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Ubuntu 12.04 – Jane Silber talks Unity, community and ‘continuous computing’

by Rory MacDonald

Join us as we speak to Canonical CEO, Jane Silber, about the community’s perception of arrogance, the fiery reception of Unity and Canonical’s plans to dominate much more than just your desktop…

There is something very corporate about Canonical’s London offices, looking down on the Houses of Parliament. It’s a long way from the grass roots up to the 27th floor of Millbank Tower. The relationship between the corporate backers of Ubuntu Linux and the open source communities with which they interact has rarely been smooth. And yet Ubuntu remains one of, if not the, most popular desktop Linux distributions around.

That said, Canonical’s CEO, Jane Silber, seems sure that primacy of the desktop in computing is over. Canonical is looking to push Ubuntu out onto converged internet TVs, into smartphones and cars, and vying to become a player in the highly corporate world of ‘continuous computing’…

It’s almost exactly two years since Jane Silber took over the role of CEO from Canonical’s founder Mark Shuttleworth. Silber joined the company shortly after it was founded in 2004. Even as its chief operating officer (COO), she attracted the headline ‘Jane Silber runs the company while Mark Shuttleworth gallivants’. So we start by asking her if she feels this is still a fair characterisation of their respective roles?

“I know exactly where that came from. That particular headline came about prior to me becoming CEO, where it was really becoming clear what my role was and how much I was involved. In terms of our roles now, Mark is certainly not off gallivanting around. He is still heavily involved in the company. It’s his full-time day-to-day job as our product strategist.”

While Shuttleworth also has his eponymous charitable foundation, Silber maintains that his calendar is still filled by Canonical. She laughs at the notion that Mark is now just a figurehead, with her getting all the work done.

Ubuntu 12.04 - Jane Silber talks Unity, community and 'continuous computing'“Absolutely not, we work together very closely. He continues to be the person who cares about the product strategy and vision. This is where his strengths and interests really lie. When I became CEO two years ago, it was a reflection of what the company needed. We were growing and our commercial activities were growing. Our [personal] strengths, areas of weakness and our areas of interest, made it more sensible that I assumed the CEO role and that he [Shuttleworth] moved to a product strategy role.

“Mark, in an interesting way, reports to me on product strategy. Ultimately, I am also responsible for that. I’m responsible for everything that Canonical does. I’m responsible for ensuring our success at a financial level, on a commercial level, at a strategic and partnership level. We have a really smart team; I obviously don’t do it all alone, but ultimately I am the CEO.”

We put it to Silber that if you look at the other Linux companies with large in-house development teams, they seem to split the distros into community and enterprise editions. Red Hat has Fedora, SUSE has openSUSE, but Canonical doesn’t do this. What is the reasoning?

“That is a very explicit vision that we took early on. It is a key part of our strategy, to not do that. The reasoning is that we thought our business model shouldn’t be around bits of the software but around the services that we provide. And so we made an early commitment that our best work would always be free and that there wouldn’t be a less-good version for community and a better version for enterprise users or paying users. Rather than selling security updates or more features in the software, we sell our services.”

Quite whether Red Hat would be comfortable being indirectly positioned as selling security updates, or even open core, is questionable. However, we continued to press Silber on the challenges Canonical itself faces with a single distribution. We ask Silber whether she finds that this model can cause problems, especially within Ubuntu’s community relations…

Canonical often gets a reputation of being very arrogant, because it has got the professional team and the interests of the company to put into the distro at the same time as it has the community sometimes wanting to do very different things.

“Yes, it’s true. There are challenges when we sometimes want to do things for commercial reasons and we can’t reveal it as early as the community would like. There are challenges around the fact that most enterprises would actually like some non-free software in there. We have made an exception for hardware enablement and drivers, but we have made a commitment that the applications must be free.

“There is constant tension and trade-offs that we make, but I think that that is a healthy tension. It keeps us paying attention to the entire set of stakeholders and interested parties in Ubuntu and not just one thread. But it does create certain challenges.”

Perhaps Red Hat and SUSE are doing the ‘community thing’ more through the Linux community itself, while their commercial distro is more separated off, giving them more freedom to do exactly what they want?

