Canonical is bullish on its Indian operations and the company has every reason to feel so. Not only is its operating system, Ubuntu, making serious inroads into the Indian market, the company is also getting many OEMs to ship their laptops with Ubuntu pre-loaded. Recently, Canonical kicked off its second biggest retail expansion programme in India in collaboration with Dell, where the latter will be selling Ubuntu pre-loaded laptops in 850 retail stores across the country. Early next year, Canonical plans to launch Ubuntu TV as well. All this, and much more, brought Canonical’s CEO Jane Silber to the country to explore the current expansion options. Diksha P Gupta from LINUX For You caught up with Silber to discuss everything to do with Ubuntu and Canonical. And did we talk of its recent friendship with Microsoft? Read on…
India is a prime playground for Canonical…
What is your tie-up with Dell all about?
We have announced a new initiative in India in partnership with Dell, where there will be 850 Dell retail stores promoting Ubuntu in a retail environment. It’s a really important signal. It’s bringing open source and Linux out from the world of tech enthusiasts and open source advocates into the mainstream. People in those stores will be trained on Ubuntu, so that they can pass that knowledge on to anybody who comes into the store and help make them an informed choice on whether they want Ubuntu or any other operating system. It’s similar to a programme we have done in China as well, and that programme has been running for about a year with very good results. So we are very excited to be able to do that in India. We see a lot of growth and potential in India. We will be meeting with partners, government users and folks like that.
What is your target for these laptops and where exactly do you want to reach with this partnership with Dell?
We wish to reach out to people who want a simple, easy-to-use, secure computing experience. Frankly, we want to reach out to people who don’t care much about operating systems. We are pretty strong already amongst the people who care about operating systems. In the big scheme of the world, people who go to a website, download an operating system and install that on their computers form a relatively small number. This makes our initiative particularly significant because we want to reach out to a whole new audience — the mass consumer audience — and it’s important for Ubuntu to sustain our growth, and it’s important for companies like Dell and other OEMs as well. We work with others besides Dell, because it helps us bring an open solution to a larger number of people.
But there are many challenges as well. The penetration of open source operating systems is pretty low compared to proprietary options like Windows. The trend is global and India is no exception. Ubuntu is not a common name in India. In fact, no Linux-based operating system is common in India. How do you plan to reach out to people who perhaps do not even know the name of your OS, and talk to them about its advantages?
There is not a single trick that will work for this. It is all part of a process. This retail environment is one piece of that puzzle. Think about how people learn about brands in general. They see some media (which may be advertising), they see it around when they walk into the shops, and things like that. People learn about things through their friends or through personal recommendations. Ubuntu is fortunate that we have a very strong advocacy base, a very strong set of users and community which definitely helps spread the word about us.
People also hear about new options in other environments. We do increasingly large desktop deployments in government organisations, in enterprises and in schools. So, an entire generation of children is using Ubuntu as the standard computing environment in schools. That’s ‘normal’ to them as opposed to all of us who probably grew up on a Windows environment. We did not even know that there was any other option. We have very large school deployments in Spain. In India, we have significant education deployments. People are also learning about new technologies. There is an interesting crossover of technology in the sense that people expect to use the same technology at work that they use at home. This is all about the consumerisation of IT and trends. But the reverse also works. People many-a-time take the technology they use in the office to their homes. The management at the workplaces makes this decision for its people, and after they get used to it on their office desktops, they take it to their homes too. We see Ubuntu spreading that way as well. So, there is no simple answer to your question.
There is no multi-million dollar advertising budget that will make Ubuntu a household name all of a sudden. It is something that we have to attack from many angles. One such effort is through our partnership with OEMs. Ubuntu will be available pre-installed in a machine rather than users having to download it. We want to attack through the retail marketing, through services that we provide to the enterprises, and through the Ubuntu community.
After China, you chose India for your retail mission. Why?
