Occupy Linux: Ubuntu Unity and making a Linux for more than the 1%

Go Big Or Go HomeThe most recent release of Ubuntu Linux, Ubuntu 11.10, included a big change — a shift from the standard GNOME desktop environment to a new one, called Unity. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can take it for a test drive here without needing to download or install anything.)

I had my reservations about Unity, but after using it for a while I can report that I’ve been pleasantly surprised; it’s easy to use and really does make some common tasks easier.

If you listen to some corners of the Linux community, though, you’d think that Unity was the worst thing since Nickelback. Here’s a representative sample, helpfully titled “Why Ubuntu 11.10 fills me with rage” so you know immediately that it’s Serious Business:

Look, I’ve been using Unity for the last six months, which is almost as long as I have been using Mac OS X, and I’m still completely disoriented.

I understand fully what Canonical is trying to do with the user interface, which is to make it palatable to Joe Average End User. I dig that, really. But there’s no way to really customize your desktop and make it optimized for the way you work.

With all due respect to Jason Perlow, the guy who wrote that piece for ZDNet: no, you don’t get what Canonical is trying to do.

What Canonical is trying to do is much bigger than what side of the screen the Ubuntu desktop dock sits on. Much bigger. Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth spelled out just how big in Bug #1 in the Ubuntu bug tracker:

Ubuntu Bug #1

Bug #1: Microsoft has a majority market share
Reported by Mark Shuttleworth on 2004-08-20

Microsoft has a majority market share in the new desktop PC marketplace.
This is a bug, which Ubuntu is designed to fix…

Steps to repeat:1. Visit a local PC store.

What happens:
2. Observe that a majority of PCs for sale have non-free software pre-installed.
3. Observe very few PCs with Ubuntu and free software pre-installed.

What should happen:
1. A majority of the PCs for sale should include only free software like Ubuntu.
2. Ubuntu should be marketed in a way such that its amazing features and benefits would be apparent and known by all.
3. The system shall become more and more user friendly as time passes.

That bug, opened when the Ubuntu project first began, makes it clear what Shuttleworth’s goal for Ubuntu was and is: nothing less than to become the standard OS for personal computers.

The problem that Unity is trying to solve is that we’re now seven years out from the opening of that bug, and Ubuntu doesn’t really look like it’s any closer to being able to close it than they were when the project started.

Don’t get me wrong — Ubuntu has come a long way since then.  In fact, in that time, it’s gone from an idea to the most polished, sophisticated incarnation of the Linux desktop available anywhere. But what Ubuntu has discovered is that being the best Linux desktop isn’t enough by itself to close Bug #1.

It’s notoriously difficult to get firm figures for desktop OS marketshare. But every estimate I’ve ever seen puts Ubuntu’s slice of the pie at around 1% of the global PC marketplace. 1% of “a lot” is still a lot, but it’s not a majority. It’s not even close to a majority. It’s more like a rounding error. And despite all its improvements, Ubuntu has been stubbornly stuck at that level of market share for years now. In some respects, it’s actually gone backwards; you used to be able to buy PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed from Dell’s online store, for instance, but today you cannot. In a world where the vast majority of users get their operating system pre-installed when they buy a new PC rather than installing it themselves, that’s a huge loss. And it’s directly caused by the market share problem.

If you’re Mark Shuttleworth, paying to develop Ubuntu out of your own (deep, but not infinitely so) pockets, and your goal is to make Ubuntu into the world’s default operating system, all this is a real cause for concern. Platforms need to get to double-digit market share for people to take them seriously as real contenders — for developers to start writing apps for them, for OEMs to start bundling them with PCs, and so forth — and Shuttleworth needs people to take Ubuntu seriously to get it to a point where it can reach his goal.

This is the point that most of the criticism I’ve seen of Unity has missed. There’s been lots of people griping about they don’t like Unity because of the ways in which it departs from the usual Linux desktop experience. To them, this departure is a bug. But to Ubuntu, it is a feature, because there is no evidence that the usual Linux desktop experience is compelling enough to win significant market share. If Ubuntu has to choose between doing something the usual way or doing something the way they think will win users, they will do it the latter way, because there’s no reason to believe that doing it the former way will ever get them to a point where they can finally close Bug #1.

That’s a perspective that is guaranteed to piss off plenty of current Ubuntu users, who liked the usual way of doing things — or, at least, had grown used to it. But, and this is the big “but,” if you’re one of those people who cherish the “traditional” Linux desktop experience, you need to realize that Ubuntu’s goal is not to serve you. You are, quite literally, the one percent. Ubuntu’s goal is to make a desktop that works for the 99%. If they can do that while serving you at the same time, that’s great, but if they can’t you shouldn’t be surprised to find them on the other side of the drum circle.

