Did Canonical Just Get Punked by Red Hat and Novell?

I watched with my usual fascination as the news cycle built to a shrill crescendo last week when both Novell and Red Hat each made a point of announcing that they were not planning to put a lot of effort into developing a desktop for the consumer model.

One media outlet after another propagated the story theme: “Red Hat drops plans for consumer desktop development” Of course by the second or third wave this story, like the game of Telephone, has morphed into: “Red Hat Abandons Desktop! Aieee!” Which industry pundits immediately jumped on and used as “proof” for their long-waning arguments: “See? Even Red Hat sez that Linux on the desktop is no work-y. Told ya so!”

Curiously, very little attention was paid to Ron Hovespian’s comments on Novell’s similar plans, made before Red Hat’s. If I were Novell, I would take this as a bad sign. Not only did the mainstream media not pick up on Novell’s news, but even most of the hard-line Linux blogosphere wrote them off with nary so much as a “meh” And if you can’t get those folks mad, you must be doing something wrong! 🙂

My first opinion during all of this hooplah was that why should I care about Red Hat and SUSE Linux not having a consumer desktop line? It doesn’t detract from the Linux desktop as a whole (since their business desktop products are doing just fine, thank you), plus let’s face it: Ubuntu is kicking butt and taking names on the consumer desktop market already. Let that community and Canonical be the flagship for the Linux consumer desktop. In open source, it’s all good anyway.

I was not alone in this opinion, either. Dana Blankenhorn made a similar point in his blog last week, essentially calling Canonical the victor in the consumer desktop arena.

Except I think Blankenhorn and I may have both been wrong. (Well, now it’s just him who’s wrong; I’ve moved on.) After talking to Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth last week, I was reminded that the consumer desktop is not Canonical’s scene either.

I mentioned my conversation with Shuttleworth last week, when I reported his company’s stance on the recent troubles Microsoft is having with Windows XP’s end of life. The rest of my conversation with him was about the announcement Canonical is making today about the release of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (aka Hardy Heron) desktop and server editions on April 24.

By virtue of the LTS (Long-Term Support) status, this is a big deal release. Shuttleworth happily listed all of the cool tech that’s coming out in the desktop edition, like Firefox 3; fSpot and Flickr integration; and MythTV and YouTube playback capability. It’s also got a lot of third-party apps inside, from ISVs such as Google, Adobe, and Skype–the usual open source friendly suspects. The LTS status, he told me, makes Hardy Heron all the more attractive to independent software vendors (ISVs), because they know support won’t just fade away in 18 months.

It’s not just ISVs who like the LTS; on the server edition, Canonical’s gotten hardware certification from Dell, HP, and Sun (most notably Sun’s x64 Sun Fire X2100 M2, X2200 M2 and Sun Fire

X4150 servers). Canonical’s made some deals with several major global IT vendors as well.

But for all of the talk about the multimedia and desktop experience with Ubuntu in general and Ubuntu 8.04 LTS specifically, it should be noted that Canonical does not consider the desktop edition of Hardy Heron to solely be a consumer desktop.

Really, it’s true. Go back and look at all of their announcements. Even the one from today about the desktop release. The desktop is mostly emphasized as a business desktop, with some nods to the home user community. Take this quote from the release from Canonical COO Jane Silber:

“Ubuntu 8.04 LTS Desktop Edition is a very significant release as it will take Ubuntu squarely into the business environment…  Our business and home users have told us that they want a longer

support cycle to make Ubuntu a better deployment option. We have

responded to that and added a commitment to much broader software and

hardware support that we and our partners are excited to deliver. With

enhanced commercial support through Landscape, combined with our always

excellent community support, expect to see 8.04 LTS drive Ubuntu into

new arenas.”

So, what’s the deal? Has Canonical abandoned the consumer desktop model as well? Is it time for the pitchforks and torches calling for Shuttleworth’s head?

Hardly. Here’s what I think is going on. First, Canonical has been emphasizing the business desktop for quite some time because it’s an easier channel to sell to.

Let me spell this out: When people decry Linux on the consumer desktop, it’s not because its hard to make Linux technically ready for consumer use. With enough effort, Linux could easily match application and hardware support of the major desktop OSes. The problem is Linux on the consumer desktop is hard to sell. The channels (retail, OEM, etc.) are very full with products from Microsoft and Apple. Many companies have tried to break into the desktop channels and have hit a brick wall.
It’s no wonder then, that Canonical–and Red Hat, and Novell, and Mandriva, and everyone else–have primarily made the business market their desktop target. You can sell directly to businesses, and businesses typically do not need or want as many applications and hardware support on the desktop. Sell to businesses now, generate some revenue, and (if you’re smart) send some of that revenue into more R&D for consumer desktop applications and support.

As long as the commercial Linux vendors stick to this business-first, home user-later approach, every one is pretty much happy. But lately Canonical’s started to drop some hints that they are ready to approach the consumer desktop as a serious channel. Look at that quote from Silber again: “Our business and home users have told us that they want a longer

support cycle…” (There’s a couple more references to consumer use in today’s release, too.) And c’mon, YouTube support in MythTV? NIfty, but hardly a practical business use.

I think, having seen the Ubuntu 8.04 LTS development tree just like the rest of us, Red Hat and Novell decided to offer up their own consumer desktop plans as a sacrificial lamb. This gets them two things:

First, their comments deemphasize the notion that Linux is ready as a home desktop platform. According to Red Hat and Novell, after all. But oh, it’s most certainly ready as a business desktop platform, they remind us. The timing of these announcements is rather interesting, too: right before Canonical’s official release announcement. If Canonical had strongly emphasized the consumer aspects of the new Ubuntu release, they could have been dragged back by Red Hat and Novell’s proclamations that the consumer desktop is just not a realistic market.

Second, Novell and Red Hat get to look like the real business vendors, as opposed to those free-wheeling desktop hippies over at Canonical. I’d bet money that their sales lines go something like: “come see us if you want serious enterprise support on the server and the desktop.” Canonical’s too focused on catering to their community, they might add.

Did Novell and Red Hat make these announcements now just to slow Canonical and Ubuntu down? I don’t think it’s the only reason–they really have to keep an eye on their respective bottom lines–but the timing of their announcements was certainly considered.

And here’s the thing: just because they have announced the redistribution of resources away from consumer desktop development and deployment does not mean Red Hat and Novell are actually doing it. They probably have–fibbing like that is difficult in the open source world. But there’s nothing to stop them from re-starting consumer desktop development at a moment’s notice (something that’s easy in the open source world) the instant they see someone pulling ahead in that market.

I think they are going to see Canonical as that someone. By playing it cautiously about the consumer vs. business desktop, Canonical has smartly avoided any hits from the Red Hat/Novell announcements, and should be able to continue to carry itself as a “serious” enterprise vendor. Meanwhile, they will keep acknowledging the home desktop market, making technical strides for home users, until it really will be “The [Insert Duration Here] of the Linux [Business and Home] Desktop”