Opportunity and growth! India is one of the countries where Ubuntu is most successful and well received. We see significant growth in Ubuntu adoption in India. Over the last year we saw 160 per cent growth. So, we believe that there is real potential and demand here. I would say, again, it is done with partners. So we can go to the market through our OEMs. Canonical is not building computers and Canonical does not have stores. Our OEM partners know the market very well and have much more data than we do about the many machines that ship in India with Ubuntu pre-installed. Our OEM partners believe that we can grow with proper marketing and education.
Is there data to support the Ubuntu adoption rates that you just mentioned?
We do not have an exact number. Since Ubuntu is free, we don’t ask people to register. We think people should use it out of choice. So, we don’t have an exact count of the users, but what we can do is look at the downloads, at security updates and at machines that are shipped with OEMs with Ubuntu pre-installed. When you look at these numbers, what you can get is the general trend and relative growth.
Any reasons for choosing Dell as your OEM partner for the first retail expansion in India?
We would like to see Ubuntu in many more retail shops in India and elsewhere. Dell has been a very solid and long-standing partner with Canonical. Both companies saw an opportunity here and invested in that opportunity. But, it is not an exclusive relationship with Dell. We would like to see the same thing happen with other OEMs.
So when do we see this relationship extending to other OEMs, and which are the companies that you are looking at?
We already work with many OEMs on various projects. These include Dell, Lenovo, Acer, HP and HCL. Each of the OEMs has a different strategy. The retail strategies in China and India are also different. We work with all these OEMs now and the relationship with each one of them is growing. However, we are not announcing any store openings with them.
These 850 stores that you are talking about will be Dell and Canonical stores?
No, they are absolutely Dell stores, and inside those stores there will be significant Ubuntu branding. They will be selling machines with Ubuntu pre-installed. The sales people will be trained on Ubuntu. There will be marketing collateral like posters and brochures about Ubuntu, so that the user has information about what to buy.
The changing face of Microsoft…
What is your take on Microsoft’s open source subsidiary?
I think Microsoft has got a lot smarter and savier about open source. Canonical has a good relationship with Microsoft. We have recently announced Ubuntu being supported on Azure, Microsoft’s cloud. That’s a positive relationship. I think, earlier, Microsoft’s strategy was based on fear and disdain. Now, they have recognised open source. Previously, they were hoping open source would somehow just go away. But they are smart business people and they know that open source is not going away anywhere. So they are adopting the strategy to figure out how to work together. I think that’s a smart business move. They know that their customers want to use Linux and open source. However, I don’t see them open-sourcing Windows ever. I don’t think Microsoft will ever go to that extreme, but I think they are making pragmatic, realistic, smart business decisions about the fact that people live in a heterogeneous computing environment, and open source and Linux are a part of the IT landscape. They have realised that the better everybody interacts with each other, the better the experience will be for the end user and customers.
Any reasons for joining hands with Microsoft on the Azure platform?
Microsoft’s goal with Azure is to provide infrastructure that delivers computing resources and computing power to its users. Azure is the infrastructure piece, and there are guest images and guest OSs that sit on top of that in the cloud. For Microsoft, it’s a smart business decision to make sure that what they are delivering in that cloud is what people want to use. And for us, it’s a smart business decision to make sure that people who want to use Ubuntu, even if they want to use it around Windows, can do so in a secure and certified manner. So, it was very obvious that we ought to work with Microsoft to make sure that the Ubuntu that people use in Azure Cloud is the best Ubuntu experience possible. It’s what Microsoft’s customers want and what our customers want as well. So it was a very natural partnership to strike. I think there is often a perception that there are some backroom deals, but there is none of that in this case. It is a very obvious business decision. The end user wanted to use Ubuntu; we wanted them to use it; Microsoft wanted them to use it on their cloud; so it’s a natural alignment of objectives.