None of this is to say that Unity is guaranteed to Occupy Linux and make Ubuntu the Linux for the 99%. It may well fail to reach that lofty goal. And it’s not to say that Linux for the 1% is going away anytime soon, either — there’s plenty of distros, from Debian (which forms the core of Ubuntu anyway) to Fedora to Mint et al., who will happily step up to serve you.

But if the goals of the Ubuntu project are to be taken even halfway seriously, Canonical had to do something to elevate the standard Linux desktop experience to a level where people — developers, OEMs, but most of all ordinary users — would be attracted to it. And Unity is how they’re trying to do that. If your complaints about it are rooted in the ways it diverges from the norm, you’re missing the point.


that alien

December 8, 2011
1:12 pm

excellent review and discussion jason, i’ll have to rss to see more of this.

Brian Cohen

December 8, 2011
2:59 pm

I would say that to get market share, polishing a desktop environment is a small aspect of the bigger picture. Divert your attention to the Ubuntu Software Center, which provides a framework for software for Linux to be distributed and purchased. If you want Linux to capture more of the market, you need to compete with existing niche markets such as gaming (Windows) and music/video production (OS X) without having to use WINE or obscure software.


December 9, 2011
1:33 pm

If you go ahead and change your desktop interface in a way that repels all of your users, you lose all those avenues of free advertising and support that made Ubuntu great. This is not the path to take.

If you want Ubuntu to become the most popular OS, you need to make it easy to install closed-source firmwares like those from broadcom, and you need to help create softwares that replace the proprietary systems Mac and Windows people are used to: simple and easy desktop automation, like OS X offers, and an easy-to-use cross-platform executable creator, like VisualBasic.

And that will only scratch the surface; people want to be able to play games like Skyrim, use commercial closed-source software like Adobe CS, Maya, and AutoCAD. So, you will need to make agreements with the big vendors, to persuade them to make software for your platform. At that point, you will probably want to find some source of revenue. Don’t charge too much, or people will not buy it. Also prepare to be attacked; if Ubuntu became a viable competitor to OS X or Windows, you had better believe they would fire up their litigation machines and claim prior art; that’s just how they operate. Especially Apple.

James Harris

December 9, 2011
7:18 pm

I am pretty sure unity came with the release of ubuntu 11.04, not ubuntu 11.10.


December 27, 2011
8:33 am

The trivialized and inaccurate subjective 1%-99% division notwithstanding, if the goal of some entity is to acquire a large market share in the OS market, then that entity had better studied all the complex reasons and methods why and how the few players who have the most of it have grabbed it: there are some historical reasons (the opportunities offered by big capital at the beginning of the PC revolution to proprietary software vendors, etc.) as well as shrewd strategies most of which have nothing to do with technique, technology, user-friendliness, or quality (safety etc.) that made hodge-podge systems a success. In the IT world, money begets money … if a new micro-small player wants to enter and carve a niche, it cannot be by imitation. The availability of software vendors (and big capital) to cater to the proprietary software market exclusively is both the cause as well as the effect of the business model of proprietary software; if you take the question of availability of those softwares and their vendors away, the only proprietary softwares that are purposefully user-friendly seem to be coming exclusively from Apple, and they too are determined to limit that user-friendliness by controlling the hardware-software content to the last detail. Otherwise, for programmer-users, the most friendly softwares are exclusively from the GNU/Linux communities. If big capital is all focused on providing tools for gaming and the excess of idle entertainment to such an extent that those who can afford their wares are reduced to consumer-automatons, that’s very good. The suppliers and consumers are serving each other well. As it is, they together will be 1% of 1% of all the people in the world! On the other hand, that GNU/Linux installed on a single machine serves so many people (look at all the network servers) many of whom can put the service to better use, is more reassuring. What is more worrisome is that GNU/Linux communities, after achieving more visibility than earlier, begin taking the proprietary software business model as the wisest one, and apparent leaders in these communities start blurting out cheap marketing aphorisms made popular by some shallow management gurus as if they had the “majority market share of all the wisdom”! If just market share percentages tell us what is best and advisable, then perhaps we need to introduce disorganization and virus-susceptibility into GNU/Linux! What happens to Ubuntu is immaterial (even if it succeeds in getting a large market share at the cost of proprietary softwares); GNU/Linux communities are more important. With Android, the market share in the PC market may become irrelevant; perhaps the real free-proprietary war has already moved to the handsets market.


January 8, 2012
12:16 am

Yeah what the last poster said …. i am typing this on a Ubuntu server notebook via a handset running android the Anonymous droids have awoken!!!