A year ago, I was about ready to write off Ubuntu as a Linux distribution for end users -- and I did for a while, when I switched to Linux Mint. (I've since learned to love Ubuntu again.) Today, though, Canonical appears committed to pursuing the consumer market with renewed vigor, targeting not just desktops but also tablets, smartphones and TVs as part of what some representatives are framing as a the "Ubuntu convergence story." Will it succeed?
When I moved away from Ubuntu last year, it was due mostly to dissatisfaction with the Unity interface. Although Unity had some promise, especially for bridging traditional desktop Linux to other types of devices, I didn't have the patience to wait around for it to grow up. Fast forward to the present, however, and Unity is finally quite usable (although I confess that, even on my Ubuntu 12.10 desktop, I usually run GNOME, which I just like more), helping to restore my faith in Canonical's ability to succeed over the longterm even in areas where it comes up short at first.
Meanwhile, Canonical has also made some huge leaps over the last several months toward conquering non-traditional hardware devices. I admit that, when Mark Shuttleworth first began talking last year about things like Ubuntu TV, I wasn't too impressed -- both because Linux-powered TVs, the first new type of device on which Canonical set its sights, were not a totally new idea (see MythTV) and because I was waiting for the company to show the money by actually delivering concretely on its promises. I remained similarly incredulous when talk of Ubuntu phones and tablets began proliferating last fall.
Now, however, Canonical has begun putting its money where its mouth is on these various fronts (and, in the process, showing users that all the painful adjustment associated with Unity was maybe worth it, since the interface clearly offers advantages on new types of hardware). Canonical developers have gotten Ubuntu running on Google's Nexus 7 tablet, and the company has introduced a broader tablet agenda that it promises to detail this week at the MWC event in Barcelona. It has also made progress on Ubuntu phones.
To be sure, there are plenty of caveats associated with these advances. Not all hardware devices are supported -- actually, the line up of phones, tablets and TVs that come close to working with Ubuntu is pretty slim at the moment. And in most cases Ubuntu for these various devices, even the ones on which it does work, remains in the development phase. It's not clear when consumer-ready products will appear. But Canonical has demonstrated, by most indications, that achieving the ambitious goals it set for itself is feasible.
Canonical's Big Picture
And perhaps even more importantly, the company has aligned its various offerings in the emerging-hardware domain to forge a new vision of Ubuntu as a truly multi-platform, comprehensive productivity environment. As Ubuntu "Community Manager" Jono Bacon put it recently, all this work is part of the "wider Ubuntu convergence story."
That approach is totally novel to the open-source channel. Never before has an open-source vendor tried to turn a Linux-based operating system into a lifestyle platform to rival the likes of Apple or Microsoft. Granted, Canonical has a long, long way to go, and a lot left to prove, before it can claim success in this area. But it has already made some palpable progress, and it just may pull off something that will make its current activity in the cloud pale in comparison to Ubuntu for the desktop/TV/phone/tablet/etc.