Ubuntu shuns tablets in its fight with Microsoft

As Canonical, maintainer of popular Linux distribution Ubuntu, readies its latest release which sports a dramatic new graphical user interface supporting touch-based input, it quashed the idea that is it preparing to enter the tablet market.

The outfit has confirmed it will be releasing Ubuntu 11.04 'Natty Narwhal' on 28 April 2011. With Ubuntu 11.04 comes the Unity desktop in place of the familiar GNOME, marking one of the biggest user-facing changes in the distribution's history.

For Canonical the release of Unity represents over two years' worth of hard graft says Gerry Carr, marketing manager at Canonical. When thinq_ asked Carr why Canonical undertook the considerable challenge of coding a GUI when other Linux distributions are shipping with GNOME, KDE, Xfce and LXDE, Carr said that Canonical needed to "work on the perception of the Linux desktop in the market".

The market Carr is referring to is not existing Linux users but those who use Microsoft's Windows operating system. In what might be considered a brusque-but-fair statement Carr said that the Linux desktop experience was "lacking" for Windows users and that with Unity, Canonical, "wanted to offer something that is different and cool". Carr did admit that sticking with GNOME would have been a "safer and easier choice" but added that change in the shape of Unity was needed as it "really wanted to transform the market".

So why didn't other Linux distributions follow Canonical on its voyage of discovery to the promised land simple and engaging user input? According to Carr "other [Linux] distributions are not as focused on bringing a free desktop to market". That is quite a statement but with Carr admitting Canonical's decision to drop GNOME as the default desktop in Ubuntu causing friction between the Ubuntu and GNOME camps, it is perhaps understandable that other Linux distributions neither have the inclination or the resources to develop a desktop at the expense of other areas.

It was easy to see where Canonical was heading with Unity from a very early stage. It aims to bring a level of fit and finish that users have come to expect from operating systems such as Apple's Mac OS X and Microsoft's Windows. There are nice GUI touches but Carr also points out there are extensive search capabilities that allow users to easily search for files based on attributes as well as filenames. However, the most interesting development is out-of-the-box touch-screen support, which opens up the possibility of Canonical tailoring Ubuntu for tablet devices, especially as Carr claims that "smartphone and tablet users will feel right at home with Unity on Ubuntu 11.04".

At present Ubuntu supports i386 and x64 architectures but the tablet market is currently dominated by chips based on the ARM architecture. When asked whether Unity is the final piece in the puzzle before Canonical turns its attention to the rapidly growing tablet market Carr said Canonical had no plans in the near time to release an Ubuntu for the ARM architecture and that there was "no point" in a tablet edition or a device specific release.

Carr's statement regarding Ubuntu shunning the tablet market is made all the more surprising when he said that Ubuntu's main competitors isn't other Linux distributions but Microsoft's Windows. Carr was quite frank when he said that Canonical needs to bring Ubuntu "to the consciousness of Windows users" but added that he "doesn't mind if people choose other Linux distributions". With Microsoft making a big push to bring Windows 8 on ARM devices, the logical and perhaps fairer battleground seems to be the tablet market.

There is no doubt that Canonical has spent significant effort in designing and coding Unity. Carr said that being an open source project Unity is available for other distributions however when asked if there had been any takers, Carr did not know of one, adding that he had no expectations on the wider adoption of Unity among Linux distributions.

Canonical is making significant strides to try glam up Ubuntu and put it in the shop window. Long-time Linux users may not appreciate Unity but for Canonical it needed to do something if it was to break into Microsoft's considerable desktop market share. The question is whether
its decision to leave the growing tablet alone will only store up trouble for the future.