“Right,” she concurs. “We’re trying to do it in a much more cohesive, single collaborative effort. With mutual respect and understanding for someone who is much more interested in the community effort and the very important commercial drivers.”

Ubuntu 12.04 - Jane Silber talks Unity, community and 'continuous computing'
Ubuntu's GUI has transformed over the last 18 months

Moving the conversation along to talk about some more specifics, we ask Silber for her take on the whole issue of Unity, Shell and GNOME 3. Last year, Canonical took the highly controversial decision to drop the latest full implementation of GNOME from Ubuntu. Instead, the company has moved ahead with its own Unity user interface, which, while still being built on the core of GNOME, discards the GNOME Shell user experience…

Naturally, Canonical’s decision to rip one of the largest single subsets of the GNOME user base away from the Foundation was not entirely well received. So how are current relations with GNOME?

“I think it’s a pretty complex dynamic, and what you see on email lists and on message boards is a sign of the passion, the level of belief and the level of caring that people have. But I also think its dangerous to read too much into a single thread or a single viewpoint there.

“If you take a step back, several years ago, we started looking at the state of open source. Particularly desktop open source, the state of Ubuntu, and of the competition in terms of the proprietary operating systems and offerings. We took a very long-term strategic view of all the factors in the ecosystem, and we decided that one of the really important things for open source to be successful in general, and for Ubuntu to be successful in particular, was that we had to raise the level of design and user experience.

“We called it then as the key strategic threat. Mark Shuttleworth covered it in keynotes, including OSCON. He planted the flag and said, we collectively need to address this, and it’s a thing that Canonical is going to invest in. At that time we didn’t have Unity in mind, but our vision was that, as an ecosystem, the open source world needed to raise its game. And that we would help lead that, and help rally people around that cause.

“Unity evolved out of that, but it wasn’t an intention. We didn’t have it formulated in our mind when we said ‘This is the next frontier’. We knew that design was the next frontier, but we didn’t know how we were going to navigate our way through that. Over time, our vision for Unity became clear. Some of that was done publicly and some of that was not. The fact that we are now committed to Unity and GNOME is committed to another path, this has been difficult for many people, but I think it’s not a disaster. One of the things that people in open source have always said is that choice is good. Competition is good and people will choose what is the best for them.

“The fact that GNOME and other projects now value design,” Silber stops, perhaps to reconsider the boldness of what she is about to say. “If you go back three years ago nobody was talking about design, nobody was doing user research. It is actually something we have had great influence on, by calling attention to it and putting our efforts there. I think, whether you like Unity or not, its existence has helped raise the bar across a number of projects. That is something that we feel good about; you can attribute that to our leadership in that area, even if it’s not our code and our design.”

Canonical has recently announced its plans for expansion into some major new areas. The firm announced Ubuntu TV at the CES in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year, and Ubuntu for Android was launched at the Mobile World Congress. We finish up the interview by asking Silber to expand on the bigger, strategic picture and where the company is headed in 2012 and beyond.

“Ubuntu essentially is a platform, and as the industry moves to more of a multi-device, continuous computing, mobile world, we think that the way people interact with their computers and their digital lives in the future is on much more of a continual spectrum of form factors and devices. In the future, the desktop will no longer be the sole or even the primary interaction point.

“Ubuntu is particularly well suited to support that spectrum and it is an explicit strategy of ours to do that.”

Intrigued and slightly confused by the concept of ‘Ubuntu for Android’, we ask if this in not two operating systems on top of each other…

Ubuntu 12.04 - Jane Silber talks Unity, community and 'continuous computing'

“It is two operating systems next to each other. When you have an Android phone and you are interacting with another Android phone, it’s stock Android, nothing changed about it at all. If you dock it with a keyboard and monitor, it recognises it’s in a different form factor and Ubuntu will take over, providing a full Ubuntu desktop.

“Importantly, [the Ubuntu instance] still has good integration points with the Android side: common contacts, common Wi-Fi configuration, calendaring, even to the point of telephony functionality. So, if you receive a text message while you are docked, it shows up on your Ubuntu screen and you can reply to it. If a call comes in, you can answer it in desktop mode, you don’t have to switch back to phone mode.

