Canonical Changes OEM Strategy to Reflect New Customer Base

What do you do when your partners also become some of your most important customers? That's a challenge Canonical executives grappled with recently as they moved to restructure Canonical's relationship with OEMs. Here's what's changed at the company, and what it means for the open source channel.

As Canonical CEO Jane Silber pointed out in a recent blog post, OEM partnerships have been key to distributing Canonical's main product, the Linux-based Ubuntu operating system. Agreements with server manufacturers in particular have helped Ubuntu gain a significant presence on enterprise machines.

But as Silber also explained, in many cases the OEMs have begun using Ubuntu themselves, transforming not just into partners but also customers. In addition, the increasing importance of OEMs as liaisons between Canonical and corporate customers has also nuanced the role they play within the Ubuntu ecosystem.

As a result, Canonical has restructured parts of its sales and support staff. OEM operations and corporate services will be merged into one arm, the Sales and Business Development team, under the direction of Chris Kenyon.

Support and marketing efforts have been restructured as well, as Silber detailed in her blog post, although she also firmly emphasized that other parts of the organization -- particularly those focused on software design and development -- remain unaltered.

OEMs and Ubuntu's Future

On their face, these internal changes at Canonical are not huge news. But there's a bigger story here, namely one about Canonical's strategy for expanding the use of Ubuntu among different sets of users.

Clearly, corporate customers stand at the front and center of Canonical's business plan. The company believes, probably rightly, that its long-term commercial sustainability lies in selling Ubuntu support services and related products to large enterprises.

Meanwhile, Silber's announcement was notable for what it didn't mention: partnerships with OEMs shipping Ubuntu on hardware designed for single users, such as personal computers. Although Canonical made big headlines several years ago when it convinced Dell to not just ship Ubuntu on consumer PCs but also to advertise it to the general public, these sorts of OEM partnerships -- with Dell or anyone else -- seems no longer to be a priority for Canonical.

Not that we should blame Canonical, of course. Dell's Ubuntu offerings were hit-and-miss, and other Ubuntu-friendly OEMs, such as ZaReason and System76, are too small to provide many serious business opportunities for Canonical. OEM partnerships on this front just didn't pay off.

All the same, there's every reason to believe Ubuntu will remain the most popular Linux distribution among consumers for a long time to come, even if Canonical's business initiatives remain more focused on the server market and corporate desktops. But don't expect to buy your next Ubuntu PC from Dell.
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