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Shuttleworth: Don't Give Up the Linux Desktop

There are some people who do not believe that the Linux desktop will ever be a major force in the global IT market.

Mark Shuttleworth isn't one of them.

Speaking at the LinuxCon conference late Wednesday, the Canonical founder pitched his approach for expanding Linux to provide a better user experience and broadening its appeal. The approach involves having a degree of cadence and coordination between projects and distributions, as well as improving quality and design.

Having strong leadership at the top doesn't hurt either.

"We definitely shouldn't give up the desktop," Shuttleworth said. "This is one of the most exciting years for the desktop in living memory."

Shuttleworth added that the Intel-led Moblin effort and Google's mobile Linux initiatives with Android and ChromeOS have generated considerable interest in Linux.

Canonical-backed Ubuntu, for its part, has a Moblin-based netbook remix.

While the interest is there, Shuttleworth noted that some key areas need to be improved about the way Linux is developed and presented to users.

From a user-experience perspective, for instance, he said that Linux's design has been lacking. To that end, Shuttleworth noted that Ubuntu has its own user-experience team that conducts testing with regular people to see how they use software.

But Shuttleworth would like to see the user-experience effort extend beyond Ubuntu.

During his keynote, he extended an invitation to any open source application to submit their software for testing by user-experience experts. The sessions would be recorded for posterity, and the developer would not be able to interact with the user.

"If the developer is in the room, they have to say nothing. It's the shut the f--- up protocol," Shuttleworth said. "You sit and watch someone struggle with the software that you've so lovingly produced."

Shuttleworth noted that there traditionally has been some tension in software development between user interface (UI) people and developers, which is a big problem.

"If we can't figure out how to bring these two communities together in a powerful way, I don't think we'll achieve the dream," Shuttleworth said. "If we can't make design cool in free software we won't take first prize."

Cadence and quality

Another issue facing Linux distributions is the absence of any large-scale coordination between many of the underlying open source applications when it comes to releases. In Shuttleworth's view, distributions do not actually compete with each other based on which version of an application they are shipping.

"Every time we create friction and differences between distros on that basis, we're just making life harder for users and making it harder for upstreams," he said.

The problem for upstream projects has to do with maintenance for multiple versions. If different distributions are using different versions of a particular project, it compounds the number of versions that an upstream project could need to fix and maintain. Shuttleworth's suggestion is to build some kind of consensus among projects around major versions that come out at regular, predictable intervals.

"This doesn't lead to a world where there is no innovation and there is no differentiation," he said. "It just leads to a world where at a developer level you can actually have more effective collaboration."

Ubuntu's collaboration with the Debian Linux distribution is also something that Shuttleworth is keen on continuing to improve. Ubuntu is based in part on code derived from Debian. Shuttleworth noted that most of the core developers in Ubuntu started out as Debian developers.

While Ubuntu's relationship with Debian has not always been perfect, Shuttleworth said that it's better to focus on what can be done to move Linux forward. In his view, the tone of the conversations is up to the leadership of each project.

"Ubuntu is a delightful dictatorship. I can say that because I'm the dictator and I quite like it," Shuttleworth said. "We try to give air time to make things better."