Ever since Canonical released Unity in 2011 as the default desktop environment for their operating system Ubuntu , there have been angry rumblings from the Linux community over the degradation of desktop experience. Then, in what many took as further provocation, Canonical introduced Amazon.com "Lens" integration, allowing users of Unity to search Amazon directly from their desktop environment by default. This has been widely reviled by the community that once exalted Ubuntu as a shining example of Linux's growing maturity and adoption. Why has Canonical chosen a product path that seems to be progressively upsetting more and more of their core user base? A newly released video from yesterday should being to make this abundantly clear:
I am going to go ahead and say that 2008 was "The Year of the Linux Desktop". Compiz was beginning to make Gnome beautiful. Dell was shipping desktop computers with Ubuntu preinstalled. Flash and Skype, popular applications in the desktop world, both had native Linux support that worked modestly well. A quick look at Google Trends shows Ubuntu, as a search term, peaking in late 2007 and riding high through next few years. Without going into further detail, it's safe to say that, in 2008, you could pick up the phone, order a Linux based desktop computer from major manufacturer that included full warranty and customer support, plug it in yourself in your own home, and expect it to work well.
This was driven, by and large, by quality work that Canonical put in to develop a well rounded, fundamentally solid desktop experience. This is not to discredit the thousands of non-Canonical individuals and groups who contributed the open source pieces that made up the operating system, but rather I am highlighting the fact that Canonical took a bunch of reasonably functional pieces of software and started polishing them, tailoring them towards an experience that your average desktop user wanted. They made sure that hardware drivers installed themselves and that popular software was kept featureful and up to date. The baked in pretty pictures and colors into the desktop themes that had theretofore required a lot of fiddling and customization on behalf of the user. They made Linux approachable.
For this effort, Canonical deserves accolades. They made desktop Linux work. Yet making a free, easy to use desktop environment is hardly a strong business model. And while Canonical was working hard to make a working desktop environment, along came the iPhone, and the computing landscape fundamentally changed.
This took time of course. While the iPhone made a big splash in the market, it took at least a little while for the full impact of their product to be felt. It wasn't until a year after its initial debut that Apple released their app store. Meanwhile, in 2005, Google had purchased Android, but it didn't release their first phone until 2008, a few months after Apple opened their app store.
And even now in 2013, five years after our "Year of the Linux Desktop", the full force of the smartphone takeover is only just beginning to be fully appreciated. Traditional mobile companies like Nokia and Blackberry now appear to be in their death throes. Google only released their popular Chrome browser for their phone in 2012. Tablets like the iPad and Nexus lines have only just started to reach wider adoption by the population in the past year or two. Companies like Mozilla and Opera are shifting strategies to help them find a place in the market. The fallout from the mobile revolution is just hitting the ground, and Canonical can't become a victim.
And so Canonical is adapting their strategy. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say, Canonical has always planned to monetize consumer Ubuntu — mobile is simply giving them the method. If you watch the video above closely, every feature that the Linux community has been criticizing them for looks like it belongs; the features look good on a mobile platform. If anything, Canonical should be praised for integrating with third-party providers like Amazon before pushing their own soft-stores, like iTunes and Play. Yes, Ubuntu comes with the Canonical supported app-store, but that's more out of necessity then anything. On an Ubuntu operating system, it is trivial to install software from other sources.
The Ubuntu users who complain loudest about the direction that the operating system is headed have never been the users Canonical intended on targeting. Prior to Ubuntu's success, desktop Linux had a niche following. When Ubuntu improved upon the desktop experience, many of those people made the switch and convinced their technologically capable friends to do the same. And as Ubuntu continues to evolve past the desktop and on to mobile, those desktop enthusiasts are now feeling left behind. That's because they are being left behind. Canonical has bigger plans for Ubuntu.
Ubuntu had a really good thing going on in the late 2000's. Ubuntu wasn't perfect, but it was building an excellent foundation for an amazing desktop experience. Recently, many point out, their desktop experience feels degraded. However, I am arguing, they still are making a great desktop experience — just for a different consumer.
They are crafting the a unified consumption device; the computing experience that your parents, or your siblings, or your buddy wants. That statement probably doesn't sit well with every reader of this article, but it doesn't change the truth of the matter. When your average computer walks into an Apple store, they are not looking to purchase a highly customizable, minimilistic desktop environment with no bells and whistles. They want an entertainment device, (that they might also be able to do some work on — maybe). I actually found the above video when a graphic designer who I am friends with posted: "Sick UI! Watch all the way to the end." They're not building a system for traditional Linux users; they're building the exact opposite — a system that non-traditional Linux users want to use.
Yet building such a system in the open source world is awesome for "traditional" users, even non-Ubuntu users. The stability and software improvements that get introduced into the Linux ecosystem due to this are practically invaluable. Graphic card companies, like AMD, NVIDIA, and Intel are drastically improving the quality of their drivers, pushed by companies like Valve. Stability in desktop systems has improved by leaps and bounds as have support avenues on the web. All the changes that Ubuntu is driving in their mobile efforts are trickling into projects like Linux Mint, projects that don't have the business motives of Canonical, but do reap its benefits. Whether you use Ubuntu or not, there should be no doubt in your mind that desktop Linux stands to benefit from having a major player in market working to increase adoption.