Comparing Apples to Jackalopes
Mark Shuttleworth, the man at the helm of Canonical and Ubuntu, went into greater detail last week about his thoughts on making future Ubuntu releases more user-focused. In the past, Shuttleworth has made no pretense that he feels Apple has, historically, offered a superior user experience.
Shuttleworth's comments have elicited striking reactions, ranging from enthusiastic support to concern about what "innovation" really means.
Ubuntu is a new distribution. It differed from its contemporaries from the beginning. Was Linux making its way toward the desktop market? Yes. There were prior distributions that had some desktop end user appeal -- SuSE, Mandrake and even further in the murky past, Lindows. But the primary focus of Linux was (and, in many distributions, remains) the server market.
Ubuntu took the firm framework of Debian's package management and the stability of the kernel, and transformed it into something a little more palatable for "regular" end users. Certainly the Ubuntu project didn't invent the idea of multimedia playback in Linux, or desktop environments, just like the project didn't create the packaging system or the command line that runs underneath the graphical server.
What the Ubuntu project did was still, without a doubt, extraordinary. It is hard to tell, looking back, what it was that made Ubuntu take flight. Was it the mix of applications included in the distribution by default? Could it have been the liveCD and the Ubiquity installer? Was it just strong branding coupled with a vocal, enthusiastic community? Was it all of these factors, occurring in the right place, at the right time?
It just can't not be said. The Ubuntu project knew, as the folks at Apple might say, how to "think differently."
Shuttleworth's comments on where Ubuntu should go from here aren't surprising, or unreasonable. They seem like a well-planned segue leading to the next chapters in the Ubuntu story arc.
Is he saying that all Ubuntu needs is further cosmetic work on an interface? It doesn't seem likely. It doesn't mean that there won't be user interface changes. It would seem, though, if the Ubuntu approach to envisioning the project's future holds true, its developers will be encouraged to look at how non-developers use their computers.
Will Ubuntu venture further from its server roots, and forge a new path, using the most beneficial of "old school" Linux server components, infused with applications and interactions that will appeal to the "average" home computer user? If so, will it even catch on?
It is far too early to tell, especially in light of the fact the Ubuntu Developer Summit is still a while off. With the project's history, however, there seems little need to worry about "thinking different" simply leading to more of the same.