Why is Ubuntu Succeeding Where Linspire Failed?

Thursday Aug 5th 2010 by Matt Hartley
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Linspire was the Ubuntu of its day, yet it failed despite using tactics that are now succeeding wildly for Ubuntu.

If you've been a desktop Linux user for any length of time, chances are excellent that you remember a company once called Linspire. At its time of creation, Linspire was brought forth with a very specific mission: Make desktop Linux easy to use while 'one-uping' Microsoft Windows.

Perhaps this is why the original name of both the company and the operating system they sold was called Lindows. After various legal battles with Microsoft however, Lindows eventually became known as Linspire as part of a settlement agreement.

Now for the big question: Why is the Linux community 'reasonably' happy with Ubuntu while Linspire was almost immediately painted as a mockery within Linux universe?

In this article, I’ll explore my own thoughts on this along with publicly known perceptions held by the community at large.

What Linspire did right

Linspire at one time had arguably the easiest to use desktop experience I had ever seen. To me, this became self-evident with the release know as Linspire 5.0, which presented a number of huge improvements over the 4.5 release.

At the time of Linspire 5.0's release, things were very new in the "simple to use" desktop Linux ecosystem. Alternatives to Linspire did exist, but Linspire's offering had more polish to it from a new user's point of view, based on users I had tested the Linux distribution with.

I think it had to be the CNR application management tool, based on apt-get, that completely destroyed the competition from a user convenience point of view.

What Linux purists will likely never admit is that in 2005, Linspire's CNR was the definitive app store for any platform. Evil or wonderful in community perception, CNR made locating, installing and uninstalling software mind-numbingly simple to do. This is not merely my opinion. I found this to be true based on having people who barely knew how to check email using CNR back then. These users couldn't get over how easy it was to add/remove software. And finding out about new applications was surprisingly intuitive as well.

In addition, Linspire made funds available to a number of open source projects, ranging from Kopete to the ReiserFS file system. So while they were not loved by much of the Linux community by any stretch, they did appear willing to support projects used within their Linux distribution.

Where things get fuzzy

From a more traditional Linux users point of view, Linspire crossed lines that many Linux enthusiasts were simply not happy with. These issues include:

1. Linspire was a 'for sale' product. To make matters more controversial, Linspire was driving people to buying the CNR warehouse (aka CNR) memberships as well. This meant users were basically subscribing to a service for ease of use, while accessing open source software along side of proprietary applications.

2. Mixed licenses used. Linspire's CNR was not open source software at the time, in addition to other restricted/proprietary codecs being made available with this Linux distro.+

3. Later deals with Microsoft with regard to IP licenses, a few years later. Worse was the statement in which the company expressed the idea that a Microsoft embrace would provide for a better Linux. Clearly, the Linux community did not share this assessment.

4. Freespire – Too little, too late. By the time Freespire finally found its way forward, we still found a lack of community involvement at the level most users would have liked to have seen. And to the Linux purists, the mixed licensing bundled with easy access to proprietary, Microsoft-blessed code was a major negative. Yet oddly, we're okay with allowing people to do basically the same thing on Ubuntu with Linux distributions like Linux Mint? A bit of a paradox, no?

Flash forward to Ubuntu

The two single biggest things I see Ubuntu doing differently from Linspire is keeping the community involved at all costs, and making sure of constant availability.

Yes, there are people who are paid to work on the Ubuntu project fulltime, but at the end of the day you won't find proprietary codecs or video drivers installed by default. To some this may seem like we're splitting hairs, yet this is a huge deal to many users in the Linux community.

Availability is key. Ubuntu is made available at no cost to anyone. Development is generally considered cutting edge, sourced from the latest work on Debian and tweaked to meet the needs of the most die-hard Ubuntu enthusiast.

Ubuntu is also no friend to Microsoft. The company behind the Ubuntu project, Canonical, has worked hard to make the end user first on their list. Canonical also has the advantage of being based off-shore, away from U.S. IP law. This is not to say that Ubuntu or Canonical encourage users to ignore these laws, rather the fact that they encourage users to understand that it’s a use-at-your-own risk kind of deal.

Ubuntu's often unspoken truths

Despite the massive success Ubuntu has seen as a Linux distro for the masses, it's still not going far enough for some Linux enthusiasts.

These individuals charge Unbuntu with everything from working off of the labors of Debian Linux to watering down desktop Linux too much. Clearly, not everyone can be made happy when attracting new users to the desktop Linux experience. The folks behind the Ubuntu project have tried to take the approach of supporting a FOSS compliant alternative called gNewSense, but despite this, some people are still not pleased.

Then there is the proprietary codec problem. Unlike Linspire, which worked overtime to make sure users had this available out of the box, Ubuntu requests that you seek this functionality out via software repositories or other sources instead of accessing these proprietary codecs out of the box.

Often, these repositories are just a check-box away and are easy to access, yet the fact remains that Ubuntu opts out of the IP law debate and leaves this in the hands of the end user.

And then finally, there is the now famed Ubuntu Software Center. We'd love to think this was all Ubuntu’s in the making. Perhaps not, though, based on the fact that in 2007 Canonical actually hired both the lead engineer in charge of Linspire's CNR Warehouse, and Linspire's VP of Business Development Randy Linnell, who now handles Ubuntu Partnerships for Canonical.

Think about it – do you really think that the guy behind Linspire's CNR warehouse didn't have a hand in the development of the Ubuntu Software Center? I think the answer is self-evident if you really stop and ponder it.

Harvesting from Linspire

When news first came in about Xandros buying out Linspire, it was hardly news to me. I knew this was coming simply based on the fact that there was a heavy re-staffing going on at Linspire.

