Last week, personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Walter Mossberg, authored a review of the new Dell-Ubuntu system. The piece came across as honest and objective, but more importantly it I took it as a working outline of how the average (see: mainstream) user views Ubuntu. For those of us 'within the open source house' the classification of Ubuntu as one of, if not the, most polished, end-user oriented Linux distribution is hardly cause for debate. Yet Mr. Mossberg provides an angle that puts the excitement generated by the recent advances towards pre-loaded Linux PC's for the masses, into its proper perspective.
Ubuntu has made tremendous strides as a Debian based Linux distribution, buoyed in part by Mark Shuttleworth's financial backing as well as his vision for a high quality operating system available free of charge. However, it remains that Ubuntu is still the novice Linux user's distro, where a newbie Linux user is very much different from the average PC user. Ubuntu has proven capable of working wonderfully for those who have been primed to use some Linux flavor, whether through past experience with another distro or even UNIX. A notable accomplishment considering the overall state of the Linux desktop, but the average PC user is and will be a Windows person for a time to come. In order for Ubuntu to succeed it must find a way to reach those who exist outside the open source vacuum. Mr. Shuttleworth admitted as much in the article, but it's a personal contention that the issue isn't so much related to time but to approach and outlook.
The crux of the challenge lies in extending the boundary of an already impressive open source community to include individuals like Mr. Mossberg. And I don't mean for the press, but for the value of integrating objective feedback that can only come from a virtual outsider and/or newbie. Those who have already become users are capable of contributing feedback that helps improve Ubuntu as a Linux distro, because at that stage they are, in fact, Linux users. They have adjusted to Ubuntu and in doing so have reduced their propensity to see things as an average non-Linux user. Therefore tasks which stop average users in their tracks are combed over as second nature.
Additionally, at the point where a truly novice users give Ubuntu a try they are immediately compelled to become an autodidact in the spirit of open source. However, the initial stages where a Linux-based operating system like Ubuntu is foreign to them is where novice users are most valuable to the community as a resource for injecting ideas about what's missing from a distro that's looking to target more of the mainstream. Unfortunately, this is also the stage where most go unheard and unrecognized. Projects like Ubuntu (OpenOffice and OpenProj come to mind) would benefit greatly from maintaining a direct connection with the mainstream user whose adoption preferences will eventually determine the nature of any variety of long-term success.
In the past I've attempted to champion more proactive outreach by the global open source software movement. The need to reach more people
is driven by a large, majority that isn't being reached with up-to-date
information about open source. My interactions with fellow attendants of this
year's JavaOne reflected just how far open source has come but
also of how far remains to be tread. The open source presence at the
conference was indelible yet in mingling with the
developer-oriented crowd I sensed a lack of consistent awareness about
open source. In essence, those who knew, really knew but the
remainder were largely benighted and saw very little reason to find out more.
This did not imply that they were lacking as software developers, however. Only that the observed vague familiarity with premium open source names like Eclipse and Apache (the entire software foundation not just httpd) spoke to an appallingly low level of overlap between open source hot-spots and the majority of primary information outlets. Obviously, the highlights, analysis and announcements being carried by open source information standard bearers like LinuxToday, NewsForge and others aren't being propagated outside of what amounts to an insider's circle.
Similarly, open source must recognize the need to enhance the diversity of an extended community, especially as it relates to everyday-use software. In these cases, being the free-of-cost alternative might be enough to capture the early adopter crowd, but plain and simple ease-of-use is the measuring stick for crossing the chasm. For Ubuntu it never has been about duplicating Windows functionality, but about better aligning the needs and realities of the mainstream user with project activity. The Dell partnership will prove helpful to increasing the distribution reach of Ubuntu, but it remains to be seen if it will accelerate the project's acceptance by the mainstream user.