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Canonical's opportunity to simplify Ubuntu

Mark Shuttleworth is stepping down as Canonical's CEO. What effect, if any, will this have on Ubuntu and its community?

Ubuntu has led the Linux community's efforts to improve on form, not simply function, and thereby make the Linux experience as good or better than Mac OS X in terms of usability. Mark Shuttleworth, founder and CEO of Canonical, the company set up to shepherd development and commercialization of Ubuntu, is the heart of that effort.

Mark Shuttleworth, provocateur Matt Asay

As announced on Thursday, however, Shuttleworth is resigning as Canonical CEO to focus on improving the Ubuntu user experience:

From March next year, I'll focus my Canonical energy on product design, partnerships and customers. Those are the areas that I enjoy most and also the areas where I can best shape the impact we have on open source and the technology market.

Is this good or bad for Ubuntu? And what about Canonical?

Canonical is reportedly doing $30 million per year in sales, and is working on some significant projects that may establish it as the de facto Linux distribution for Netbooks, if it isn't already. (Ubuntu is arguably the community choice for personal computers.)

Even so, Linux still has a long way to go to match the user experience of Mac OS X, or even Windows. Shuttleworth has given me a sneak peak of his vision for where Ubuntu can go from a UI perspective.

I was blown away. This is a man who "gets it."

Even so, he and the Ubuntu community still have a ways to go to match Microsoft or Apple in user experience, and certainly in market share. To get there, Ubuntu needs Canonical, and Canonical needs Shuttleworth fixated on improving Ubuntu's user experience.

When I asked what his resignation as CEO means for Ubuntu, and his involvement with it, Shuttleworth responded:

I don't expect to be less visible, just have stronger management for the business units.

As reported by CNET and as reported on Canonical's corporate blog, Jane Silber, currently Canonical's COO, will replace Shuttleworth as CEO. A search for a new COO will commence in the first few months of 2010.

This, I believe, is an opportunity for Canonical to tighten its focus. While Shuttleworth suggests that Silber's appointment "doesn't mark a change of direction," perhaps it should. With over 300 employees and products that span mobile, Netbooks and other personal computers, cloud computing, enterprise servers, and more, Canonical has its fingers in a lot of pots.

It's possible that the operations-minded Silber may channel Ubuntu's ambition into a few products where Ubuntu can dominate.

When I asked her for comment, Silber indicated that the move is more evolutionary than revolutionary:

This move should not be read as a precursor to a paring back in markets or as a dramatic shift in strategy. We continue to be committed to making Ubuntu the best possible platform, and to ensuring that Canonical provides high quality engineering, online and professional services to Ubuntu partners and customers worldwide....

I will still bring an operations discipline to company, but I will assume more responsibility and authority for the overall performance of the company including, I expect, greater participation in executive level sales and business development.

That involvement--i.e., working with customers and hearing them demand focus and discipline--may well prod Silber to instigate the changes she initially has disavowed.

Red Hat is instructive. Though many of us would like to see it broaden its focus, the company remains rooted in the enterprise server and middleware markets. Canonical, in my view, should take a lesson from Red Hat and channel some of its energy into fewer markets, markets where it can thrive.

Regardless of what happens, stay tuned to see how Shuttleworth's design aesthetic, now set to overdrive, can impact the cozy duopolies in "desktop" (Apple and Microsoft), servers (Red Hat and Microsoft), and more. With more time to focus on what customers and partners want, Canonical and Ubuntu may be set to take a more commanding position in the market.