July 25, 2007

Ubuntu Live needs a more commercial focus

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Ubuntu gets buzz like mad. Ubuntu is the next wave in Linux. Ubuntu is led by Mark Shuttleworth, a world-famous, charismatic person who buzzes around the world in his private jet, bringing the GNU/Linux gospel to the masses. And Ubuntu has now held its first Ubuntu Live conference, which was a decent first effort but nowhere near as polished as Red Hat's annual get-togethers.

The 2007 Red Hat Summit -- the third one they've held -- drew about 1,400 people. Ubuntu Live v1 had fewer than 700 registered attendees.

Ubuntu also holds two tightly focused developer summits every year. Ubuntu Live is supposed to be an "All Things Ubuntu" gathering, which made it seem a little scattered. "Just who is this event supposed to attract?" I asked a number of Canonical executives. (Canonical is the commercial company that sponsors Ubuntu.)

One big difference between Red Hat and Ubuntu right now is that Red Hat has stacks of established partners and system vendors and consultants who rely on Red Hat for at least some of their income, while Ubuntu is a newer player in the commercial GNU/Linux marketplace.

It's hard to build a profitable company based on Linux services. Not impossible, but it takes a great deal of grinding effort, and a lot of the work that goes into building profit-producing business relationships can seem nearly futile during the early stages of the process.

Canonical ISV and Partner Program Manager Malcolm Yates led several sessions at Ubuntu Live that you could call the "money shots" for the conference, because these sessions directly pitched potential business partners, with an emphasis on ones who would make money supplying services based on Ubuntu and would, therefore, share some portion of their income with Canonical in return for upstream support, branding, and marketing assistance.

I counted 30 people in the room in Yates's second session. And among those 30 people (out of more than 600 conference attendees, don't forget), he identified only three he felt were likely to actually produce income for Canonical.

One reason for Red Hat Summit's success is no doubt that a lot of people are making money from Red Hat, which means they are willing to spend considerable sums to attend a Red Hat conference that helps them increase their incomes.

Come to think of it, the fact that a lot of people are making money from Red Hat -- and sharing some portion of their income with Red Hat in return for upstream support, branding, and marketing assistance -- is the reason Red Hat is a profitable company. While Canonical may approach some parts of its business differently than Red Hat, when you come right down to it, Canonical's underlying business model is the same as Red Hat's.

Perhaps next year's Ubuntu Live will be more oriented toward building Ubuntu-based, money-making business relationships. Right now, Canonical is being funded out of pocket by Shuttleworth. But if the company is going to survive, it had better focus on building income, and since Ubuntu already has a growing developer base (and two conferences a year specifically for developers) perhaps next year's Ubuntu Live needs to focus a little more on the commercial aspect of Ubuntu than this year's version did.

This goes back to the "Who is this event supposed to attract?" question. Canonical's people didn't really have an answer. And they aren't necessarily sure exactly how they'll position next year's conference. At this point, all they really know is that there will be one. Where and exactly when it will be are still up in the air, though.

Canonical marketing manager Gerry Carr talks more about what Canonical has learned from their first Ubuntu Live conference in this short video:


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