Ubuntu is one of if not the most popular Linux-based operating systems aimed at the desktop market. Ubuntu’s development is primarily sponsored by Canonical, a UK-based company founded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth funded the launch of both Canonical and Ubuntu from his personal fortune, raised from the sale of his company Thawte Consulting to VeriSign in 1999. Since then, he’s continued to provide financial support for the project, and retained his position as the project’s “Self-Appointed Benevolent Dictator For Life“.
Canonical makes money from the often-seen model of providing paid support for its free product. These products are attractive to businesses who want the peace of mind that experts are available to help out should anything go wrong. However, if a home user is downloading a free operating system with great community support channels, are they likely to pay $100 per machine for a support contact? I suspect not, which makes the home market harder to monetise in this way.
For this reason, we’re now seeing moves to make money from Ubuntu users in other ways. Over the past few years we’ve seen the introduction of Ubuntu One, Canonical’s Dropbox alternative, with free and paid options. Alongside this we’ve seen the Ubuntu One Music Store, where users can buy music within the bundled music player, a portion of the money going to Canonical.
The next release of Ubuntu, codenamed Quantal Quetzel and due for release this month, sees the introduction of some new channels for Canonical to make money. The first is integration with Amazon. The “Dash”, which can be summoned from the desktop to provide a universal search, will now include results for products for sale on Amazon (and possibly other sources depending on the user’s location). In addition, an icon for Amazon will be among the applications in the desktop’s launcher by default. Through Amazon’s Associates programme, this allows Canonical to raise money via referral fees for purchases made by Ubuntu users.
Having seen the success of pay-what-you-want schemes like the Humble Bundle, this week Canonical added an extra screen to the download process for the Ubuntu Desktop CD image. Met with some controversy but generally welcomed, the screen is shown before the download starts, and allows you to contribute some money for your download, if you choose to. You can also use this to “put your money where you mouth is”, and tell Canonical what to use your money for. Options include support for games, improving the desktop environment, or just giving Canonical a tip.
It’s always going to be a delicate process working to monetise a well-established free product without upsetting users. However, for a project like Ubuntu, it’s a necessity. As Canonical is a private company we have no way of knowing exactly where it gets its money from, but I think it’s a safe bet that home desktop users don’t pay for themselves from the usual paid support model. Of course, Mark Shuttleworth has plenty of money, but it’s not a sustainable model to rely on the benevolence of one very rich man who can afford to do whatever the hell he likes. We’re talking about a man who went into space because he felt like it. If he woke up one day and decided that he’d had enough contributing to Ubuntu, the community had better hope that Canonical was making enough money on it’s own to continue employing great people that make Ubuntu possible. Finding new and innovative ways to monetise a free product is vital to Ubuntu’s future, and sets a great example to other Open Source projects.