Canonical, creator of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, has taken its share of criticism for not being innovative enough for some in the Linux community. In 2010, however, Canonical's focus on design and packaging will come to be seen as a seriously shrewd strategy as it helps to take Linux to the masses.
The reason? The innovation that pays is changing, and UI matters more and more.
When we think of innovation, we normally think of traditional research and development (R&D), complete with a white-coated scientist or pizza-gobbling engineer.
As Apple, Google, and other highly successful software companies demonstrate, however, today's innovation opportunities may lie more in user interface than traditional R&D. Google's emissary to the start-up world, Don Dodge, hints at this in a discussion of the various email systems he has used:
[O]ver my career, my first email thing was Vax Mail, which was awesome at the time, it was revolutionary. I went from Vax Mail, to Outlook, to Lotus Notes when I was working for Ray Ozzie, then back to Outlook again, and now Gmail. Email is a pretty straightforward application. They have basically the same features, it's all a question of user interface.
Sure, there are differences under the hood between Google's Gmail and Microsoft's Outlook, but the innovation that matters most today may well be the "superficial" e-mail experience that these different systems offer.
Back to Canonical and Ubuntu.
Canonical's founder, Mark Shuttleworth, understands that innovation is shifting from core research to the user experience, as he's opined on his blog. He has set his sights high, not content to replicate the Windows PC or Mac experience, for example, but has instead insisted on surpassing it.
The money for Canonical is in packaging open-source technology, not necessarily in creating the technology in the first place. The Linux world should be grateful, given Red Hat's and Novell's focus on the data center.
Linux benefits when mainstream users buy into it. Or, rather, when they use it without thinking about "it."
No one cares that their TiVo devices runs Linux. It just does. No one cares that the Kindle runs Linux, either. They care about the functionality these devices deliver. That's the way it should be.
Canonical's opportunity is to make Linux so easy that it becomes completely invisible to the end user. And Canonical may well be the best positioned to do this, among its open-source peers.
Neither Red Hat nor Novell employs an executive to focus on consumer products. Canonical does. No other open-source company has had its CEO discard the executive mantle to "focus [his] Canonical energy on product design," as Canonical recently did.
Red Hat dominates the enterprise Linux market. Let it.
Canonical could well be set to dominate the consumer Linux market, a potentially massive market that demands a single-minded focus on design. It's a big bet, but one that Shuttleworth is committed to making.