Ubuntu: The Open Source Apple Challenger?

Mark Shuttleworth’s vision
I know I’m not the only Ubuntu user blogging about Mark Shuttleworth saying he wants to make Ubuntu better-looking than OS X in the next two years. He also says

I can’t say we will succeed at this, but we will make a significant attempt to elevate the Linux desktop to the point where it is as good or better than Apple. We’ll also open up the debate to a broad community, rather than just software engineers—we’ll preserve the bazaar, but also redefine what success means for this particular crowd, so things are not just stable but also lovely. We can’t outspend Microsoft or Apple in terms of user-interface studies or the like, but we can invest in this.

I have a lot of respect for Mark Shuttleworth. He made a lot of money off open source, saw and filled a niche in the Linux community, and recognized the need for a balance between being a total corporate sellout and a total free software zealot.

But I think he’s either, in recent interviews, not sharing his total vision for Ubuntu, or not realizing why people like Mac OS X.

What’s so great about Macs and Apple anyway?
My wife is a Mac user. She has her Macbook Pro (recently traded up from a Powerbook), her iPhone, and her iPod (now a portable hard drive, since the iPhone is now her music player). I love Ubuntu and my Eee PC on which I’ve loaded it. I know, though, that no matter how much I like Ubuntu, my wife is having a better computing experience. It doesn’t have to do with software quality or availability, pretty looks, or hardware peripherals support.

In one of his recent MacWorld Expo keynotes, Steve Jobs talked about recognizing the importance of tightly integrating software and hardware. I don’t like how he’s locked people into his hardware with his software (right now Apple has already filed suit against Psystar, which recently began selling Mac OS X-preinstalled non-Apple computers), but he is right about how important that tight integration is.

What Apple offers you, and you realize this the moment you walk into an Apple store, is a total experience. You want a computer? They’ll sell you computers that are designed to work with the software on them. You want a portable music player? They’ll sell you one that’s designed to work with the music software on the computer they just sold you. You want a TV accessory for watching YouTube videos and renting movies and TV shows? They’ll sell you that, too. The software programs all talk to each other, and the software talks to the hardware, and the hardware is all meant to complement well the other hardware.

Yes, I have my criticisms of Apple and Mac OS X, just as many Ubuntu fans do. I don’t find Mac OS X intuitive at all. I don’t like DRM in the iTunes music store. I don’t like how they actively fight against people trying to use non-iTunes software to sync iPods. I don’t like how their end user license agreement makes you use only Apple computers with Mac OS X. Nevertheless, they’re doing something way beyond making good or beautiful software.

The Canonical store
This is what I would love to see, Mark Shuttleworth, and maybe it might take more than even your hundreds of millions to get set up, but I’m dreaming here. It’s okay to dream, I hope. For Ubuntu to surpass Apple, there should be a Canonical store—a brick and mortar store. You can start with a couple of them—maybe one in London, one in New York—and expand from there.

A Canonical store would be much like an Apple store. There would be computers on display that ran Ubuntu and were guaranteed to work with Ubuntu in every way (no non-working resume-from-suspend, or no it-worked-in-a-previous-version-but-after-you-upgrade-there-might-be-a-sound-problem). There would be portable media players that were designed to work well with Rhythmbox and vice versa. These would also be on display. There would be Canonical cinema displays that played nice with Xorg, so all you would have to do is plug it in, click on an icon on the Gnome panel to auto-detect displays and have an extended desktop with proper screen resolutions on both your Ubuntu laptop and the Canonical cinema display. You would be able to buy Ogg and MP3 songs from major and independent music labels through a Rhythmbox plugin (the Magnatune and Jamendo plugins they have now are a good start). More importantly, all the printers and other peripherals sold at the Ubuntu store would be guaranteed to work with Ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s fruit would be free
How, some of you Ubuntu users are wondering, would this be any different from the Apple store? It sounds like an exact clone of Apple. We don’t want to be Apple. We want to be Ubuntu. We want to be different. We are not Windows. We are not Mac OS X. We are a Linux distribution. If people want a Mac, they should get a Mac. Leave them to their iPods and Apple TVs. This would be different, though, my dream Canonical store. It would be different in the only important way that Linux is different from OS X and Windows—the software would be open source.

It’s about software freedom, and that’s what the Canonical store would provide you with. Yes, there would be a limited number of default and recommended hardware combinations available at the Canonical store, but if Psystar (provided it still exists after the Apple lawsuit) wanted to sell Ubuntu preinstalled computers, instead of suing Psystar, Canonical would partner with Psystar. People could buy hardware from the Canonical store if they wanted their hardware to be guaranteed to work well with Ubuntu, but nothing would stop geeks from buying Linux-friendly hardware from NewEgg or TigerDirect (they could scour the out-of-date entries in Ubuntu Wiki entry on hardware support while the general public would walk into a Canonical store and not worry about doing all the research). Rhythmbox would be designed to work well with whatever portable media player Canonical sold, but the specs would be open so that anyone could use a regular MSC transfer on other portable media players.

