Too many Ubuntus?

Listen. I get it: Ubuntu is an excellent Linux distribution. The latest version, Ubuntu 10.04, is great, and I certainly see why there are several Linux distributions based on Ubuntu such as Kubuntu. But do we really need two new Ubuntu desktops, Unity and Light? Can Canonical do everything that it's already doing while adding more work to its load?

Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, certainly seems to think so. On May 10th, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical's founder, announced the two new Ubuntu variants.

The first, Unity, is designed to get the most good out of a netbook's limited screen real estate. This is not just a matter of dumping and/or shrinking down icons. Shuttleworth and company are thinning and rebuilding the GNOME interface to fit the most goodness into a netbook's 1024x600 display.

It's an interesting take on what to do with the netbook interface, and it shows that Canonical has been thinking hard about what needs, and what doesn't need, to be on a netbook screen. My compadre over at ITworld, Brian Proffitt, gave Unity a quick look and liked what he saw. You can see it for yourself by heading to the Ubuntu Netbook Edition Launchpad page, adding the Ubuntu Netbook Edition PPA (Personal Package Archives) to your Ubuntu Software Sources, and then updating with it.

While Canonical has been working on the Ubuntu Netbook Edition since 2008, Ubuntu Light is a new project. This is Canonical's first take on an instant-on, dual-boot Linux, a la DeviceVM's Splashtop Linux. In recent years, these instant-on Linux distributions have quietly become very popular and often appear on business laptops from big name OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) such as HP and Dell.

The Light interface is based on Unity, but the underlying Linux has been optimized to work both in dual-boot situations — but what I find most interesting, "it comes with tools for Windows which assist in the management of the dual-boot experience." It sounds to me like an OEM could use Light to create a safe Linux environment for Windows users to work with online banks or online financial services like Mint.

Gerry Carr, Canonical's head of platform marketing, tells me that the business plan is to get OEMs to pre-install Ubuntu on notebooks and desktops so that "Users can access the web in under ten seconds. The dual boot instant on market is a very immediate business opportunity; we expect that OEMs will pay to have this product available on their PCs. It will also obviously increase familiarity with Ubuntu for users. Unity will [also] allow us to look at producing operating systems appropriate for different user experiences including touch -- as ever we want to keep Ubuntu at the forefront of computing and Unity, along with many other technologies, will help us to do that."

I like these plans, but I wonder just how thinly Canonical can spread itself. Besides all the various official Ubuntu distributions and these new ones, there are such projects as Ubuntu on ARM. Canonical has also partnered with the Linux Foundation, Intel and Nokia on the MeeGo smartphone-embedded Linux, and Canonical has been working with Google on its Chrome operating system.

Ironically, Matt Asay, Canonical's COO, wrote about how there are too many embedded Linux efforts for any of them to be efficient at taking on Apple. To be exact, there are currently five major ones: Android, Chrome OS, Palm's WebOS, MeeGo, and LiMo. By my count, Canonical is now working on nine different versions of Ubuntu just for the x86 platform alone: Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Xubuntu, Light, Unity, Ubuntu Enterprise Cloud, Ubuntu Server, and Ubuntu Studio.

Yes, much of that is code that can be carried from one variant to another without any change. Still, that's an incredible number of projects for a company that hasn't made a profit yet and has about 320 employees. In addition, Canonical still needs to support its older versions, work on Chrome OS, work on MeeGo, etc. etc.

I wish Canonical all the best, but folks, don't you think that paring back might be the prudent thing to do? In my experience, if you try to do too many things at once, all too often you end up doing none of them well. Just my two cents.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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