Marseille, France is known for a lot of things, among them bouillabaisse stew, hostility toward centralized government and a flourishing drug trade. Yet on a recent trip there I discovered something unexpected: Ubuntu Linux running in a commercial environment. Here's what I found, with some thoughts on where desktop Ubuntu might be headed among small businesses more generally.

Admittedly, my Ubuntu sighting was a modest one: it involved just one kiosk in my hotel, the Newhotel Select, which was offered to guests for general-purpose computing. But there was no doubt that it was Ubuntu.  Here's photographic evidence:

Ubuntu kioskUnfortunately, since I didn't notice the machine until I was already late to catch my train out of the city, I didn't get a chance to figure out which version of Ubuntu it was running. But it was most likely earlier than 11.10, since that release uses LightDM rather than gdm, shown in the picture.  Maybe this means whoever set up the computer wanted to stick with a pre-Unity version of Ubuntu, or maybe the workstation had just not been updated in a while.

Ubuntu and Small Business

Either way, this Ubuntu sighting -- which was quite similar to another one I experienced in northern Scotland just about a year ago -- presents anecdotal proof that Ubuntu remains a viable choice for small businesses. And that's worth keeping in mind at a time when most of Ubuntu's momentum in the commercial world, at least as far as the media and Canonical's own activities suggest, focuses on servers and the workstations of large businesses, rather than small organizations such as independent hotels.

Indeed, although there was a lot of hype in earlier years about the promise Ubuntu offered to small businesses, extending even to the development of specifications for a dedicated Ubuntu Small Business Server, these days Canonical seems to have put that market on the back-burner. It is currently focused instead on promoting desktop Ubuntu as a solution for corporate workstations, while pushing Ubuntu Server in the world of the cloud.

Undoubtedly, those pursuits make sense. After all, profit margins are almost certainly higher when selling Ubuntu support services to large organizations compared to the cash at play among smaller businesses that might consider Ubuntu. And it's often easier to convince large organizations to make the switch to Linux in the first place, since their IT resources are more likely to be managed by professionals already familiar with open source technology, while smaller organizations may not have dedicated IT staff.

Nonetheless, it's important -- for both Canonical and channel partners -- to keep in mind that corporate workstations comprise only one piece of the pie when it comes to desktop Ubuntu in the business world. As kiosks from Provence to Inverness make clear, Ubuntu can and does provide a solid desktop solution in smaller commercial environments as well, and as long as the new Unity interface doesn't stray too far from the tracks, it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.