Is Canonical’s Ubuntu Focus Too Darn Diverse?
Unix was ostensibly forged on the philosophy that every entity be designed to do only one thing, and do it well. Has Canonical, which develops one of the most popular Unix-like OS’s around today, thrown this philosophy out the window when it comes to business strategy? Former Canonical COO Matt Asay thinks so. Here’s why he may be wrong about Canonical and Ubuntu Linux.
Arguing recently that Canonical missed the bus long ago on the netbook market, Asay, who served as chief operating officer of the company for ten months before resigning last December, also made the case that Canonical’s endeavors are currently too diverse:
Canonical needs more focus. The company does well whatever it does, but it’s organizationally impossible to be exceptional in so many different areas.
The key to achieving major success, Asay suggested, is to focus on a single market. Canonical’s investment in disparate areas, from the desktop to the server to mobile computing to the cloud, leaves it unable to emerge as the very best contender on any of these fronts.
Diversity and Canonical
As former COO, Asay certainly knows a thing or two about Canonical–including, possibly, information that the company, which remains private, has yet to divulge publicly. No one on the outside can be sure how profitable the organization currently is in any area, or how much it still relies on the charity of Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth (it is worth noting, however, that the company continues to expand its workforce, a healthy sign).
From my perspective as an outsider to Canonical, though, it seems like the organization’s diversity is key to its success. Ubuntu has gained huge prominence and influence within the open source ecosystem thanks to its focus not just on either the desktop or the server, as other distributions have tended to do, but on different and diverse segments of the channel. Ubuntu’s momentum stems from the fusion of passionate desktop users with server administrators willing to pay for Ubuntu based solutions, many of them involving not only traditional infrastructure but also the cloud.
It’s hard to see how focusing on only one part of the market could even be feasible for Canonical. If it dumps all of its resources into advancing Unity and the Linux desktop, it will lose important revenue streams in the server and cloud markets and probably go the way of predecessors like Mandriva, Inc. If it shifts exclusively to servers, it will deny itself the enthusiasm of the Linux community which has been key to the success enjoyed by Ubuntu thus far. And if it abandons the cloud and mobile computing worlds, it risks being shut out of emerging opportunities.
Although he didn’t say so explicitly, Asay seemed to want to suggest that Canonical needs to become more like Apple, which he called a “premium innovator,” and less like Microsoft, a company with a broad focus that, in Asay’s view, is now “struggling to compete” with Apple. I’m not sure this makes much sense, and not only because Microsoft’s performance over the long term deserves more credit than Asay gave it.
Apple didn’t achieve what it has by putting all its eggs in one basket and getting lucky. The company’s most popular products–iPad, iPod, iPhone and PCs running OS X–constitute a range of different platforms and devices. And even though most of its products are directed at individual consumers, OS X server has yet to go away.
If Canonical is able to maintain a broad development front for long enough, its break may well come, just as Apple’s came when the company was on the verge of ceasing to exist. Scaling back the scope of topical investment is not the right move for Canonical.
Besides, Apple’s success is founded on jacking an operating system from computer scientists at Berkeley and building a culture of commodity-hungry consumers trained to associate overpriced electronics with personal sophistication and prestige. The last thing the world needs is another Apple. But we’d best not go there.