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The Green Ray


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

When I was 13 or 14, my family and I spent the summer holidays in Gandia, a rather touristy town in the Spanish Levant, on the east coast of the country. Because I was at that difficult age when you are too old to build sand castles and play on the beach with your parents but too young to go out clubbing, I was easily bored.

Fortunately, our neighbors had a son my age, Salvador, and, although we were both shy and geeky, we hit it off. We had a great time fooling around in the pool, watching bad eighties horror and science fiction movies with terrible plots, cycling, and exploring the area.

One day, Salvador advised me to go to bed early because, he said, we would be getting up early the next morning. We were going down to the beach before the sun came up in hopes of seeing the "Green Ray."

"The what?" I already pictured in my mind a local superhero, dressed in a green tracksuit and mask, jogging along the sand at the crack of dawn.

"The Green Ray is like the Aurora Borealis." Salvador said. "It's an atmospheric phenomenon. If the conditions are right, when the sun rises, a green ray shoots out of it like a laser." This I had to see.

During the first few years of its existence, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, was the rising star in the Free Software world. They did things differently. They organized cool events and wooed developers with stable jobs, decent pay, and plenty of freedom. They did their outmost to make Linux, or at least their own brand of Linux, mainstream. They didn't entirely succeed at the latter – that privilege goes to Android – but at least when the layperson thinks of Linux now, they probably think of Ubuntu.

Then open source became commonplace, and Canonical, although still enormously relevant in the Linux niche, lost some of its purpose. That's when they started striking out in different directions hoping to find a new goal. They started multiple projects, many of which fell flat.

Remember, for example, Ubuntu TV? Yeah, me neither. And what about that essential part of the Ubuntu experience, the Ubuntu cloud-cum-payment service, Ubuntu One? There was even a Windows client for that. Canonical's attempts to become a tech leader within the Linux arena with Upstart (being phased out in favor of systemd), Unity (a mild success, but probably the unique major reason why Mint is now the most popular end-user distro), or Mir (not dead yet, but give it time) are also less than spectacular.

There's nothing wrong with trying new things, and companies start and then cancel apparently major projects all the time. Canonical, however, always seems to reach the bandwagon at least a second too late. Take their latest Big Project, the Ubuntu Phone. Despite the Edge fracas, in the coming weeks (I am writing this on the 7th of February), Canonical and Spanish smartphone manufacturer, BQ, will be launching the first commercial, Ubuntu-powered handset, the Aquaris E4.5.

According to the joint press release, the phones…

"[...] will be available across Europe from through a series of Flash Sales over the coming weeks. [...] The date and time and URL for the first Flash Sale will be announced through @Ubuntu and @bqreaders on Twitter [...]. "

Does that strike you as a strategy of a company that trusts its product? It seems they will produce a few hundred devices a time and make it some sort of race for tech-crazed early adopters. I can see it now: The first batch will run out in minutes, and that's if the website doesn't crash under the pressure. Much gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair will follow. The problem is that, if a customer really needs a phone, she'll just end up going somewhere else. If she's just in it for the novelty… well, novelties wear off really fast, even faster when the first reviews listing all the bugs start hitting the blogs.

After the Edge experience, Canonical realized that going from software company to hardware company is really hard. Microsoft could've told them as much. Outsourcing to BQ is smart, agreed, but breaking into the mobile OS market is just as hard. Just ask Maemo/MeeGo/Tizen/whatever they're called these days, Jolla, HP, or even Microsoft again.

And, even if the Aquaris sells out and customers are driven away, that's the best case scenario. Because, what if that doesn't happen? Imagine round two of the flash sales: There's no one queuing up to buy their phones. BQ won't take much of hit: They have a solid line of hardware products to fall back on. But what about Canonical? Yet another dud fired. Where do they go from there? How do they remain relevant?

That next morning, it was still dark as we made our way down to the beach. We sat on the cold sand and waited, chatting. Then the sun started rising over the sea, in a splendorous pool of purple, then deep red, then orange, and finally gold. But no Green Ray. Neither of us regretted it, though. We had spent some time together, talking about things teenagers think are important and deep, and had experienced the birth of another beautiful mid-summer day.

Even if it is in the shape of a pudgy superhero dressed in pea-green spandex, I do hope Canonical finds its own Green Ray, that project which will put the company on the path to profitability and universal recognition I believe it deserves.

The thing is, as I learned that morning 30 years ago, finding a Green Ray is very much a question of chance – not something you should bet your company on. Maybe Canonical should consider something more mundane, less flashy, like Google's ad service, or Red Hat's server business, something like the sun rising every day, something that would give them stability and allow them to be inventive and daring in other areas, without having to risk the firm's future.

Paul C. Brown,

Editor in Chief

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