One big thing Ubuntu can teach Microsoft, Apple, and all CTOs

Ubuntu is known as the friendliest Linux distribution, but it also has a important quality that Microsoft, Apple, and software developers can learn from.

Ubuntu has earned a reputation as the most user-friendly version of Linux on the planet, but I would argue that the secret of success for Canonical (the company behind Ubuntu) is not really about a great UI or an extensive hardware compatibility list.

What Canonical does really well is to methodically produce incremental upgrades to its OS. It is transparent about its goals and plans, and it releases its software on schedule. In fact, this incremental approach is Ubuntu's most potent competitive weapon against rivals Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. It is also an approach that CTOs and other IT leaders who produce software, Web sites, and other product-based Web services can learn from.

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Since the first version (4.10) of Ubuntu was released in October 2004, there have been 10 OS releases of Ubuntu (see chart below). During that same time period, there have been three new releases of Mac OS X and two new releases of Windows. If you want to include service packs, then you could kick up the number of Windows releases to four.

This preference toward incremental releases on a reliable schedule is a quality that appeals to IT departments. In fact, many IT leaders have asked software makers such as Microsoft to stop doing massive upgrades, but instead update Windows in smaller steps.

That allows IT to test and roll out OS updates much easier and quicker. IT has become averse to massive software upgrades, like Windows Vista and Windows 7. They cause too much pain — both in hardware/software incompatibilities and user re-training — and don't offer enough benefits in return to make all of that pain worth the effort.

Some will argue that the business model is the primary reason why Microsoft takes a different approach to upgrades than Canonical. After all, Windows upgrades have a price tag attached to them and all of Ubuntu's software releases are open source and free of charge (they make their money from support contracts). However, the financial impact is overstated.

Microsoft makes the majority of its money from Windows in two ways:

  1. From the versions of Windows preloaded on retail PCs
  2. From OS licenses sold in bulk to large organizations

No matter which version of Windows is preloaded on a retail PC, Microsoft still makes the same amount of money. The company doesn't make any more money on a Windows 7 PC than it did on a Windows Vista PC last year.

With volume licensing agreements such as Software Assurance, Microsoft has pushed many organizations into renewable licensing agreements that give them access to all the latest Microsoft software. Whether a company upgrades its machines to Windows 7 or not, it still pays Microsoft a regular licensing fee.

So Microsoft has the financial foundation to switch to a more incremental upgrade cycle. The fact that during the past decade it has moved companies to Software Assurance and that with Windows XP it broke from its version numbering system (the XP was for "eXPerience"), is evidence that Microsoft had been preparing for a day when it would deliver OS updates on a more incremental basis.

But, it never happened. That probably has as much to do with legacy and momentum as anything else. The bottom line is that Microsoft's huge Windows upgrades have put the OS at risk of massive stagnation, especially in the business world, which largely skipped Windows Vista altogether and is still on the fence about Windows 7. That has left most business PCs running Windows XP, while consumer machines have moved on to Vista or Windows 7.

Conversely, Ubuntu has established a disciplined upgrade cycle, made it a top priority, and stuck to it. Canonical releases a new version of Ubuntu every six months. It has major releases, which it calls LTS (Long Term Support) releases, and those come out every two years. The first one, 6.06, landed in June 2006. The second one, 8.04, landed in April 2008. The next LTS, 10.04, arrives at the end of this month (April 2010).

Ubuntu supports these LTS releases for three years (five years for the server versions). There are companies who only use the LTS versions of Ubuntu for that reason. Canonical supports the interim versions of Ubuntu for 18 months (basically assuming you'll move to the next LTS version when it arrives).

This type of transparent, methodical, and incremental upgrade cycle is the future of software. If you want to see another example, take a look at Zoho, an online productivity suite that offers an alternative to both Microsoft Office and Google Docs. Zoho pushes out new features, fixes, and updates on a continual basis. In fact, for some products there are Zoho updates as often as once a week.

This is not a matter of resources. Zoho has a very small team. Meanwhile, Canonical only has about 300 employees in the whole company (as well as its volunteer army of open source contributors). This is a matter of focus, priorities, and leadership. The successful software and Web companies of the next decade will learn this lesson well.

Also read: I'm not breaking up with Windows, but we're seeing other people Subscribe in one click: TechRepublic's Linux newsletter


Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.

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