As Linux users look forward to the release later in April 2012 of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS, Canonical's decision to cease sponsoring Kubuntu as an official Ubuntu variant has passed largely under the radar -- a sign, perhaps, that Kubuntu's user base is small. But as the first member of the Ubuntu family to lose official endorsement, where is Kubuntu headed? And more importantly, what does its departure mean for the Ubuntu brand as a whole? Read on for some analysis.

Full disclosure: I'm writing this post from a Kubuntu system. Well, actually, it's not pure Kubuntu, but it's close enough -- It's an Ubuntu computer with the kubuntu-desktop package installed. I use the KDE desktop environment almost exclusively these days, because it just works in a universe where so many other Linux interfaces -- namely Unity and GNOME Shell -- still have a bit of maturing to do, to put it simply.

I was therefore sad to read earlier this year that Canonical plans to cease providing official sponsorship for Kubuntu development.

Of course, that news wasn't the end of the world. Even without funds from Canonical or inclusion within the official *buntu family, Kubuntu is perfectly capable of continuing to evolve as a community-based variant of Ubuntu. And its future received further reassurance recently with the announcement that Blue Systems would pick up where Canonical left off by paying Kubuntu developers once again. There's little doubt that Kubuntu's not going anywhere anytime soon.

A Smaller Ubuntu Family

In many ways, as Kubuntu developers themselves observed upon learning that Canonical had decided to cease sponsorship, the decision to end support for a KDE-based version of Ubuntu was not exactly surprising given that GNOME had already effectively been dropped from the Ubuntu lineup when Unity became the default desktop environment in the distribution. Canonical has not explicitly said as much, but it clearly plans to pin the future of desktop Ubuntu to Unity and Unity alone.

That makes sense for several reasons. Beyond the obvious fact that Unity is a homegrown Canonical project linked closely to some of the company's other endeavors, such as the expansion of Ubuntu onto mobile devices and TVs, trimming the lineup of official Ubuntu spins also helps to simplify the Ubuntu brand. And as I've argued before, cleaner and leaner branding is something the open source world would do well to adopt.

On the other hand, I wonder whether the Ubuntu world will retain its dynamism without the diversity of official spinoffs it traditionally counted. If there's one thing open source folk -- and especially open source developers, whose contributions are vital to the success of Ubuntu -- like, it's choice. Repositioning KDE and GNOME as non-official components of the Ubuntu software stack means potentially losing the enthusiasm of talented programmers who are committed to those platforms.

And more generally, I have the sense that Ubuntu is shedding the all-encompassing, universalist spirit that drove the project in its early days. It's been years since the distribution officially labeled itself "Linux for human beings," after all, and the narrowing of its focus to Unity makes it difficult to continue to view the Ubuntu world as a space where all Linux enthusiasts can feel equally at home.

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. Ubuntu does not need to be for everyone. Canonical and Ubuntu can continue to be productive, cooperative and innovative members of the free-software community even without the diversity traditionally associated with Ubuntu. But they will not be what they used to be, and other distributions -- including Linux Mint, which officially supports all the big-name desktop environments -- may assume the position they once held.