“If you are browsing on your phone and have tabs open, and then dock your phone, the desktop browser will have those same tabs open. It delivers this continual experience.”

Silber is clearly passionate about the technology. She sees this notion that the devices converge, and flow in and out of one another is one of the coming trends of 2012.

“We see unification at the OS level already from some of the big proprietary players. It’s what Apple is doing, its what Microsoft is doing and it’s part of the Ubuntu vision as well.”

We put it to Silber that despite her prediction of demotion of the desktop, even in the word of ‘continuous computing’, office applications still play a big role. They are vital for cracking the corporate part of this interconnected market. Microsoft has an obvious advantage here. Apple might be looking increasingly uncertain, but Google has potentially cracked the problem with the growing ubiquity of a Google Docs login among corporate users. What is Ubuntu’s strategy here? Silber rightly argues that Google Docs can run on any platform and that it is not exclusive to Chrome OS or Android. However, the point at which a user logs into Google Docs on Ubuntu it becomes logical for them to use all of Google’s cloud apps, as they all tie in together…

So why would we use Ubuntu One for any of our calendaring, mail, contacts or anything else that we want to have unified across all our devices? Does Ubuntu have a master plan in there?

“Clearly it’s competition, we need to compete. One of the advantages we have, from an industry ecosystem perspective, is that there is great interest from OEMs and handset manufacturers in being able to provide, frankly, non-Google services. And I think we have yet to see how it plays out.

“It’s certainly a battlefield, but one of the reasons that Ubuntu is attractive is that we are not selling handsets, we are not making hardware. We are a good partner in many ways and continue to play to that.”
Silber refuses to be drawn on specific partners for either Ubuntu’s TV or Android solution. “We are in conversations with a number of people. Our go-to-market strategy is through those OEMs, handset manufacturers or mobile network operators. So it’s really their product roadmap and their product to announce rather than ours.”

We ask if Ubuntu will still be recognisable within these OEM incarnations and if they will still interact with a standard Ubuntu desktop and Ubuntu’s own-brand cloud services.

“I need to be careful about not committing another company to something,” Silber responds cautiously. “But it is our vision and our intention that it is an identifiably Ubuntu experience, solution and platform, and that there is value in that.

“There are some key characteristics of a good platform in this area. Obviously you have to have good, credible, high-quality, feature-full products. For us, one of the key selling points is that it is an open platform, which allows for collaborative development with community and with companies.

“Having a unified experience across form factors is important. That doesn’t mean identical. Unity runs across desktop and TV for example, but it shows a different face. Obviously the 10ft lean-back experience is very different from interacting with a laptop or desktop.

“That unified platform and that unified experience is important in terms of the platform strategy and it also lends itself to a good developer ecosystem. The platform is necessary, but you also need a strong developer ecosystem, which means people developing applications but also a store to expose
them through.

“This is the rationale for the work we have been doing recently around the Software Centre and ‘’, which have received a lot of attention in the last year or so. We are trying to make it much smoother for ISVs and independent developers to deliver their applications to Ubuntu users.”

You can read Jane Silber’s full six-page interview in issue 112 of Linux User & Developer.

Related Ubuntu articles

Ubuntu 11.10 review – beautiful, but deadly

Five problems with Ubuntu 12.04 – part 1

Five problems with Ubuntu 12.04 – part 2

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    • Silber needs to think again. Before Markie had his epiphany, and gave the world Unity [end sarcasm], KDE4 gave us design, it had little useful functionality, but it did have design, and it still does.

      Unlike Unity and GNOME 3 Shell KDE4 gives us a workable desktop that is designed for the device it is running on, that is an important distinction. There is a desktop that works properly with Multiple Monitors and high resolution screens that will morph into a desktop that works perfectly on Tablets, and soon another that will work on Mobile phones, and other for TVs. Plug a Tablet into a large monitor, add a mouse and Keyboard and the desktop adapts to the situation, rather than being a one size doesn’t quite fit all desktop, as with Unity and GNOME 3.

    • Hi All,

      I am sorry, but the latest Ubuntu release was the worst.I have been Linux for 10 years. Often I have used Ubuntu, but went back to openSuSE

    • Hanynowsky

      First let’s push Apple and M$ evil back and when we’re done, we could argue about what this article stipulates.