Even if it was a business decision, Microsoft still sees any other operating system as a competitor…
Similarly, any operating system is a competitor to Ubuntu. People want to use the right tool for the job. I think it’s important to be able to compete and co-operate with other companies. Today, with so many big companies with such a range of activities, there is bound to be competition in some areas. I think that’s natural. If you allow that competition to stop you working with someone, you will be very isolated. You have to learn to collaborate and compete. Collaboration often makes the competition easier because there is mutual respect from the collaborative efforts and vice versa. By competing, you learn about the others’ strengths and you appreciate those strengths sometimes.
Does that mean Microsoft was isolated so far and, now, these moves are in the direction of being collaborative?
I think Microsoft is certainly trying to re-establish itself or establish itself with the open source community and with open source advocates. But it is the dominant player. It’s not right to say that they are isolated. They are clearly the leading OS in many environments, depending upon how you define those environments. As I said before, it is a pragmatic smart decision of theirs to learn how to work with open source competitors rather than trying to push them away. And in some ways, it’s recognition on their part that open source is not going away anywhere. They tried to beat it, but having realised that it is going to be around, they are figuring out how to get the best from it.
But what about the secure boot feature of Windows 8 that Microsoft is talking about? There is a lot of opposition to it from The Linux Foundation as well. What is your take on that?
I think there are different aspects to the secure boot issue. At the purely technical level, there are genuine benefits to a secure boot. Then there are some marketing and brand implementations on top of that, which are being driven by competitive concerns rather than any worries about technical security. Stepping in those two areas is difficult, and this is partly the reason behind some of the opposition to the secure boot from the Linux and open source community.
Does that mean Microsoft is not clear about its intentions on whether to be open source or not?
Microsoft doesn’t have any intentions of being open source. Microsoft has intentions of meeting their commercial goals, as any company does, including Canonical. We choose to do it the open source way. We think that’s a better and more effective way, while Microsoft chooses a different path. In choosing its path, it has become more accepting of open source alternatives and it recognises the need to work together with those options. But I don’t think it’s correct to say that Microsoft has gone open source or is going open source. I think the company’s view of open source has matured and it recognises it as a player in the ecosystem. That doesn’t mean Microsoft is not going to compete against open source. In general, we all know that fair competition largely results in a better experience for the customer. There are obvious historical issues with Microsoft about fair competition, but as far as our dealings with it are concerned, it has been a very good partner around the Azure collaboration. It’s a solid partnership that can benefit both the organisations.
What is coming up in the future between Canonical and Microsoft? Do we see more partnerships between proprietary and open source companies on any other level?
I don’t have anything specific to share but I think, in general, that’s the trend. I think people will use more and more of Linux and Ubuntu, and there will be many more touch points with Microsoft. Things like cloud computing will improve the relationship, simply because of the nature of the cloud — which means people are freely moving between platforms. I think the number of places where those platform choices or operating system choices will occur are going to increase, and it’s in everybody’s interest to make those smooth interactions. I don’t have a specific example of what that may look like but the days of Microsoft really bashing open source are ending.
Unity: A troubled child for Canonical?
Canonical’s Unity has received mixed responses. Some people have liked it and some have not. What was the idea behind it? And after the mixed reactions to it, what are your future plans for Unity?
There are two main drivers of Unity. One was that we just needed something better than what we had. The prior desktop, frankly, was old fashioned. It wasn’t modern and wasn’t extensible into what consumers expect. It needed a dramatic change. Several years ago, we said that we had to prioritise design. Mark Shuttleworth’s view was that Canonical cares about design. Sexiness and bling is an important feature and ought not to be an afterthought. It’s a core attribute that we said we would try and lead the open source community in. We stand up to that leadership role. The change we introduced, Unity, was a bit rocky. But we conveyed the notion that we needed to raise the bar and that was one of the main drivers for Unity.
