Canonical: A company in dire need of a clear objective.

Canonical recently debuted their “Orange Box,” an OpenStack Cloud demo. Only recently did Canonical decide to embrace OpenStack and it was a smart decision as OpenStack is well positioned to eventually become an industry leader in the Cloud space. The decision left the competitive Eucalyptus in the dust, an original choice for Canonical at a time when other vendors were scrambling to build up their Cloud offerings.
You live you learn, right? Not all companies will make the right decision from the beginning, which is why you need to adapt in order to succeed, although how many bad decisions does a company need to make? Canonical has a long history in which some can say, they did not make the right choice. Let us take a look at some of these, shall we?
Who remembers the Ubuntu Netbook Edition or UNE (formerly Ubuntu Netbook Remix)? At about 2009/10, netbooks were all the rage. The technology produced, low powered, low cost, and extremely portable PCs. The netbook (and Microsoft marketing) would eventually drive hardware vendors to produce the Ultrabook. Many distribution spins were created to accommodate this netbook market and that included Ubuntu. Canonical would even work closely with Dell, to deliver a Moblin flavored distribution. As soon as it appeared, it disappeared, although all was not lost. The fundamental design for the UNE would inspire Unity.
At around the same time, distributions were all opting to replace the archaic init process with a more robust and up-to-date version. Flame wars raged between projects which included Upstart to systemd (and a few others). However, the majority of distributions selected systemd while Ubuntu, Upstart. Upstart worked great, in the beginning but had its issues. Only recently did the Ubuntu developers announce the migration to systemd.
Since then Canonical decided to migrate from the traditional GNOME Desktop interface and to a more unique approach named Unity. Many were apprehensive about the change (as was the case with KDE4 and GNOME 3, when they were first released) but I for one have grown accustomed to it and do not mind it one bit. Although, their replacing the bloated X with a custom display server called Mir, instead of helping out with the already in development Wayland is beyond me.
To hop onto the mobile bandwagon, Canonical started porting its operating system in many fashions. Ubuntu for Android (cancelled a couple of months ago) is one such example. They also started working on a version for Tablets (which you do not hear much about) and have even unsuccessfully campaigned the Ubuntu Edge on Indiegogo.
They continue to promote Ubuntu TV, although no official and stable download is available. I remember seeing this at CES a few years back.
Most recently Canonical announced the end of their file synchronization service to Ubuntu One. Much like a lot of other folks at the time [it was introduced], Canonical provided a convenient service, well integrated into the operating system, to synchronize personal data to the Cloud. Apps were made available for Android and iOS. Google had been doing it. Microsoft started to do it. You also had Dropbox and many more providers of similar services. They all offered free or low cost storage. It proved to be not a sustainable model for Canonical which is why they decided to shut the service down.
On a more humorous note, founder and leader, Mark Shuttleworth already started hinting at replacing the Ubuntu developed Ubuntu Software Center with a more visually appealing AppGrid.
My Two Bytes
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not trying to attack Canonical, that is not my intent. They make a good Desktop and Server product. I use Ubuntu as my main development laptop and on all my personally used server deployments. It is convenient and extremely easy to manage. The purpose of this rant is to bring focus to a problem which I hope they address soon. I wish to see the company succeed in their endeavors.
To quote Steve Jobs in his advice to Larry Page:

“Figure out what Google wants to be when it grows up. It’s now all over the map.”

Canonical needs to sit down and do some soul searching. It needs to figure out what it wants to be and then define how it will get there. This will mean it needs to keep its offerings to a limited few and apply focus to only those solution(s). Only then will they truly succeed. This balancing act cannot last forever. It will not be an easy task, however. Canonical is a company of engineers. They think like engineers and they market themselves like engineers. Not all customers respond well to engineers. The idea of parading an Ubuntu Cloud box may not be their best tactic to convince others to adopt Ubuntu’s OpenStack implementation. Aside from focus, they will need a very convincing and aggressive marketing team.

5 thoughts on “Canonical: A company in dire need of a clear objective.

  • To be fair: It is really easy to criticize decisions long after the fact. Hindsight is always perfect after all. Most of the listed decisions were reasonable back when they were made.

    Upstart was even groundbreaking at the time. I am pretty sure we would all still be stuck with sysv init without upstart.

    So running with upstart was a great decision back then, just as switching to systemd is today.

    I have to agree with the comment on mir though.

    • Karl, you are not wrong that it is easy to criticize after the fact but with regards to trying to compete in emerging markets and spreading oneself thin, well, there is a lesson to be learned.

  • Mir is exactly the same as Apple’s Quartz, which is basically trying to create a vendor lock in situation. Even though Mir is opensource, if no one is using it except Canonical, thats exactly what you get. Very similar to Google using opensource to build their systems (android, chromeos) and slowly over time replacing opensource technologies with their own versions. They usually, funny enough, pick very important key pieces, such as ‘display servers’.

    • Ronnie, you are correct. I remember when Google replaced eglibc with their bionic. As time progresses, I imagine we will be seeing more changes in Android (and Chrome OS).

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