    • [quote]First let’s push Apple and M$ evil back and when we’re done, we could argue about what this article stipulates.[/quote]

      Ah the end justifies the means argument. Doesn’t work. Invariably if you don’t get the means right, the end will be the wrong one.

    • When all is said and done, the truth shines through. the sole purpose of todays corporations is to both get continuously bigger and “dominate” the market. Replace Microsoft with Canonical (never happen) and all you get is the same old balls – corporate speak.

      Sure, Silber is passionate, not about software though. Nor about the satisfaction of Canonicals users, but about the cosy life she can have off the backs of developers who freely donate code. The ones she and Mark have fooled into working for them for free.

      I cannot wait for this system to come crashing down. It is inevitable. –

    • joe

      Once again she and canonical are disconnected from real users.

      “We know people hate it. We know people hate us. I think it’s a pretty complex dynamic hate…. Bla Bla”

      They don’t care what the users actually want. They make huge changes, ignore the outcry, and force it down our throats, why, because they think they know best. The state of the latest bumtu is unusable for getting any real work done. If she wants a mac.. someone buy her a mac…. We don’t need a mac copy cat in the linux world to make us feel good.

      I’ve been done with bumtu for a couple years now. We have switched several businesses from bumtu to fedora or mageia lately. I think everyone is done with it.

    • MightyMoo

      I can’t stay with Unity, I’ve switched over to Xubuntu and things are just golden for me for the past year on my laptop. My desktop runs the 10.4 lts but I’m thinking of switching that to Xubuntu 12.04 as well when the time comes.

      I don’t want to change how I use my computer. I want it to addapt to my needs and wishes. Not me relearn it.

    • Medical doctor, FOSS enthusiast

      I am a busy professional and don’t have time to relearn how to use a new desktop environment. I understand that Jane and Mark have have a lofty vision, are running a business, and need to keep up with the trends in computing. This is all fine and good and Natty was an excellent compromise in that it came with a futuristic interface by default but still allowed users to easily switch to a full-fledged classic interface. When Oneiric came out with no full-fledged classic interface it was a real slap in the face. Even though my Natty installation would still be supported for several months, that was the end of my days being an Ubuntu user and proponent: I removed Ubuntu from all of my machines and promptly installed Linux Mint Debian Edition. The Linux Mint developers are paying attention and, even as they develop their cutting-edge Cinnamon desktop environment, they concurrently develop and support MATE (a fork of Gnome2 that is identical to it in almost every way).

      Good-bye, Ubuntu and Canonical. Oneiric and Precise show that you have no regard for for the needs of some of your most faithful long-time users. You are in trouble, though, because one of the hallmarks of FOSS is choice and, no matter how futuristic and business-savvy a company might be, any company’s most precious asset are happy users.

    • ned flanders

      I thought Gnome devs were bad with their ‘we know better than you what you want’ mentality but Canonical adds a level of arrogance which must be absolute bliss to them.

      Tracyanne sort of hits a backhanded point when she mentions that KDE ‘gives us a workable desktop that is designed for the device it is running on, that is an important distinction.’

      THATS the way to approach the multiple device paradigm; you use your desktop OS when using PC’s and laptops, switch FROM WITHIN the OS to the netbook version for netbook/laptop and from what I saw of Seigo’s demo of the Vivaldi, Plasma Active takes over for touch devices like tablets.
      One OS that is suited for the 3 different devices.

      Canonical not only has taken away choice (its easier to sell ONE true path rather than confuse users with choice), theyve went even further with their 1 format fits ALL different paradigms. A touch tablet IS NOT a desktop, why would you force one onto the other environment?

      And the least said about HUD (recycling old technology and ideas) which not only takes us away from the ease and comfort of the mouse to both hands on the keyboard to find things.
      On one hand Canonical puts all its egg in the Fisher Price desktop made with touch in mind and on the other were almost going back to terminal use.