The second main driver was the notion of a portfolio of products. It’s a similar experience across form factors. We could see that with the introduction of cloud computing and with the emphasis on mobile computing — whether it’s a phone, tablet or laptop — there needed to be a computing experience that wasn’t radically different on each form factor. So we started investing in Unity, like building a design team and doing a lot of research. One of the interesting things about Unity and its design is that everybody has got an opinion about it. Our computers, laptops, phones and tablets are an important part of our life and it’s very natural to feel emotional about them. So changing something that we are very connected with can be very wrenching for some people. From the beginning, there were some people who really liked Unity and there were others who really hated it. People who hated Unity were either those who didn’t like any changes at all or those who didn’t like changes for specific reasons. That was constructive criticism. Over a period of time, we improved Unity. Now you find that those who objected to it because it was changed are warming to it because it is no longer a new thing. The same thing will happen when Microsoft releases Windows 8. A lot of people will criticise it for different reasons and even term it as ‘the end of Microsoft’, which obviously will not be true.
I think Unity is now largely recognised for being a good positive development. We’ve achieved our goals and the strategic reasons for investing in it have been proved right. We have helped raise the bar in terms of design and user experience for the open source community. Other projects are talking much more about design and the user experience than ever before. There is a change in the open source community and the community has recognised the importance of user experience, whereas it was never recognised or prioritised before. Apart from bringing about the change, the current version of Unity is good and we get very good test results from it. Users respond well to it. We have a release every six months and Unity seems to get better each time. I think we have weathered the Unity storm and are now positioned better.
So Unity is here to stay?
Yes it is. There is no doubt about that!
Canonical and the Indian community…
How do you view the open source community in India, in general?
Ubuntu has a strong community in terms of advocacy and translations, but there is less contribution around code. I don’t know the reason behind that. India is one of the countries where we see lower code contribution. We can cite specific reasons like the language barrier. We however have not done any specific analysis on the Indian community. But the Ubuntu community in India is quite strong and active. We have got a good strong local team. In my perception, people in India are very technical and knowledgeable. They are making a lot of good contributions to the code but you don’t see these contributors mixing or networking in the community, the reasons for which are unknown to me. But when we held the Ubuntu Developer’s Day, we had people from IBM, Intel, ARM and lots of very hardcore kernel developers. India has a good amount of technical people who do loads of good work but you don’t see them in community meet-ups.
In the West, contributing to code is like a luxury. Contributors may have some other source of income and contributing to code could just be their hobby. But in India, the scene is entirely different. Many contributors do it for their bread and butter. People start contributing to Linux and then make it to IBM or Intel, which, in a way, is a success story. Participation in the community leads to a job. That’s a good reason to get involved in open source and that is, overall, the community and open source dynamics.
Ubuntu Cloud Day has just happened. What was the response to it in India and will we see more such events being organised in the country?
Absolutely! We do not have anything planned yet, but the previous event was largely a success and it’s something that we would like to repeat. By and large, our work in India has been around the desktop but, increasingly, there is server and cloud interest in Ubuntu and I think Ubuntu Cloud Day was an example of that. I think that will continue and grow. About 180 people came for the event. Before that we held the Ubuntu Developer’s Day where around 350 people participated. We had an entry fee of Rs 1000, and we had enough participation despite that. I think ours was one of the most successful cloud events compared to the ones organised by other companies. There were lots of senior level people from the IT industry who came to attend the event.
What else do you plan to do in the Indian market?
One of the exciting things that we hope to bring to India is Ubuntu for Android. This is the ability to run a full Ubuntu desktop on an Android phone, and when you plug that phone into a monitor and a keyboard, you have the full Ubuntu desktop experience powered by the phone. We believe that’s a really interesting proposition for a number of reasons. It will be beneficial for enterprises in terms of reducing devices that an enterprise IT shop has to manage because of the smoother experience that it gives to the users. You just have to plug in your phone and have the same contacts and same data on the desktop as well. Ubuntu for Android is particularly relevant in a market like India where for so many people their phone is their first computer. So by merging these two, it’s a way to bring a powerful and complete desktop computing environment to an enormous number of people who get a phone before they get a desktop. It will be a bridge into their computing life.
