Two were very complimentary, while the third suggested that Ubuntu give up.

Ubuntu upgrades the Linux desktop experience in two ways: user interface and form factor. While Novell continues to be the leader in traditional desktop replacements, Red Hat is reinventing the Linux desktop for new markets with its One Laptop Per Child involvement. Ubuntu is arguably doing the same, but is going one step further in disruption: Changing the notion of the Linux "desktop" completely:

Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth is thinking more iPhone than UPS tablet [or traditional desktop], though. "What's really interesting is that a lot of consumer electronics products that are being designed now are essentially a little PC," he told the New York Times. By mid- to late-2009, he said, "your impulse buy will be running Linux."

Mark is fighting the battle on his own turf, not Microsoft's, and he's doing it with style, as Stephen O'Grady points out:

...[O]ver the past few weeks, I've taken to using the multiple desktop concept quite heavily. This capability has been present in the desktop for years now, but the Compiz-fusion enabled 3D functionality in Ubuntu made them really usable to me for the first time by--get this--turning my desktop into a cube...

My experience, of course, is but a single datapoint. More pertinently, average users can hardly be expected to see the benefit to adapting to such a radical change in the UI paradigm. But each time I use the 3D desktop, I become convinced that users will have to meet the technology half way: the latter can certainly be more polished and user friendly, but consumers of the technology may have to be willing to think outside the traditional desktop, as it were.

Stephen is right, but what if the new paradigm comes in a new form factor: a consumer electronics product that fits the 3D user interface perfectly, rather than the traditional desktop experience?

Let's be clear on one thing: there's a very good reason that it is Ubuntu and not Novell (or Sun) that is actively targeting this emerging market. It doesn't have a legacy in traditional enterprise IT, so it enters the market with no preconceived notions as to what functions a desktop should serve.

So, Novell will continue to help traditional enterprises with traditional desktop needs (just at a lower price), and Red Hat will continue to bring a low-cost but still somewhat traditional desktop model to the developing world.

But Ubuntu has a clean slate, and the Linux desktop nonbeliever in me actually likes it. I like Red Hat's strategy, too, as it opens up new markets, markets with no calcified user experience to hurdle over. But I like Ubuntu's possibly more, because it means I'll be seeing Linux on devices that I use.

Tech Culture
About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.


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