Kevin Carmony departing, in addition to others, due to various internal issues that it’s best to allow Kevin himself to explain.

What I can tell you is that almost immediately upon Linspire's purchase from Xandros, all progress came to a dead stop. Any possible positive outcomes went south and Linspire's users knew it.

So did Xandros take Linspire and run with it? Hardly, instead it's completely dead as a brand and it appears that Xandros was more interested in other aspects of the company. Brand, destroying competition, money?

Who knows for sure, but it is clear that both Ubuntu and Microsoft came out big winners here. Microsoft for having the last laugh over the Lindows issue while Ubuntu is free to pick and choose from the now dead Linspire ideas such as an improved face to the apt-get software delivery concept.

Success and failure from lessons learned

Anyone who makes the claim that Ubuntu didn't have some kind of benefit from how Linspire did things would be mistaken. The fact is, Linspire provided Ubuntu with a perfect model to see what worked and what doesn't when it comes to bringing a successful distro to fruition.

Both of the two distros have substantial differences in their goals for the end user. Yet at the same time, Linspire and Ubuntu both shared commonality for a vision of a successful OEM builders program while also making sure community outreach was a high priority.

Still, there can be no question that Linspire, Xandros, Simply Mepis, Knoppix – among other distributions – blazed a path that allowed Ubuntu to pick up on the shortcomings of each distribution listed.

Targeting both the new user audience, in addition to those looking for a bleeding edge Linux distribution, Ubuntu has taken the original vision from the users/creators of Linspire and provided an updated experience.

One Mistake Lives On in Ubuntu

Sadly there is one mistake made by Linspire that Ubuntu is currently repeating. Back in 2005, I reached out to a Linspire's community representative and then later, spoke to one of their engineers about the importance of branding a supported USB wi-fi dongle. I even went so far as to introduce them to a vendor who already provided open source drivers and was willing to work out branding. Never happened.

Flash forward to today, Ubuntu is repeating the same mistake, by supporting a mismatch of open source and proprietary driver driven chipsets. Revision numbers, complete lack of consistency, all avoidable with one concept: branded Atheros or Ralink USB-based dongles.

The Ralink vendor from back then is still supporting Linux, yet Ubuntu support of their 802.11N chipsets is a joke. I can compile the needed code easy enough, make a couple of simple modifications and it works very well. But why should I need to? Instead, all of this effort is put into supporting various big brand wi-fi devices that work for some folks and not for others. It's sad because its avoidable and genuinely easy to rectify.

Bear in mind that I am not suggesting we stop supporting other chipsets, rather that we rethink where the Ubuntu development puts their wi-fi chipset support focus. I guess this will be added to the list of gripes new users will have, rather than actually providing a duplicable solution.

Ubuntu going forward

Aside from a couple of minor gripes, I'm quite happy using Ubuntu. As a Linux distribution, it's providing me with the features and functions that I want from an operating system.

Here in the very near future, however, I see Ubuntu needing to make a difficult choice. At some point Ubuntu as a project will need to decide where its priorities really are.

Will the project remain focused on making itself freely available for the end user, while also endearing itself to the open source or FOSS ideals that brought up Linux in the first place?

I think there will come a time where we will see a more commercial approach making its way onto Ubuntu desktops. Not because they are trying to be like Linspire, taking on the goal of maximizing market share. Rather due to the fact that it's already happened.

A music store that uses IP licensed codecs to play music is now one of Ubuntu’s funding sources. Interestingly, when Linspire offered IP-licensed codecs, people freaked out. Yet when a non-U.S.-based company does the same for Ubuntu, less people seem bothered by it. I'd even go so far as to say most Ubuntu users are okay with Fluendo's mp3 playback options.

But wait, it gets better.

Now Ubuntu has iPhone support. You heard me, I said Ubuntu can now sync your mp3 music to the portable Apple-lock-box known as the iPhone.

I know for a fact that Linux purists must be chomping at the bit when they stop to think about where Ubuntu is headed currently. The Ubuntu of today may not be offering much in the way of a proprietary experience, but mark my words, the day is coming. I suppose Canonical's philanthropy can only go so far. Eventually, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth has to begin earning enough on his investment to make all this worthwhile.

Either Canonical reduces its paid development and support for the Ubuntu desktop completely at some point, or a cash-earning business model needs to rear its ugly head. Linspire knew this from day one.

Apparently the Ubuntu desktop, as a project, believes it can avoid this for a bit longer? It's possible, though limiting on some fronts considering the paid development already involved in Ubuntu's success. At least Ubuntu is able to build up a strong server business. Not sure how long this is going to carry their efforts on the desktop though.

Final thoughts

I'd like to point out a few minor things. First, I am not advocating we put up a virtual statue in honor of Linspire, nor am I saying that Ubuntu is how we should expect desktop Linux to behave.

No, this is something that has to be decided by the individual and to a larger extent, the community itself. But I am saying that I’ve grown tired of how we collectively demonize anything that does fit into the community's scope of thinking.

In the end, the Linux community will decide collectively what distributions of Linux will be successful and which will fall to an unfortunate fate. Understanding this, I do stand by my belief that even distributions that other Linux users might find distasteful can, in some cases, leave behind lessons for other projects.

Ubuntu, in my mind, did indeed takeaway select lessons from the Linspire legacy. I encourage you to respectfully disagree, but realize that this conclusion did not come without looking honestly at the big picture.

ALSO SEE: The 75 "Funnest" Open Source Downloads

AND: Seven Current Issues on the Linux Desktop

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