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Nine years have gone by since Canonical was founded; the 19th release of its Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution will take place in October this year.

Thus, it is fair to assume that the founder of Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, is by now used to the reaction whenever Ubuntu moves in a direction different to the prevailing conventional wisdom.

The latest move is from the Wayland display server to Mir, a display server that is an in-house creation. As usual, there is moaning aplenty, while people try to find reasons for the announcement.

Given that everyone is looking for technical reasons to justify the move, it is unlikely that they will come up with an answer.

Shuttleworth has made all his moves for one simple reason - so that he can have control of the direction which the Ubuntu project takes without having to go and ask others if they are willing to move in his direction. It's much faster to roll your own provided you can still afford to do so.

Shuttleworth tried to get other distributions to agree to an uniform release schedule but failed; he tried to get the GNOME project to take up some of his objectives but failed again. Given that the main developers for Wayland are unlikely to yield to any requests he makes, he has decided that the best thing to do is to strike out on his own.

You see, Shuttleworth is in a bit of a hurry. Since its founding in March 2004, Canonical has made a big splash in terms of visibility. But the break-even point is still not in sight. The founder reportedly had a billion dollars in his pocket when he started out, but some of that has now gone down the drain. One can't run a company of this size on love and fresh air.

Canonical is a private company and there is no indication of what it needs annually to keep things afloat. The latest revenue figures are $US30 million for 2009. Given the lack of financial data, it is impossible to draw any conclusions apart from the obvious fact that the sum mentioned would not suffice to run the company for a year.

Some cutbacks have taken place: the free CD program, where anyone could ask for and receive an Ubuntu disc, was stopped. More recently the costly Ubuntu developer summits, where all the developers met each year, have now been moved online.

Time is of the essence as Shuttleworth tries to make a mark in the tablet and mobile markets. He entered the fields late and is rushing to catch up. He needs to be able to move fast without the need for discussions that take time and also cause immense frustration.

Mir also gives Ubuntu another point of difference, another selling point. Shuttleworth wants to make Ubuntu the one GNU/Linux distribution that can be used across all platforms with the user not having to re-learn  a great deal. This is not dissimilar to the goals that other companies have.

How long can Shuttleworth pull on? It would be difficult to admit failure and move on; one gets the impression that there is a considerable amount of pride involved in doing what he has done.

Will Ubuntu still be around in 2016 if the same state of affairs continues? Of course, it can continue as a community project if all else fails. But it is unlikely that even his detractors would wish that fate on Shuttleworth.

(Picture courtesy of the Ubuntu website)


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.