In recent weeks Canonical has announced major initiatives to sell Ubuntu PCs in Asia and Europe, just like it tried -- and mostly failed -- to do five years ago in the United States. But will things be different this time?  Here are some thoughts.

Five years ago, when Dell began shipping laptops and desktops in the United States with Ubuntu pre-installed, there were lots of reasons to believe Linux just might take off among the masses. Dell not only offered Ubuntu but actually promoted it for a while. The introduction of Windows Vista around the same time left many consumers eager to consider alternatives to the Microsoft universe.

But fast forward to the present and times have changed. Dell has all but abandoned its commitment to Ubuntu in the United States; meanwhile, although Canonical has been pushing Ubuntu for enterprise desktops, the only vendors currently shipping Linux PCs to individual American consumers are the small (but formidable) outfits of ZaReason and System76.

Ubuntu Around the World

Yet if selling Linux PCs to Americans in large volume turned out to be as unsuccessful for Canonical as it was for companies that attempted the same thing in the 1990s and earlier 2000s, that hasn't prevented the organization from shifting focus to other parts of the world.

Indeed: In late-October Canonical announced plans to sell Ubuntu-powered computers in China. The PCs will again be manufactured by Dell, but this time -- unlike in the American experiment of five years ago -- they'll be for sale in retail stores.

And just last week a similar initiative launched in Portugal, with Ubuntu in this case shipping on Asus Eee PC 1215P systems.

What's different this time around in Canonical's plan to bring Ubuntu to regular consumers? Beyond the fact that the PCs are now being sold in stores, rather than only through Dell's mail-order website, Canonical seems to be investing more in integrating the Ubuntu machines into the larger consumer ecosystems. In the Chinese case, at least, Canonical promises stores:
will feature Ubuntu on a range of Dell computers, and will carry branded marketing collateral in-store, trained staff positioning the benefits and advantages of Ubuntu to consumers and will be supported by a retail team of Ubuntu merchandisers.
That's a big change from what happened in the United States, where Ubuntu received only minimal marketing, and where there was no sign of real investment in training sales or support personnel for the new product.

On the other hand, Canonical also faces an uphill battle in both of these countries. While China is an emerging market with increasing numbers of consumers, the ubiquity there of pirated versions of Windows -- not to mention the entrenchment of the homegrown Red Flag Linux distribution -- means that Canonical faces substantial competition. And the situation's no better in Portugal, where the market's pretty saturated already with proprietary operating systems.

Either way, it's reassuring for the open source community to see Canonical continuing to invest in desktop Linux, even if the going won't necessarily be easy. It proves that even after two decades of lackluster results, there may be a future yet for commercial Linux on the PC.