      I keep an open mind when it comes to desktops; i understand that they are a matter of taste and very subjective and I usually try to find newbies a desktop they like so I often have 2-3 desktops available for them to test (i multiboot my laptop and give it to my friends to test for a week). I dont push E17 even though its the one I use most but I try to give them a look to see if they can find a desktop that they prefer.
      For that matter, Ive offered Unity as a choice for the past year and cant say its been well received.
      Even newbies who have NEVER used a computer havent jumped up and declared it to be amazing.

      I get why Canonical went their own way, it had nothing to do with how good the other desktops were, it had to do with marketing. Ubuntu couldnt keep using the other desktops that every other distro used because the dirty little Linux secret is that distros dont matter much, take two good distros like PCLinuxOS or Mint that ahve the same desktop and you quickly realize that its the same thing minus some cosmetic change. If Buntu was so special, it couldnt look like everyone else. It HAD to become different so that The One could differentiate itself from other distros.
      Its hard to try to convince people that you are different when everything from the kernel to the infrastructure behind desktops to the programs we all use are exactly the same as the others.
      Ubuntu still uses all the same parts and programs as other distros now but it LOOKS different than others.
      Better is not important as different.

      And I have huge problems with that logic.
      I had the same problems for the change for change’s sake that Canonical brought in with their left sided min/max/close buttons. There was NO reason to change a paradigm that everyone has gotten used to.
      It was NOT better than on the right side, it was different (of course Pavlovian fanbois who swallow koolaid easily kept droning on about how much better they were).

      When different is promoted as better, you leave the realm of technology and enter the realm of marketing and bullsh*t.
      And while I try to stay away from anything and anyone in marketing and sales at work (id rather talk to street walkers who I respect more), i do understand that bullsh*t is a prime engine of marketing.

      And from Jono to that Alfresco waste of time they had to Silber, the thickness of the manure they spread has been pretty impressive and thick.

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    • shelley

      Linux Mint with Cinnamon desktop is the best lnux system for desktops currently…Period.

    • Allan

      I found the interview the most comprehensive explanation of Canonical’s plans and motivations. I have been retaining one laptop waiting for 12.04 to go live. I have kept my wife who is my main concern with regard to Ubuntu back on 10.04. I have showed her my 11.10 system and her initial reaction was “why do I have to learn a new interface that doesn’t improve anything I do and confuses me when I try to do certain things?” I really still do not have an answer for her. Like others I am going to Mint on my other machines and giving one last chance to Canonical to work out this Unity interface so it is as functional on desktops and laptops as it is for cell phones.

      This is the problem with the one distribution philosophy. It is not clear, at least to me, that a large icon, full screen interface for the cell phone is the optimum for the desk top. I find it limiting even on the laptop that I have dedicated to this. One more try Canonical, just one. Get it right or I’m out of here.

    • Aleve Sicofante

      I agree with most commenters that there’s a lot of bullshit coming from Silber, but she’s a CEO, what did you expect? All of them are native bilingual in marketing speak. It’s a requirement for the post.

      On the downside of the Canonical approach, we’ll have to live with that and with Shuttleworth’s gallivanting (I’ve learned a new English word today! It’s a perfect definition of Shuttleworth’s attitude, btw).

      On the upside, a company backing a project and having to please customers is some guarantee that they’ll care about them. They depend on the income that customers produce by paying for their services, so they better build the right tools or they’re doomed. GNOME Shell developers, for instance, don’t give a damn (they are much much worse than frolicking Shuttleworth) mostly because _they don’t have to_. They just do what they feel like doing, no matter how disconnected from real users needs.

      The problem is Ubuntu’s current users aren’t being considered Canonical customers. They’re plainly leaving them behind. The Canonical team, which includes Silber, is working for an imaginary user base that’s somewhere in the future. If they win those customers, great. If not, Canonical will simply last until the last pound in Shuttleworth’s pocket is spent.

      Usually, new Linux users are made by old users spreading the word. Canonical can’t rely on that anymore, since they basically betrayed their user base and community with their arrogant decisions and “take it or leave” attitude.

      I’m only intrigued by what services Canonical is trying to sell and relying on for profits:

      Ubuntu One isn’t working properly and it’s not precisely a newcomer. It’s been out there for a long time now. People keep losing their data. Why would one pay for it? The one thing a service like that can’t be is unreliable. I don’t remember Dropbox or other similar services losing people’s files like U1 does.

