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Canonical Works to Clarify the Ubuntu BrandCanonical Works to Clarify the Ubuntu Brand

If Microsoft had titled its flagship operating system "Microsoft," while also referring to its user and developer communities as"Microsofts," that would be a bit confusing for everyone involved.

Christopher Tozzi

November 19, 2010

4 Min Read
Canonical Works to Clarify the Ubuntu Brand

If Microsoft had titled its flagship operating system “Microsoft,” while also referring to its user and developer communities as”Microsofts,” that would be a bit confusing for everyone involved. As Canonical employee Matt Zimmerman recently noted, however, this is exactly the sort of branding dilemma that plagues the various products, organizations and ideas associated with Ubuntu Linux. But he has a plan for addressing that problem. Read on for details.

First, let’s face the obvious: coming up with good product names has never been one of the free-software community’s strong suits.  The open-source world is filled with applications whose titles no one knows how to pronounce correctly (Nome?  Ga-Nome?  Gee-Nome?), spell properly (NetworkManager or Network Manager?) or distinguish from Web applications (surely the OpenOffice people could have thought of a less confusing suffix than “.org”).  There may be some clever exceptions, but in general it seems clear that few open-source developers took Branding 101 in college.

The somewhat ambiguous pronunciation of “Ubuntu” aside, the popular Linux distribution does alright overall on the naming front.  But as Zimmerman explained on his personal blog, the branding of the various products, entities and communities associated with that Linux distribution can be confusing when they are all colloquially referred to as “Ubuntu.”

The Three Ps

Zimmerman’s strategy for ameliorating the ambiguity surrounding the word “Ubuntu” revolves around distinguishing between three chief categories (all of which happen to start with the sixteenth letter of the English alphabet): products, platforms and projects.

He points out that when most people speak about Ubuntu, they usually have in mind a product, such as Ubuntu Desktop Edition.  In other contexts, however, the word can refer to Ubuntu as a platform for developing different products, such as non-official derivative distributions like Linux Mint.  In yet other situations, the word can allude to the Ubuntu project as a whole, which includes the users and developers of Ubuntu-based products and the tools and ideas that regulate their interactions.

By drawing distinctions between these three chief senses of “Ubuntu” and encouraging others to respect them, Zikmmerman hopes to help people understand how the various pieces associated with Ubuntu “fit together.”

Why It Matters

Like many endeavors, of course, Zimmerman’s task may be easier said than done.  As the commentators on his post point out (before meandering into a discussion of why Canonical is not a hardware vendor), after all, the three Ps don’t cover everything; for one, they make no allowance for Ubuntu “people.”

But in a world where language is still contrived as the house we live in, Zimmerman’s proposal promises at least some respite from the ambiguity surrounding what Ubuntu actually is.  And that matters even for those of us not interested in postmodernist questions, because understandings of the Ubuntu brand affect perceptions of the maturity and seriousness of everything Ubuntu-related.

Among Canonical’s most difficult tasks is to prove to potential customers that Ubuntu Linux, even as it aspires to be a practical Linux distribution for the home desktop, is also a serious Linux distribution for corporate workstations and servers.  The branding ambiguity surrounding Ubuntu, perhaps more than has been recognized, makes this effort more difficult as the company competes against the likes of Red Hat, which has clearly differentiated its main product–Red Hat Enterprise Linux–from the platforms and projects with which it is associated.  (Bonus points to Red Hat for coming up with a name that is readily pronounceable by virtually everyone with an elementary understanding of English.)

The effort to clarify the Ubuntu brand, then, even if it appears to be only a semi-official endeavor undertaken by a Canonical employee, is an important step in convincing observers that Ubuntu’s assorted products are to be taken seriously.  Whether the observers will be convinced, of course, remains to be seen.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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