Canonical is the 65-employee start-up behind a. The company is betting that it can win a place in the market using a strategy that dominant Linux seller Red Hat has dropped.
Red Hat offers two versions of Linux:and . Fedora Core is free, but relatively untested and unsupported by Red Hat, while RHEL is supported and certified, but must be purchased. With Canonical's Ubuntu, however, the free and supported versions are identical--the .
"We believe that Ubuntu should be free to everyone--not just a trial version, but our very best version," said Christopher Kenyon, Canonical's business development manager. The South African company even ships free CDs anywhere in the world. Using that strategy, it expects profitability within 24 months, he added.
Ubuntu has become popular among enthusiasts, though measurements of this are hard to come by; the most oft-cited statistic is Ubuntu's long-standing top placement at Linux version tracker DistroWatch. Canonical is counting on converting that popularity into business, and competitors should take note.
"If I were Red Hat or Novell, I would be watching Canonical's moves very closely," said The 451 Group analyst Raven Zachary. "It has the buzz in the open-source community that Red Hat had in the late 1990s."
Canonical, founded in early 2004, is the brainchild of Mark Shuttleworth. In the years before Canonical, Shuttleworth founded security firm Thawte Consulting, sold it to VeriSign for $575 million and rode a Russian rocket to spend eight days in orbit at the International Space Station.
The company has built a certain whimsy into the Ubuntu project. Product names are one example: The first version, Warty Warthog, arrived in 2004, followed by Breezy Badger and Hoary Hedgehog in 2005, andin June 2006. If the project makes its schedule, expect to arrive this month.
And Ubuntu's name takes the open-source movement's feel-good collectivism to a new level: the African word translates to "humanity to others" or "I am what I am because of who we all are."
But the company has button-down business intentions. Dapper Drake was the first Ubuntu version with long-term support from any source--five years for the server version and three for the desktop, compared with 18 months for regular Ubuntu versions.
Ubuntu has largely been a desktop computer phenomenon. Shortly after the Dapper Drake launch, however, as well.
"We started the campaign in August as part of an awareness drive about Ubuntu on the server," Kenyon said. "People typically think of Ubuntu on the desktop, and even members of the broader technology community are unaware of the growth of use of Ubuntu on the server."
The desktop software has attracted fans. Among them is Linux user and RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady. "It's quite impressive," he said of Ubuntu, citing easy software installation, a thriving community of users and a clean, simple design.
"I'm actively contemplating installing it for a few friends and family, because I'm sick of de-spywaring their Windows machines," O'Grady said.
Canonical is donning the trappings of traditional software companies: It's seeking certifications that Ubuntu works with other products, and database giant Oracle has working to ensure its Oracle 10G Express version works on Ubuntu, Kenyon said. It can't yet supply client references, but it has customers among technology companies, financial institutions, start-ups, governments and schools. In addition, the company has a support staff based in Montreal.
Canonical charges $250 per year for PC support during business hours and $2,750 per year for round-the-clock server support. In addition, a number of business partners also offer support, Kenyon said.
That hybrid-support approach means it's not clear that Canonical will get the support revenue, Zachary said. "Will Ubuntu follow the example of Apache Web Server or JBoss? With the Apache Web server, expertise became distributed quickly within organizations, and revenue opportunities were relegated to individual consultants," Zachary said. "With JBoss (application server software), revenue opportunity consolidated around JBoss, which is now part of Red Hat."
It's likely Canonical won't go head-to-head with Red Hat, said Technology Business Research analyst Stuart Williams. Red Hat is a trusted name with big-business customers, who prefer lots of configuration options as opposed to Ubuntu's slimmed-down simplicity. Canonical could be a better fit for around the edges of Red Hat's turf, he said.
"In the high-end server market, Red Hat is untouchable by Canonical," Williams said, noting that the South African company isn't taking the same approach as the Linux leader. "I don't think Canonical is really looking at the enterprise the way Red Hat is. They're looking at department servers, secondary PCs in home or education, and the small business market."
Red Hat suggested that its own approach is suited to demanding customers for whom Canonical holds little appeal. "There are many market segments that are attracted to Linux and open source. Some require minimal support and others require global, comprehensive services for mission-critical environments," Red Hat spokeswoman Leigh Day said.
Novell, which splits its Linux products into the freeand the paid , is more openly skeptical, saying Ubuntu's approach has significant weaknesses.
"By having one common distribution between both the free and paid version, you're either going to compromise quality or compromise innovation," said Justin Steinman, the director of marketing for Linux and open platform solutions at Novell.
While Ubuntu strives to release new versions every April and October, not all are graced with long-term support. Edgy Eft, as a cutting-edge version, will only have 18-month support, for example.
Shuttleworth urged programmers to push the limits by adding new features to that version. "I would encourage members of the community who have been thinking of a cool new feature or plan to seize the opportunity to get it into Edgy. The tradeoff, of course, will be that some of these new ideas will not land perfectly first time. So there may be shakiness, or outright bumpiness, in Edgy," Shuttleworth said on his blog introducing the version. "Risk is good, when you give it a place and a time."
Bumps in the road
Canonical has had hitches with the stable Dapper Drake version, though. The Ubuntu project was stung by criticism after one update disabled the graphical interface for many users in August.
Shuttleworth himself apologized for the glitch and pledged better testing. "We can't afford to take risks with our users' trust, but I balance that with the need to continue to improve the desktop," Shuttleworth said on his blog.
The founder also tried to smooth over rough patches caused by friction between programmers from Ubuntu and those from the Debian Linux version on which Ubuntu is based.
Getting open-source programmers to march in the same direction can be tough. But when it can be accomplished, the product can have an undeniable marketing advantage: Free software can spread quickly to precisely the customers most interested in it. Canonical is just the latest hoping to convert those who try the software into paying customers.
Now it's up to Canonical to make the money, Zachary said. "As we've seen with open-source projects before, with market share comes business opportunity."