Canonical, and the open source Ubuntu operating system it sponsors, seem to be in the midst of a major watershed moment. In the past the Ubuntu world was a disparate one, but it is now finally converging around all types of devices. Whether that convergence succeeds will have a lot to do with the channel. But community opinion also plays a big role, and that may be Canonical's biggest challenge going forward.
When Ubuntu first appeared in October 2004, it didn't extend far beyond traditional servers and PCs. At the time, that was a big deal in itself, since the huge following that Ubuntu quickly gained as a desktop operating system was unprecedented within the Linux world. And Canonical enjoyed a lot of goodwill because of it.
Since then, the Ubuntu ecosystem has expanded and diversified tremendously. Canonical has solidified Ubuntu's connections to the cloud through both Ubuntu One, which serves end users, and Ubuntu Cloud, which makes it easy for enterprises and administrators to roll out cloud infrastructures based on Ubuntu. It has convinced major retailers in some very large markets to sell Ubuntu PCs. And it has sweetened the pot for enterprises interested in major Ubuntu rollouts with offerings such as Landscape, for managing large networks of Ubuntu workstations and servers, and Business Desktop Remix.
But the company's biggest successes, and the ones that make now such a defining moment, are Ubuntu's expansion into TVs, smartphones and tablets. With these initiatives, Canonical is building a fully rounded ecosystem centered on an open source operating system in a way that only a very few other vendors--all of them much larger names, say, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Microsoft (NASDAQL MSFT)--have ever attempted.
From a technical standpoint, Canonical appears to have the resources to pull off this great convergence. Although Ubuntu for TVs and mobile devices remains in development, with widespread production deployments still beyond the horizon, Canonical has made steady progress on these fronts since delving into them last year.
Since the technical issues appear to be smoothing over, perhaps the bigger hurdle that Canonical now needs to overcome is amassing community support behind its convergence efforts. The community has always played a major role in the Ubuntu ecosystem, and if the company hopes to build Ubuntu into the lifestyle brand it seems to envision, the enthusiasm of users will remain key.
So far, it remains unclear whether the level of enthusiasm is there. On the way to expanding Ubuntu to new devices, Canonical--perhaps unavoidably--sacrificed some of the goodwill it enjoyed among Ubuntu users, who didn't always respond favorably to efforts such as the Unity interface that is central to Ubuntu's new device-agnostic scope. The company's move away from focusing so centrally on desktop Linux has also generated some negative reactions from users, which official "Ubuntu Community Manager" Jono Bacon characterized late last week as a "blogalanch" of ill will. And most recently, the proposal to switch to a "rolling release" model has engendered a firestorm of debate, not all of it entirely civil.
My guess is that a lot of this negativity will recede once Canonical unveils production-quality Ubuntu phones, tablets and TVs. They'll likely impress users enough to make them forget about many of the tensions that have arisen lately. But whatever happens, it's certain that the community will make or break Canonical's convergence vision--and, in turn, determine the success of a radically new approach to open source computing.