Here it is at last, folks—a brand new operating system for the iGeneration! Straight from the market’s leading software manufacturer, specifically designed for tablets and smartphones, it’s free from all that tiresome text and crammed with brightly-colored blobs! Move them around, tap them, press them, fondle them! It’s a whole new way of interacting with your phone, your PC, your fridge, your spouse! Yes, it’s here, it’s now, it’s the revolutionary innovation of 2011—it’s Unity!

Wait … what? You thought I was talking about Windows 8? Sorry, folks, but for those of us who embrace the Linux way of life, all the hype and palaver surrounding Windows 8 has a very familiar ring. It’s more or less the same schtick that the UK-based Canonical company used in 2011 to introduce a new interface for its Ubuntu operating system. How did that work out, you ask?

First, a little background. Linux has been available as an operating system for desktop PCs for about ten years now. With most systems it’s possible to run Linux as the core ‘engine,’ with a choice of different interfaces, and the most popular of these have always been GNOME and KDE. GNOME is more or less comparable to Windows XP, while KDE is both more complex and more powerful, like the Apple Macintosh system. By 2011 both of them had been under development for over ten years and were user-friendly and highly effective.

The leading Linux software company at that time was Canonical Ltd, founded by Mark Shuttleworth. Canonical was founded with the short-term aim of developing and giving away a free open-source Linux-based operating system for desktop PCs, and the long-term goal of providing commercial support for that system on large installations. The name chosen for the OS was ‘Ubuntu‘, a South African word meaning ‘humanity towards others’. Ubuntu used the GNOME interface, but Canonical also provided a KDE version called Kubuntu. With a free version upgrade every six months, and a focus on user-friendliness, by late 2010 Ubuntu had become the dominant Linux distro in a very competitive market.

There are many different versions of exactly what happened then, and why. We know that the developers of both KDE and GNOME were plagued with legacy issues, and decided to release radical new versions to overcome these. Perhaps anticipating a turbulent period anyway, Canonical took the opportunity to radically redesign their GUI. The blobby, icon-y, highly-colored, text-free result was called ‘Unity‘. It was released as the default interface for the April 2012 version of Ubuntu.

The Linux community reacted the same way as the Windows community has to Windows 8. Some people loved it, most people hated it. Canonical representatives patiently explained that all we had to do was persevere and things would become clear in time, but users who had spent hundreds of hours already learning a perfectly good operating system weren’t convinced. Within a few months there was a steady movement away from Ubuntu and towards other more traditionally-styled systems like Linux MintFedora and Mageia. (As one of the haters, I moved across to Mint via Kubuntu, and was very happy with the results). In early 2012, Red Hat, the makers of Fedora, became the first Linux distributor to make over a billion dollars in revenue. Canonical—well, Canonical didn’t. And though they’re still going strong, their profile has dwindled.

Of course, the Linux community is much smaller than the Windows community, generally more tech-savvy, and accustomed to selecting their software cafeteria-style from a wide range of independent suppliers. And since Linux operating systems are generally free, experimenting with them involves no cost but time. All the same, I wonder if Microsoft will be wishing in a year or two that they had paid more attention to the fate of Canonical? And I wonder if the number of old-school Linux users will soon get a boost from Windows users who react to Windows 8 the same way that they reacted to Unity?

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  1. I agree.

    I was ready to replace my 6 year old laptop and, after hearing about the integrated physical keyboard that Microsoft was planning, I held off waiting for the release. I was pretty excited about the idea of having a laptop/tablet hi-bred type device.

    Well, now I find out that the Surface will only run Windows RT which won’t let me run any of my older Microsoft programs. All my small business files, family budgets, personal library records…basically everything I have ever saved on a computer, is save on some type of Works template, so that Surface would be pretty useless.

    I was ready to spend the money, but, for now, I’m just looking at new software for my old machine. Bad move, Microsoft.

  2. @January: What got me started on Linux in the first place was when my Windows Vista laptop crashed, taking out the ‘rescue partition’ as well, and I was told I would have to return it to the shop to get Windows reinstalled. At that time Linux was still something of a pain to set up and modify, but now I can recommend it heartily. And unlike Windows, it doesn’t require you to save your settings (the ‘Registry’) in the same partition as your OS, so you can upgrade or switch your version of Linux without having any impact on your data or saved settings for most programs. There are also versions specifically targeted at older PCs.

  3. About a half a dozen manufactures are making tablets that run Windows 8 Pro – the version which will run all legacy windows applications.

    Seriously, I am amazed by the number of journalists and blog posters who seem so confused by Windows RT. Yes, the same interface is also a part of Windows Pro. But, the RT version only runs apps from the Windows store that now number about 3,000. FWIW, Office (Notes, Word and Excel) are on RT tablets.

  4. That’s the problem with any kind of technology. It will become obsolete someday. I once bought audiobooks on cassette type. While it’ possible to find cassette players in garage sales and maybe a few retail outlets if I really looked, my use of audiobooks had moved on, and when I wanted to relisten to one of the books on tape, I had the choice of finding time and equipment to transfer audio and digital, I thought re-buying from Audible was the better deal. That’s just the way it goes.

    Software is more or less the same deal. Backwards compatibility is not always possible. Unix is a old but still functional OS but will it scale to tablets and smart phones? And would the old programs still run on the new generations of systems.

  5. January,
    There will be a Surface that does what you want, but it’s not the RT version. The RT version is just a pure tablet, not the tablet/PC hybrid you’re talking about.

    The full hybrid version is expected January next year, and it will cost more.

  6. The “fate” of Canonical as a company has little to do with Unity, just as the “fate” of Red Hat has little to do with its use of Gnome in its desktop OS.

    Unlike ordinary computer consumers, the “Linux community” is highly resistant to new and better researched interfaces that overcome the annoyances of the traditional desktop UI.

    Innovators have to disrupt themselves or die — read Clayton Christensen. Microsoft seems to have gotten the message. Other than confusing people with RT and the Surface tablet, Windows 8 should do just fine.

  7. Greg M,
    Unix already has scaled to tablets and smart phones. Apple’s iOS is still BSD with the serial numbers filed off and Android is based on Linux. And it makes sense that it would scale. Unix got started on computers a lot less powerful than a modern smartphone (as all computers were in the late 60s and early 70s) and currently runs the most powerful computers in the world. There is no reason to believe that such an OS shouldn’t scale to computers in between.

    I think what you are really talking about is the interface. That is a different question… but obviously different interfaces can be designed for the different devices.

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