Divided we stand, Unity-ed we fall? Why Microsoft should pay attention to the history of Linux
October 28, 2012 | 8:16 am
By Jon Jermey
Here it is at last, folks—a brand new operating system for the iGeneration! Straight from the market’s leading software manufacturer, specifically designed for tablets and smartphones, it’s free from all that tiresome text and crammed with brightly-colored blobs! Move them around, tap them, press them, fondle them! It’s a whole new way of interacting with your phone, your PC, your fridge, your spouse! Yes, it’s here, it’s now, it’s the revolutionary innovation of 2011—it’s Unity!
Wait … what? You thought I was talking about Windows 8? Sorry, folks, but for those of us who embrace the Linux way of life, all the hype and palaver surrounding Windows 8 has a very familiar ring. It’s more or less the same schtick that the UK-based Canonical company used in 2011 to introduce a new interface for its Ubuntu operating system. How did that work out, you ask?
First, a little background. Linux has been available as an operating system for desktop PCs for about ten years now. With most systems it’s possible to run Linux as the core ‘engine,’ with a choice of different interfaces, and the most popular of these have always been GNOME and KDE. GNOME is more or less comparable to Windows XP, while KDE is both more complex and more powerful, like the Apple Macintosh system. By 2011 both of them had been under development for over ten years and were user-friendly and highly effective.
The leading Linux software company at that time was Canonical Ltd, founded by Mark Shuttleworth. Canonical was founded with the short-term aim of developing and giving away a free open-source Linux-based operating system for desktop PCs, and the long-term goal of providing commercial support for that system on large installations. The name chosen for the OS was ‘Ubuntu‘, a South African word meaning ‘humanity towards others’. Ubuntu used the GNOME interface, but Canonical also provided a KDE version called Kubuntu. With a free version upgrade every six months, and a focus on user-friendliness, by late 2010 Ubuntu had become the dominant Linux distro in a very competitive market.
There are many different versions of exactly what happened then, and why. We know that the developers of both KDE and GNOME were plagued with legacy issues, and decided to release radical new versions to overcome these. Perhaps anticipating a turbulent period anyway, Canonical took the opportunity to radically redesign their GUI. The blobby, icon-y, highly-colored, text-free result was called ‘Unity‘. It was released as the default interface for the April 2012 version of Ubuntu.
The Linux community reacted the same way as the Windows community has to Windows 8. Some people loved it, most people hated it. Canonical representatives patiently explained that all we had to do was persevere and things would become clear in time, but users who had spent hundreds of hours already learning a perfectly good operating system weren’t convinced. Within a few months there was a steady movement away from Ubuntu and towards other more traditionally-styled systems like Linux Mint, Fedora and Mageia. (As one of the haters, I moved across to Mint via Kubuntu, and was very happy with the results). In early 2012, Red Hat, the makers of Fedora, became the first Linux distributor to make over a billion dollars in revenue. Canonical—well, Canonical didn’t. And though they’re still going strong, their profile has dwindled.
Of course, the Linux community is much smaller than the Windows community, generally more tech-savvy, and accustomed to selecting their software cafeteria-style from a wide range of independent suppliers. And since Linux operating systems are generally free, experimenting with them involves no cost but time. All the same, I wonder if Microsoft will be wishing in a year or two that they had paid more attention to the fate of Canonical? And I wonder if the number of old-school Linux users will soon get a boost from Windows users who react to Windows 8 the same way that they reacted to Unity?
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