Under his leadership, Ubuntu has created a unique position among the three most popular operating systems in the world. If I put these three (Ubuntu, Windows and Mac) operating systems side by side, I find Ubuntu, as a standalone OS, to have a clear edge over the other two. No, it's not a biased opinion if one looks deeper into the technical aspects verifying this fact (we will get into that later).
Why just three?
Before moving ahead, it is important to note that reaching this position was not an easy task for Ubuntu. Today the consumer operating system market has been shrunk to only three options. The credit goes to Microsoft's anti-competitive business practices which killed all other operating systems in the early days. Microsoft also continued to use evil business practices to kill other competitors within the Windows platform – the demise of Netscape is an example.
Richard M. Stallman lead the Free Software movement and Linux gave us options. Firefox, Android, MySQL and OpenOffice.org have proved what FOSS is capable of doing. However, the 'anti-competitive' regimes are still wielding much, though fading, power.
Owing to Microsoft's deep pockets and monopolistic practices, most Linux companies failed to succeed in the home user market. Other companies stayed away from the home user segment and focused on the enterprise segment which was easier to be convinced on the benefits of Foss. Despite these odds, there were a few players like Mandriva which created their niche but could never go mainstream.
Canonical has limited resources, but it does have what is needed the most. A leader with a vision – just like Linus Torvalds, RMS, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Larry Ellison – who take things personally. Someone who is not just doing a job, but has dreams of changing the world.
Shuttleworth made it his personal priority to polish Ubuntu beyond perfection. Two years ago, in 2008, he called on open source developers to make desktop Linux more attractive than OS X within 2 years. The result of that determination is visible in the latest version of Ubuntu.
Shuttleworth recently made a decision to use Unity as the default UI for Ubuntu. It was a bold and much needed move which will give a new direction to the user experience. In fact, Unity is a major innovation after KDE 4 and Gnome Shell, which will re-shape the stagnated, 30 years old user interface. Interestingly both commercial vendors, Apple and Microsoft, failed to innovate in this direction.
Mark has now announced that Ubuntu will move from X display server to Wayland -- which is lightweight and can offer flawless graphic experience that the current X can't offer.
Filling the gap
The only possible gap between Ubuntu and Windows today, is the availability of software and hardware support. It's a less known fact that Linux, under the leadership of Greg K-H, supports more devices than any other OS. Mac is not even considered as it can only run on Apple hardware, thus being the worst OS to support devices.
Microsoft's Windows 7, despite acquiring a huge size on the hard drive has the worst hardware support. People have been misguided to believe otherwise. The Windows kernel is not capable of supporting every kind of hardware or device, the hardware vendors offer device drivers along with their hardware which one can install on Windows machine so that Windows can recognize it.
For example, I plug-in my Linksys WLAN card, Ubuntu detects it out of the box; Windows needs the drivers to be installed manually. The case is the same with most webcams, and many other such devices. So, as an OS, Windows and Mac are both behind Ubuntu (read GNU/Linux). Where they do lead is market penetration and support from vendors.
Today more and more hardware companies are joining the Linux Foundation, thanks to the efforts of Jim Zemlin. This results in Linux gaining an even larger support for a variety of hardware.
This leaves Mark with a bigger challenge -- to get popular software available for Ubuntu users. In order to keep Ubuntu useful for ordinary home users who don't care about open source as much as they don't care about increasing crime; we do need software vendors to offer their products to Ubuntu users -- an ever increasing userbase. In the meantime he can work with the FOSS communities to help the development of alternatives of such software and also use his influence to convince such companies to release their products under GNU GPL licenses. Well, it's easy said than done.
Personally, I would rather use an open source alternative than install a proprietary software on Ubuntu. Using proprietary software on Ubuntu means I failed to get the purpose behind the free software movement.
Specialized software on Ubuntu
That said, there are some specialized industries which may take a bit longer to go open source -- Gaming and filmmaking are in this group. If Mark can bring popular games for PC, like Crysis on Ubuntu, it will get the loyalty of a big chunk of PC gamers who dual boot. Fortunately, there is a separate market developing for gamers -- PlayStation, Wii and Xbox. Chances are that you will have a game console to play games and a full Ubuntu PC for work.
Looking at the complete picture I am tempted to say, Ubuntu has achieved much more in the last 3 years which Apple Mac is still struggling to achieve after 30 years. Ubuntu has come extremely close to what Mac OS offers -- thanks to the FSF and the Linux community.
Will the visionary leadership of Mark lead Ubuntu toward surpassing Mac, as Android has surpassed iOS devices? Apple's Steve Jobs recently said that Apple doesn't have the most resources in the world, and the way they’ve succeeded is to bet on the right technological horse.
Fortunately, Mark doesn't have to worry about every aspect of Ubuntu. The communities are doing excellent work in keeping their components updated. Unlike Apple, Canonical does have the huge support of the community. All it takes for Mark to bet on the right horses.
The challenges for Mark are similar to those of Steve Jobs: which technological horse to bet on. That's exactly what he is doing!