The future is coming ready-or-not

iCloud and Ubuntu

with 5 comments

Apple finally announced iCloud, reinforcing that the Cloud is ready for consumers. It validates some of the things we’ve been doing in Ubuntu and encourages us to think about how the trend will impact free software in the future.Cringley focuses on Apple targeting Microsoft by making the desktop category just like a device and moving everyone onto the Internet. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying:

“We’re going to demote the PC and the Mac to just be a device – just like an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod Touch. We’re going to move the hub of your digital life to the cloud.”

I don’t know if this targets Microsoft, I do know that Apple has done as much as anyone to make the network a central part of our digital life.

It’s clear that we all spend more time online – if you stand-back you can see see our increased dependence on the Web (we spend more time on-line than watching TV), along with how central some web apps are becoming to our lives (from Facebook to Google calendar). You might question how quickly this is happening or how widely spread: there’s not much bandwidth in Africa, and I often find it surprising how poor connectivity is in rural areas. But, that’s just a question of timing – large numbers of users already think of their computers and the Web as being synonymous.

The Web itself is rapidly becoming the standard development platform and storage medium for applications. With HTML5 and its’ extended technologies we will see increasingly complex and capable web apps: this Financial Times HTML5 app is a nice example and tweaks Apple’s tail! Even if the interface of everything can’t be a Web front-end, then data storage is also moving in that direction: increasingly users think of their content as being ‘available’ everywhere – meaning online.

From a user perspective this means we all expect to access our favourite applications and our personal data at any point from a myriad of devices. The impact on Windows is that the field is being reset, both at a software and a hardware level. Microsoft is not a cherished consumer brand that everyone loves so they will have to start over. But, it equally impacts anyone that wants to create a general operating system – Ubuntu being my concern.

If everything is on the network, and the network provides many of the applications then there’s going to be a fundamental set of shifts in how the system stack supports the user. Among the many areas, two things stand out for me.

The first theme is that we need to provide ways for users to store and access their content online. We’ve seen Apple’s system, we’re bound to see systems from all the titans of the industry as well at a lot of start-ups. This could be fantastic for users, but there’s also potential for drawbacks if there’s no standardisation – we don’t want to go back to a world of locked in data.

But it’s deeper than data, users don’t think “I need my data” they think “I want my photos of Nancy the dog” which means we need to attach storage and applications together. That’s why in Ubuntu One we talk about the personal cloud and we’re providing both applications and API’s to build on top of basic data storage and sync. Any data storage (including Ubuntu One) also needs to be available across multiple platforms so that our users can access their content whenever they want or need it. Importantly, to make the Cloud the central storage location it needs to be fully integrated and seamlessly part of the users experience – going to the ‘Web folder’ is a fail!

The second theme is that the operating system will be a window onto the Web, and this changes what it needs to present to the user and the services it provides to applications. From a user perspective we need to integrate the Web so that there’s no difference between local and network applications. Moreover, some of the metaphors of the Web are impacting how users think about interacting with their computers, take search as an example.

For applications to be truly integrated it will mean that the system stack will need to provide services that web application developers can use. For example, rather than signing into a myriad of different web applications how can the system stack authenticate me to them seamlessly. Perhaps even the idea of local and web apps will need to disappear, if we can provide technologies that help web application developers create applications that work both locally and through the network.

A final thought, I said at the start that Apple has done as much as anyone to make the vision of a connected world real. But Unix and Linux has done even more – network computing is central to our technology, and distributed community is central to our ethos. For me this means Ubuntu has great strengths it can draw on as we create this future – Ubuntu can be the operating system for the rest of us in a connected world!


Written by Steve George

June 10, 2011 at 08:09

5 Responses

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  2. Being a user of Ubuntu and Ubuntu One I am inclined to agree. But the speed and reliability with which apple is putting out new features must surely be due to one thing: money. They have enough money to pour people on the task of making it work. Even though the open-source community is supposed to be based on collaborative development, I don’t think it gets around hiring people to work on their projects. But the open-source community seem quite willing to pay up (just check out humble indie bundle) so maybe it’s about time Ubuntu One started charging a little more or had an optional charge ‘for development’? I mean Ubuntu One, is still nowhere near good enough and I don’t have the time to learn programming so can help…


    August 13, 2011 at 16:53

    • Jens,

      Sorry for the late reply, I didn’t see this comment when you made it.

      You’re making a good point that ultimately in an Open Source context there are limits to a purely “no-cost” development model. Back in the 90’s the speed of development in Linux increased when full-time engineers could be dedicated to it through the sponsoring hardware companies.

      Canonical sponsors Ubuntu which is provided free so this impacts how many engineers can be dedicated. However, it’s worth remembering there are lots of positives to this type of development model because other companies and users can ‘co-develop’. In the case of Ubuntu this means that lots of software comes in which isn’t created or contributed by Canonical.

      I think the deeper issues is one of popularity. Apple makes a certain amount of money from each user which it then uses a portion of to fund development. If Ubuntu was as popular as Apple then for every X number of users there would be Y number of Open Source contributors. This would make the engine of Open Source development that much bigger.

      It’s probably true that as Ubuntu crosses-over to being more mainstream the proportion of users who would also co-develop (become contributors) would drop. Most people just want to use a technology, not co-create it. However, I think the general argument still holds: more users = more developers. Finally, as you pointed out, the other option is for users to ‘contribute’ through the traditional relationship of buying things which enables developers to be hired etc.

      Thanks for the comment!


      Steve George

      December 1, 2011 at 11:41

  3. I have been a ubuntu user for some years now, but the decision to move my contacts to ubuntu one was one of the most regretted. I couldn’t access or sync them from evolution (lets not forget us this is the standard app) for almost a year due to a bug which still does not seem to be solved — or probably it is solved but the solutions are not in the updates / main repositories. Additionally the web frontend doesn’t allow for export of the contacts.

    How can they deploy something like this, completely non-working, the web is full of people having problems, there are lots of confirmed bugs about this, and then do not care at all (apparently) to solve the issues?

    I guess I will move to debian-stable soon, because I don’t want zillions of new features which don’t work and let me loose endless hours trying to resolve the problems, but I do need some essential features like a working address-book (btw.: there is a CLI-tool to export the addresses, why is it so difficult to associate a button to this in the GUI?). Ubuntu used to work fine in the past but now there is too much regression (stuff that used to work doesn’t work in new versions). I’d suggest to them to release less new versions but fix the current issues instead, because I think that most users think like similarly.


    November 30, 2011 at 11:34

    • Martin,

      I’m sorry you’ve had problems with Ubuntu One contacts. The best approach is to have a look at the help section.

      The rest of your question is more general and given that you’re familiar with Debian I’m going to answer this from an Open Source perspective. Explicitly, you are using an Open Source (FOSS) piece of software so as with all OSS you are part of the means of production. The relationship you have with OSS is different from the relationship you have with proprietary software that you paid for. As the adage says in OSS users have a choice, “Money for time, or time for money”. So when you have problems one set of options is to trade your “time”: getting involved in solving the problem though the Ubuntu Forums, AskUbuntu, Launchpad or perhaps even creating the code and contributing it to the project. The alternative is to trade “money”: that means paying for products such as support, or sponsoring development. Free software doesn’t alter the fundamental dynamic that someone has to spend their effort resolving a bug – so ultimately there are no free lunches.

      Finally, I won’t get into this indepth here, but there are trade-offs to be made between stability and having the latest software – Debian is at the one end of favouring stability when compared to Ubuntu, you could also consider Ubuntu LTS releases which are every two years as somewhere in the middle.

      Best of luck!


      Steve George

      December 1, 2011 at 11:25

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