Canonical's Dell and Lenovo love lets Ubuntu down

Think small to beat the Apple experience


Open...and Shut You probably didn't notice, but a mini-war has been brewing on the Linux desktop. While Apple, Google, Microsoft and others earn billions claiming ground in the mobile computing gold rush, lesser-known open-source organizations like Canonical, Banshee, and Gnome are fighting over sums as small as $3,000 and which desktop UI will win out on Ubuntu.

While serious principles are at stake in the Ubuntu squabbles, a much bigger opportunity threatens to pass the free software crowd by.

That opportunity is relevance in a world where software has been "app-ified" or gone SaaS, and the concept of an isolated desktop computing platform feels prehistoric.

This thought was hammered home for me over the past few weeks while evaluating ZaReason's pleasing Ubuntu-based Teo Pro notebook. With a sleek design, sturdy build, and all-for-Ubuntu engineering, ZaReason's diminutive machine is that rare piece of hardware that treats Ubuntu/Linux as a first-class citizen on a bright and shiny platform.

The problem, however, is that it doesn't go nearly far enough.

Canonical and Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has for years aimed at besting Mac OS X's user experience. But the company still is nowhere near this goal, with the Preferences and System options a study in complexity, not user friendliness. Nothing about the experience felt tailor-made for ZaReason's netbook (beyond the Ubuntu button on the keyboard).

I opted to improve on this by dumping Ubuntu's once-standard Gnome-based interface for the new Canonical-developed Unity interface, which for all its political problems remains a significant improvement in terms of design and simplicity. It feels like it belongs on the ZaReason Teo Pro.

But it's not quite enough. Applications (particularly the browser) crashed from time to time and the screen unlock window kept reappearing for inexplicable reasons. It might have been a ZaReason problem, or it might have been an Ubuntu problem, but the point is that the average user doesn't care. They just want something that works, and the iPhone/iPad have now set a new standard in "just works" simplicity.

So if I were ZaReason, I'd take further advantage of the open-source nature of Ubuntu and strip out every last vestige of Linux's old complexity; anything that might contribute to user confusion or system instability. Every menu item that doesn't immediately make sense to a child. Dump it. (Yes, it seems that ZaReason is trying to provide a "full-bodied" Ubuntu experience, but most people don't want that any more than they want a full Windows experience. Again, witness the success of iOS.)

ZaReason should own the complete user experience. In other words, own both the hardware and Ubuntu. It's open source. It's a right.

As for Canonical, I'd argue the same. Canonical needs to start working with companies like ZaReason much more intimately than it has done in the past. There is so much waste in the operating system that could be filtered out. And, frankly, if Shuttleworth truly wants to best Apple's design DNA, he can't stop at software. Shuttleworth has a good eye for design, but so long as that design is stuck in software, he's missing the chance to create a unified hardware-plus-software(-plus-cloud) experience.

Even HP gets this, and is now talking about an end-to-end computing experience that blends an array of devices, cloud services, and the WebOS platform stitching it all together. No, Shuttleworth's money can't hope to compete with HP's and Apple's billions, but there's at least a viable hope that Shuttleworth's design team could come up with a winning hardware/software combination that wins accolades and users.

For something like this, ZaReason would be a better partner than Canonical's current hardware partners, including Dell and Lenovo. Why? Because they're giants, and have little lasting affinity for Ubuntu.

ZaReason, on the other hand, has devoted its entire business to selling Ubuntu-based devices, and generally to good effect. The Teo Pro - except for the too-small ".", "/", and "," keys, which slowed me down - is a pretty piece of hardware. It's not quite Apple-esque, but perhaps a close partnership, or even merger, with Canonical's design expertise could remedy this? ®

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open-source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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