As of next month, Canonical's Ubuntu One file-syncing service will be 3 years old. Since its introduction it has evolved considerably and taken some unexpected turns. At this juncture, then, it seems appropriate to ask: What is Ubuntu One, exactly? What makes it different and where is it headed in the future? Read on for some thoughts.

To be sure, there's no shortage of file-syncing services available today. From Dropbox to iCloud to ownCloud's do-it-yourself open source platform, the market for these types of products is pretty saturated. But they all differ from one another to varying degrees, and it's in their details that their long-term viability as commercial ventures will play out.

Ubuntu One and Its Competitors

At the moment, Ubuntu One is similar to Dropbox and other hosted file-syncing platforms in that it offers free and for-purchase tiers of service, with paying users enjoying more storage space. The business model is pretty standard: no surprises here.

But what makes Ubuntu One stand out, at least partially, are the following features:
  • Music streaming, a feature offered for $3.99 per month or $39.99 per year that extends Ubuntu One beyond the basic functionality associated with most file-syncing services.
  • Developer APIs, which enable both programmers to integrate other applications and services with Ubuntu One. So far there's been little apparent endorsement of this feature by third-party developers (the fact that the section of the Ubuntu One Web portal dedicated to developers is embarrassingly fraught with typos has probably not helped inspire confidence), but Canonical has pushed out several tools based on the APIs, including most recently Send to Ubuntu One.
  • GPLv3 licensing, at least for the Ubuntu One client. The server-side software remains proprietary, a fact that does not sit well with open source purists. Still, given that most other file-syncing services -- ownCloud being the major exception -- are fully closed source, it is significant that at least part of the Ubuntu One code is free.
None of these characteristics is radically unique. There are plenty of other music streaming services available, some of which can be integrated with file-syncing platforms easily enough. Most mature data-storage products offer APIs. And once again, ownCloud provides a fully open source solution for file syncing, although it does not offer hosting itself. (Some of its partners do.)

Ubuntu One, Past and Future

But put together, these features distinguish Ubuntu One from most competitors in both the open and closed source worlds. The question is, are they enough to turn the platform into a viable revenue stream for Canonical over the long term?

The fact that the service has been around already for nearly three years, and continues to receive nuturing from Canonical, suggests that the company, at least, believes the platform is worthy of deep investment. And it may be right.

But I wonder if Ubuntu One wouldn't be more attractive if its existing features were rounded out or developed more fully. In other words, rather than focusing on different strengths that don't really complement one another in any direct way, Canonical might attract more users to the service if it offered a more complete, integrated Ubuntu One package.

That would mean things such as adding video streaming on top of music. It's 2012, after all, and providing music without video is like serving cake with no ice cream or frosting (which, incidentally, is how my kindergarten teacher used to make us celebrate birthdays, a deprivation about which I'm still bitter now): It's not a complete solution for most consumers.

Along similar lines, Canonical should really think about opening up all of the Ubuntu One code, which would enable it to push the open source angle of the service more strongly. That would appeal not only to free-software fans committed to open source ideology, but also, at a pragmatic level, to developers and users interested in more customizability than most file-syncing APIs -- whether Ubuntu One's or those of other platforms -- currently offer.

But all this said, Canonical doubtless has its reasons for taking Ubuntu One in the direction it has. It will be interesting to see where the service lands in a year's time, as it continues to evolve and gain a clearer idea of what it wants to be.