      Ubuntu Music Store is anything but a success. You don’t see hordes of people buying their music there instead of iTunes or Amazon, do you?

      The Software Center isn’t precisely full of paid apps and there’s no clear revenue stream for developers, big or small. How do they expect to make money out of it?

      Ubuntu on the server seems to be doing better and has even got HP on board recently, but wasn’t all this about the desktop and other consumer platforms? Isn’t all the fun the gallivanting owner is having precisely in moving buttons from right to left, introducing the command line to the Dash as the second coming and creating huge icons launchers? What’s the fun for him on the server? How’s he going to spend his bucks on such a boring thing?

      To sum it up, if Canonical ends up making its profit on the server and not on the desktop/consumer platforms, we’re back to square one: its desktop developers will have no incentive to please the customers and its decisions will be exactly as absurd and fanciful as GNOME Shell devs’, just for their own fun and imaginary expertise, completely disconnected from reality.

    • zykoda

      Tried to use U1204 but it’s a bummer. The interface does not let you do what is required on a development desktop. The command line works better than unity in a terminal. Design without functionality! Give up the day job. Call it unity…it’s a non-entity or nullity.

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    • Sol

      @ned flanders good post, especially about the marketing part.. :)

    • Drake Jones

      Yes. Conical is beyond arrogant: ‘fascist’ is the proper term. They are obviously fronting for a corporate entity. I can not tell how angry I am about the situation. The name of the new release should be “Nobuntu”!

    • Dylan

      All the haters need to shut up here. You say you are leaving Ubuntu because of Unity… let me remind all of ye that Unity is merely a desktop environment. You are free to use Ubuntu with KDE4, Gnome 3, XFCE, LXDE, Cinnamon or whatever the hell you want.

      Ubuntu still provides a great distro and great desktop experience, yet still gives you the freedom to use whatever desktop you like using.

    • Lestibournes

      I like Unity and enjoyed reading the article. It got me a bit excited about the future.

      Unity on the desktop isn’t a smartphone interface on a desktop. Using a dock instead of a taskbar doesn’t make something a smartphone interface, and the Dash is just a big search interface rather than a small compact one like in KRunner. They created a single platform on which they can implement many different shells, such as Ubuntu Desktop (Unity 3D and Unity 2D), Ubuntu TV, and Ubuntu Phone. That’s 3 different shells they already made and 1 they are still working on, for 3 different form factors. They are creating seperate shells for different form factors, you just don’t like using a dock.

      About design, KDE 4 is full of design – technical design and a new theme. In terms of UI, however, they didn’t do much except try to make it more simple and GNOME-like. What Canonical introduced is top-down UI design that relies heavily on user-testing. That is something where they lead.

      About choice. Canonical isn’t trying to take choice away. The situation now is no different than it was a year ago, except that instead of GNOME Panel we have Unity. Unity doesn’t have as many configuration options not because Canonical is trying to limit us, but because they haven’t gotten around to adding them yet and are focusing thier resources on getting the default and most important options done right rather than spreading themselves thin trying to implement everything at once. If the community submitted good patches that didn’t hurt stability or performance and implemented new configuration options they’d be accepted.

      I admit that in 11.10 switching windows is a bit annoying and the global menu can get confusing, but those are things that can be fixed within Unity, and are the worst, if not only, flaws.

    • willie

      It’s unfortunate but people don’t like change it scares them. I didn’t like Unity at first but I love it now and would never go back.

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    • DonRay

      I remember when, not so long ago, Ubuntu was promoted as “Linux for Human Beings.” I have been a faithful Ubuntu convert since Dapper Drake and proudly installed Ubuntu on many computers belonging to both family and friends. Now the elitism has taken over and the majority of human beings who still are without the mobile interface are forced to look elsewhere for a truly desktop friendly environment. Personally, I have switched to Debian and my two 10 year old desktops, six year old desktop and 5 year old laptop are stable and functional. On disability and limited income, the latest and greatest hardware is not an option, as I must assume is the case for the majority of those same “human beings” to which Ubuntu was first promoted.