I think Ubuntu for Android is a particularly interesting offering not just for enterprises but also for the high growth markets like India. We will come to market in India in conjunction with our partners. So Canonical is not going to start making phones. We will follow the same process that we do on PCs, where we come with a partner like Dell. In the case of Ubuntu for Android, we will come in with a phone partner or maybe a telco. It will take a little bit of time to put these relationships in place but it is a very key part of the proposition. So, hopefully, the next time we talk, it will not be about deploying thousands of Ubuntu desktops somewhere but about the millions of phones that run Ubuntu for Android on them.
Upcoming projects of Canonical…
You said Ubuntu for Android will be big for India. We do accept that, but Android already is huge for India. One doesn’t know when Google will come up with a similar concept. Who do you see as your competition and will Ubuntu for Android be available on cost-friendly devices as Android is?
We already see people stretching Android into larger form factors. It first stretched into tablets, though the first version of Android for tablets was not so strong. The newer Android tablet versions are getting better. We are already seeing people trying to stretch that to a desktop and it doesn’t work very well. There is a lot of Android being used to design pointing interactions and touch interactions as opposed to a mouse or a keyboard. But there have been some awkward experiences that people have had. From the perspective of the user experience, we are very comfortable that we have a much better desktop offering. That’s our bread and butter and core strength. Having said that though, Android is competition. People will try to pull and stretch Android in different ways. Even with Windows 8 and its emerging natural interface, you can already see that they are trying to put the same interface on different form factors. It’s similar on phones, tablets and on the early desktop previews that are out. But some things work well and some things don’t stretch so well. I think there will be competition in this ‘converged device’ space. We think we will have a very credible and strong offering, but others will try as well.
When do we see Ubuntu for Android coming in, finally?
I do not have a date for you and the schedule for that depends more on our partners than us, because it’s not our products or devices that will be getting launched.
What about Canonical’s tablet?
We have said that we will be working on a tablet. A part of the inspiration behind redesigning the desktop interface into Unity was to understand how to work across this range. This trend towards the convergence of devices and a continual but not identical computing experience was our clear intent, a couple of years ago. We knew that the previous desktop paradigm didn’t stretch, and learning and designing something that would expand on a spectrum of devices was part of the motivation for Unity several years ago. You have seen that result in Ubuntu TV, which again is a similar but not identical experience. Ubuntu for Android is a bit of a different experience. While it brings the desktop experience to the phone, we are also exploring tablets but do not have a product announcement on that yet.
You recently launched a laptop for developers along with Dell…
‘Launched’ is too strong a word. It was Dell’s project called Sputnik, which is an effort on their part to be responsive to what people want from their products. They are trying to listen to their customers. One of their target markets is developers and, hence, a developer laptop. So we did some work together and looked at what developers really want on their laptops and one of their top choices is Ubuntu. Dell did a marketing test to see whether there would be a market for this laptop. The model is XPS 13 with Ubuntu pre-installed and configured in a developer environment. They got a very positive response during test marketing but they are still to decide whether to actually launch the product or not. So what you saw was just the floating of an idea to check out if developers would buy something like this. It was testing the tides rather that actually launching it.
What is your conclusion on Dell’s XPS 13?
I think it’s a great idea. Ubuntu is a natural fit for developers. There was a survey done recently by the Eclipse Foundation about which operating system developers would want to use. Windows was first, but Ubuntu was a very strong second. We know that Ubuntu appeals to developers. Much of our enterprise usage is on developer workstations and much of our server use comes from the fact that developers are actually using it. Dell still needs to look at whether developers will specifically buy such a machine. For us, the answer to whether developers and Ubuntu go together, is a definitive ‘yes’.