If Ubuntu sets that up, I think they might actually have a chance of beating Apple, but it also means getting into the hardware business (or setting up a very close partnership with a hardware vendor).

What direction will Canonical go?
Of course, one could argue that Canonical could go the way of Microsoft and stay a software company (only with free software instead of proprietary software), but Windows can work that way because vendors support it instead of Windows supporting itself. You end up having to install a lot of drivers and software after a Windows installation just to get basic functionality. An Apple approach would be much more in line with a Ubuntu user experience, especially since the Linux kernel provides the drivers for hardware and package management provides all the software for the end user.

The Microsoft approach is “We make the operating system and very little else. All you hardware and software companies better just make sure your stuff works with our operating system.”

The Apple approach is “We make the operating system and the computers and the software. We’ll bundle it all together and make sure it works well together. It’d be awesome if you third-party people made your stuff work with our stuff, too.”

What should Canonical’s approach be? In my dream world (and I hope Mark Shuttleworth agrees with this), it would be “We make the operating system and highly recommend these computer configurations in order to work well with our software and will bundle everything together, but we have opened up the source code and specs for everything, so if you want to go a way other than our way, go for it. We fully support you in branching off and using something else.”

That might take care of Bug #1, or at least help Canonical surpass Apple.


  1. “Mark Shuttleworth [says] he wants to make Ubuntu better-looking than OS X in the next two years”

    My greatest fear when I read this is that Ubuntu will end up with tons more “eye-candy”. I have seen Mac OS-X and I hate the animated whiz-bang nonsense interface. It is as bad as Vista Aero.

    We are using Ubuntu 8.04 right now. We love the Gnome desktop because it is so simple, basic and utilitarian. That is the look we like, because it is functional.

    I would prefer that if people want “eye candy” they use Kubuntu and KDE 4 and leave us utilitarians to Gnome and Ubuntu.

    “Perfection is not achieved when there is nothing left to add; perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away.” – Zen proverb

  2. Just because Shuttleworth says he wants Ubuntu to be better looking than OS X in 2 years means one thing….. We need something flashy to bring in the typical “sheep” computer user. Typical computer purchasers like eye-candy, it is a fact. That does not mean you can’t customize the UI to however you want it.

    I like some eye-candy personally so I can show off to my “sheep” user friends who just take a stock PC from Best Buy or Dell and leave it as is because they are afraid to “break” their systems. Linux is all about choice and no matter how “pretty” it becomes, you can still make it what you want.

  3. The problem is, the eye-candy on OS X runs well because of this hardware and software integration. This would not be the case with Gnome, certainly not current Gnome and Ubuntu integration does not exist. Sometimes I wish for it and sometimes I love the modularity. But asking the Linux community to go down the road of non-modularity (which is what it will ultimately be) will be difficult.

  4. I totally agree with your idea of a “Canonical Store” or similar Gnu/Linux effort. I bought an HP Mini 110 recently on clearance sale (WinXP version). I chose that over other cheap netbooks precisely because I knew HP offered pre-installed Linux at one point for that model. I reasoned that they had done the work to integrate their hardware with Linux, therefore it would be easy for me to install Ubuntu on the machine. In general this was true, but I continue to have annoying little sound glitches (which is how I found your site ). That just doesn’t happen with OS-X. The reason OS-X “just works” is tight hardware / software integration.

  5. I don’t quite follow Shuttleworth’s statement committing more eyecandy to Ubuntu. I can customize every aspect to my preferences. Currently using 8.10 w/ Compiz (0.70 ?), it was just a matter of adding AWN & volia! I now have a better “experience” than anything offered in Win 7 or OSX (yes, I’ve used them both frequently).

    That’s not saying Gnome/Nautilus/Ubuntu integration is perfect, but really, the “bugs” aren’t even worth mentioning compared to my experiences in those “traditional” systems.

    Rather than Canonical opening a retail shop (which seems to be a rather wasteful “trend”), I’d prefer they work close w/ hardware manufacturer’s to provide proper non-propriety drivers (I’m looking @ you Nvidia).

    Regarding Psystar, they’re using “open source”… sure (the quotes are for sarcasm).

    Take a look @ System76. I can’t recall the name, but there’s another company in California. A bit of a shame Canonical’s “System Builder” program page really gives no useful info about it’s enrollment requirements and process.

    Because @ the end of the day, all the eyecandy in the world doesn’t matter if the system isn’t stable.

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