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Why Did Ubuntu Drop Unity? Mark Shuttleworth Explains

Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth is the founder of Ubuntu

Ubuntu’s decision to ditch Unity took all of us — even me — by surprise when announced back in April.

Now Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth shares more details about why Ubuntu chose to drop Unity.

And the answer might surprise…

Actually, no; the answer probably won’t surprise you.

Like, at all.

Why Did Ubuntu Drop Unity?

Last week saw the release of Ubuntu 17.10, the first release of Ubuntu to ship without the Unity desktop since it was introduced back in 2011.

‘We couldn’t have on our books very substantial projects which have no commercial angle to them’

Naturally the mainstream press is curious about where Unity has gone. And so Mark Shuttleworth has spoke to eWeek to detail his decision to jettison Unity from the Ubuntu roadmap.

The tl;dr he ejected Unity as part of a cost-saving pivot designed to put Canonical on the path toward an initial public offering (known as an “IPO”).

Yup: investors are coming.

But the full interview provides more context on the decision, and reveals just how difficult it was to let go of the desktop he helped nurture.

“Ubuntu Has Moved In To The Mainstream”

Mark Shuttleworth, speaking to Sean Michael Kerner, starts by reminding us all how great Ubuntu is:

“The beautiful thing about Ubuntu is that we created the possibility of a platform that is free of charge to its end users, with commercial services around it, in the dream that that might define the future in all sorts of different ways.

We really have seen that Ubuntu has moved in to the mainstream in a bunch of areas.”

‘We created a platform that is free of charge to its end users, with commercial services around it’

But being popular isn’t the same as being profitable, as Mark notes:

“Some of the things that we were doing were clearly never going to be commercially sustainable, other things clearly will be commercially sustainable, or already are commercially sustainable. 

As long as we stay a purely private company we have complete discretion whether we carry things that are not commercially sustainable.”

Shuttleworth says he, along with the other ‘leads’ at Canonical, came to a consensual view that they should put the company on the path to becoming a public company.

‘In the last 7 years Ubuntu itself became completely sustainable’

And to appear attractive to potential investors the company has to focus on its areas of profitability — something Unity, Ubuntu phone, Unity 8 and convergence were not part of:

“[The decision] meant that we couldn’t have on our books (effectively) very substantial projects which clearly have no commercial angle to them at all.

It doesn’t mean that we would consider changing the terms of Ubuntu for example, because it’s foundational to everything we do. And we don’t have to, effectively.”

‘I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Ubuntu could continue’

‘Ubuntu itself is now completely sustainable’

Money may have meant Unity’s demise but the wider Ubuntu project is in rude health. as Shuttleworth explains:

“One of the things I’m most proud of is in the last 7 years is that Ubuntu itself became completely sustainable. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and Ubuntu could continue.

It’s kind of magical, right? Here’s a platform that is a world class enterprise platform, that’s completely freely available, and yet it is sustainable.

Jane Silber is largely to thank for that.”

While it’s all-too-easy for desktop users to focus on, well, the desktop, there is far more to Canonical (the company) than the 6-monthly releases we look forward to.

Losing Unity may have been a big blow for desktop users but it helped to balance other parts of the company:

“There are huge possibilities for us in the enterprise beyond that, in terms of really defining how cloud infrastructure is built, how cloud applications are operated, and so on. And, in IoT, looking at that next wave of possibility, innovators creating stuff on IoT.

And all of that is ample for us to essentially put ourselves on course to IPO around that.”

Dropping Unity wasn’t easy for Mark, though:

“We had this big chunk of work, which was Unity, which I really loved.

I think the engineering of Unity 8 was pretty spectacularly good, and the deep ideas of how you bring these different form factors together was pretty beautiful.

“I couldn’t make an argument for [Unity] to sit on Canonical’s books any longer”

“But I couldn’t make an argument for that to sit on Canonical’s books any longer, if we were gonna go on a path to an IPO.

So what you should see at some stage, and I think fairly soon, I think we’ll announce that we have broken even on all of the pieces that we do commercially, effectively, without Unity.“

Soon after this he says the company will likely take its first round investment for growth, ahead of transitioning to a formal public company at a later date.

But Mark doesn’t want anyone to think that investors will ‘ruin the party’:

“We’re not in a situation where we need to kind of flip flop based on what VCs might tell us to do. We’ve a pretty clear view of what our customers like, we’ve found good market traction and product fit both on cloud and on IoT.”

Mark adds that the team at Canonical is ‘justifiably excited’ at this decision.

‘Emotionally I never want to go through a process like that again,’ Mark says

“Emotionally I never want to go through a process like that again. I made some miscalculations around Unity. I really thought industry would rally to the idea of having a free platform that was independent.

But then I also don’t regret having the will to go do that. Lots of people will complain about the options that they have and don’t go and create other options.

It takes a bit of spine and, as it turns out, quite a lot of money to go and try and create those options.”

OMG! IPO? NO!

Before anyone splits too many hairs over the notion of Canonical (possibly) becoming a public company let’s remember that Redhat has been a public company for 20 years. Both the GNOME desktop and Fedora are tickling along nicely, free of any ‘money making’ interventions.

If Canonical IPOs there is unlikely to be any sudden, dramatic change to Ubuntu because, as Shuttleworth himself has said, it’s the foundation on which everything else is built.

Ubuntu is established. It’s the number one OS on cloud. It’s the world’s most popular Linux distribution (in the world beyond Distrowatch’s rankings). And it’s apparently seeing great adoption in the Internet of Things space.

And Mark says Ubuntu is now totally sustainable.

With a warm reception greeting the arrival of Ubuntu 17.10, and a new LTS on the horizon, things are looking pretty good…