All good things must come to an end, including free Ubuntu CDs via Canonical's ShipIt program. Though a major factor in Ubuntu's success, Canonical is cutting costs and closing the doors on the free CD program it has sponsored since 2005.
Since Ubuntu's early days, Canonical has provided free CDs to anyone who signed up via its ShipIt program. Though it may be difficult to remember, there was a time when Ubuntu was the new kid on the block. The ShipIt program helped Ubuntu get a leg up on other Linux distros — and make inroads with users who'd never tried Linux before — by putting free Linux CDs in the hands of millions of users.
Distribution is and always has been an Achilles' Heel for Linux. Most people get their OS when they buy a machine — and never install a new OS. Asking people who'd never tried Linux to buy a box set generally did not succeed well, and lots of users were hesitant to try downloading and burning an ISO to CD to experiment with Linux. Though readers of this blog are probably familiar with the procedure, it's important to remember that burning CDs and installing an operating system are big hurdles for many users. This was especially true in 2004 when fewer people had broadband and downloading a CD was still a lengthy endeavor for many people.
Times have changed: Ubuntu is now well ahead of other Linux distributions in terms of name recognition and market share, at least on the desktop. Canonical has effectively claimed the top spot on the desktop.
Canonical is being very up-front about the reasoning: It's expensive! Gerry Carr's post makes clear that the administrative overhead of managing ShipIt is very pricey, not to mention shipping and pressing CDs. The company will continue to provide some CDs to its local groups (LoCo) but won't be providing ShipIt to individual users anymore. They will still be selling CDs via the Ubuntu store, of course.
So how will new users get a sample of Ubuntu, if they can't get the freebie CDs? Canonical is introducing a cloud-based trial for Ubuntu, using the money instead of paying for CDs. The company also says it will be "doing much more this year to reach out to the mainstream markets across the world, to bring Ubuntu to the next wave of users."
It will be interesting to see what Canonical has up its sleeve here. It does seem the company is getting very money conscious of late and focused on breaking through to mainstream users.
Though this is likely to annoy some users, this is probably a smart move on Canonical's part. The free CD program has taken Ubuntu about as far as it's going to. They've reached the early adopters that found downloading a distribution to be a significant hurdle, and it's not necessary for most users to install from CD for new releases — Ubuntu has done a very good job of letting users upgrade in place. (Of course, they have a solid Debian tradition to build on there.)
Whether Canonical can effectively reach mainstream users with its next release is an open question. Early reviews of Ubuntu 11.04 have not been particularly positive, but they have a few more weeks of bugfixing and development to pull out a well-polished final release with Unity.
What do you think, is the end of ShipIt likely to affect Ubuntu adoption one way or another?
Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a freelance writer and editor with more than 10 years covering IT. Formerly the openSUSE Community Manager for Novell, Brockmeier is a longtime free and open source software advocate. He has written for many publications, including Linux Magazine, Sys Admin, Linux Pro Magazine, IBM developerWorks, Linux.com, CIO.com, Linux Weekly News, ZDNet, and many others.