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Dear Ubuntu: The netbook is toast

Keep your head in the clouds

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Open...and Shut In the tech industry today, and particularly in mobile, you can make lots of money as a premium innovator (Apple's iOS) or as a mass-market commoditizer (Google Android). But it turns out that there's little room for more than one company in either category, That's why Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, and RIM are struggling to compete with Apple, while Canonical, MeeGo, and others are falling behind Google.

Of all the commodity contenders, however, I've argued that Canonical has perhaps the best chance to become a serious contender due to the community enthusiasm for Ubuntu.

The problem, however, is where Canonical seems to be focusing that community muscle.

Take netbooks, for example. The VAR Guy suggests that while Windows remains the dominant netbook OS, Ubuntu "retains a viable presence in the netbook world," arguably as Linux's shining light in this market.

But does that make it the sexiest nun in the convent?

Let's face it: netbooks are in decline and fading fast. Canonical getting a deal with Asus doesn't change that. Asus is spreading its bets, also dabbling in MeeGo.

But this hardly matters. Netbooks were a promising new market until Apple clobbered them with the iPad. Today, netbooks, laptops, and desktops are being cannibalized by the nascent tablet market, as IDC reports. In tablets, Linux wunderkind Android is a rising force, but Ubuntu is not yet a credible player.

It's not enough, in other words, to have a fighting chance in netbooks. Even a complete victory would be Pyrrhric. The market has moved on, and the market is voting for those platforms that have the most/best applications, just as was the case with Windows in the PC market for decades.

The Ubuntu Software Centre was Canonical's initial attempt to corral applications to its platform, but other than providing a nice interface for discovering and installing existing Ubuntu-friendly applications, Ubuntu Software Centre has failed to entice new developers to the Ubuntu platform.

Not that Canonical is alone in this. MeeGo, despite far more marketing muscle, has similarly failed to entice developers to split their time between iOS and Android to add a third preferred mobile platform. The only challenger with a credible chance of getting any traction with app developers is Microsoft/Nokia, and even these giants will struggle.

As with Microsoft, which has been a strong proponent of HTML5, and as I argued well before resigning from Canonical (I was chief operating officer until the end of 2010), HTML5 may well offer a lifeline in terms of applications, but there has been little movement in HTML5 from the community Linux leader.

It would be easy to accuse Canonical of slacking off, but that's clearly not the case. Anyone who follows Canonical knows that the company is frenetically involved in a wide array of initiatives. Perhaps too wide.

I've argued for years that Canonical needs more focus. The company does well whatever it does, but it's organizationally impossible to be exceptional in so many different areas.

Canonical now has the Unity interface, which positions the company for the mobile world. It's well done and cool.

But how does it mesh with the even cooler Ensemble, a hugely ambitious "service deployment and orchestration tool which enables the same kind of collaboration and ease of use which today is seen around package management to happen on a higher level, around services." What does this mean? Think APT for the cloud.

That's big. Ensemble offers a potential way to cash in on Ubuntu's huge popularity in public cloud computing, but what it doesn't do is mesh particularly well with Canonical's emphasis on personal computing.

If you were starting a company and had Canonical's community following, its exceptional engineering team, and its financial backing, you'd be blessed, indeed. Now all that is needed is focus. That means Canonical wouldn't be able to compete in quite so many markets, but that's just fine. Let the Ubuntu community take the operating system into disparate markets, even as Canonical focuses on just a few. Or, really, just one.

Which one? I'm not sure it matters. Of the options above - consumer mobile and enterprise cloud - either market is gargantuan and growing. There is no wrong answer except, perhaps, "both."

Matt Asay is senior vice president of business development at Strobe, a startup that offers an open source framework for building mobile apps. He was formerly chief operating officer of Ubuntu commercial operation Canonical. With more than a decade spent in open source, Asay served as Alfreso's general manager for the Americas and vice president of business development, and he helped put Novell on its open source track. Asay is an emeritus board member of the Open Source Initiative (OSI). His column, Open...and Shut, appears twice a week on The Register.

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