Google recently announced its Google Drive which is clearly positioned as a competitor to iCloud, SkyDrive or alternative to services like Dropbox or semi-open source Spider-Oak. A lot of Linux users are upset as there is no client for Linux at the moment. The good news is Google Drive will be coming to Linux soon. That doesn't mean that Linux users were cloud deprived. Almost every cloud solution has its Linux client, including Dropbox and Spider-Oak, and excluding Ubuntu One. Then we have ownCloud for those who want complete control over their cloud. That makes one wonder what future holds for Ubuntu One, Canonical's personal cloud offering?
Love affair between Google and Canonical
There is a strange chemistry between Google and Canonical. It appears Google 'gives' Canonical enough time to capture the potential markets but the Ubuntu maker just fails to do so. There was scope for Ubuntu to exploit the Netbooks market, which now Google is exploring through Chromebooks; there was scope for tablets and Google responded by rushing in Android 3.x and captured that market; Smart TV was a space which went to Android due to lack of any timed offering from Canonical. This list goes on and one. By the time Canonical plans to enter a market it get saturated. So instead of dominating that market Canonical offerings become me too products.
I am referring to these products or markets as it clearly shows a pattern which will explain why Ubuntu One has failed to become the de-facto personal cloud for Ubuntu or Linux users and exploit the market beyond it.
Ubuntu One Is Not For Linux
One of the reasons Ubuntu One is not the preferred cloud for GNU/Linux users is that it’s not available for other GNU/Linux distributions. Ironically it’s available even for Windows (they are also working on a Mac client) but not for competing Linux distributions.
Ubuntu One supporters argue that the code is available and other distributions can package it for their users. Who packages Skype for Ubuntu or openSUSE? Canonical or SUSE? It's Skype (now Microsoft) which packages and maintains its commercial product for Linux distributions. It's Google that packages and maintains Google Earth, Google Voice, Google Music for openSUSE and Ubuntu and not SUSE or Canonical.
So, in my opinion if Canonical wants its commercial products to be widely used it's their responsibility to package them for other distributions. So, does that mean proprietary (and much smaller) companies like Skype, Dropbox are doing a better job at supporting Linux than Canonical? Even smaller players like Spider-Oak have their solutions for Linux.
This lack of Ubuntu One client for other distributions is another reason why it is not popular among hard-core Linux users who fear being locked inside Ubuntu as they can't access the service and the data if they change the distribution. The availability of alternatives like Dropbox and Spider-Oak makes Ubuntu One less appealing.
Ubuntu One Behind Competitors
Ubuntu One was there before iCloud (though the fact is iCloud has been around for a while with different names). iCloud has become the default cloud service for Mac users and now the company is building on top of it expanding it further. On the contrary Ubuntu One is still a 'me too service' and lacks even the basic features offered by competitors.
Ubuntu One Lacks Basic Features
Even if we keep the cross-platform cloud services such as Dropbox, Spider-Oak or Google Drive aside Ubuntu One lacks many 'basic' features that OS centric services like iCloud, or SkyDrive offer. One such feature is the ability to sync the folder or partition of your choice. You can't sync any folder outside Home with Ubuntu One.
Why Does It Matter?
A majority of Ubuntu users are dual booters, and there are figures to support the claim. According to a recent Ubuntu survey more than 75% Ubuntu users dual boot. Windows can't see the ext4 partition or Ubuntu’s home folder where you have the Ubuntu One folder synced. So Windows won't be able to see the content that you are syncing with Ubuntu One inside Ubuntu's Home.
Interestingly if you are using U1 for Windows then it also doesn't allow you to sync any folder outside their "Home" which rests in C Drive. So, if you are a dual booter you have to keep two copies of the same data on the same hard-drive and waste bandwidth to keep it synced with Ubuntu One. That is the dumbest thing one would expect from a cloud service when you need Internet to sync data on the local storage.
Data Is Growing
We are living in the era of tera-bytes and have couple of hard-drives. We keep most of our data on drives outside ~/home. In my case I have couple of OSes on my system including openSUSE, Ubuntu, Fedora, Kubuntu and Windows 7. So the best practice that I follow is to never keep your data and system files on the same partition. The first thing I would do when I used Windows was to create C for OS and a separate partition for data, because if you keep everything on C and your system crashes you lose your data as well. Then either spend hundreds of dollars in trying to recover your data from C or just lose it. It’s also painful when you try to reformat or reinstall your system as you will have to first move all your data out of C. If you are dual booter and give 1TB to home, you won’t be able to access your movies, music and TV shows that you bought from Amazon or Google from Windows as it can’t read ext4. So creating separate partition for data is a good decision from ever aspect.
The same rule applies to GNU/Linux or Ubuntu. If you keep everything in Home, when you try to reinstall Ubuntu you end up with old conflicting files in the home folder. It’s even more challenging when you hop distros as your home folder is cluttered with conflicting files. The best practice is to dedicate 20+GB to root and make home within root. Keep all your data on separate partitions mounted as /media/data. With this kind of set-up you can install as many distros on that system and access your data without having to worry about losing it.
In a set-up like above my Dropbox folder rests inside any of these partitions so no matter which OS I am working on anything that needs to be kept synced with the cloud goes in this Dropbox folder of that partition which can be accessed from any OS (including Windows), so instead of having multiple copies of the same data on the same system I have one folder that stays synced.
Ubuntu One can't do that. I can't use U1 on Fedora, openSUSE or Arch. So what is better option for me when I have to choose from between Ubuntu One, Dropbox or Spider-Oak? I will choose the cloud service which is the smartest and the most efficient one.
Ubuntu One vs iCloud vs SkyDrive
Let’s forget about Ubuntu One’s availability beyond Ubuntu or its comparison with personal cloud players like Dropbox. Let’s see how Ubuntu One performs against services like SkyDrivd and iCloud which are mainly targeted at their own OSes. Both iCloud as well as SkyDrive allow users to choose any folder they want to keep synced. So, Ubuntu One doesn’t come up as a competitor on par with SkyDrive and iCloud.
Why I Dropped Ubuntu One Music In Favour Of Google Music
Same was the reason why I stopped using Ubuntu Music the moment Google Music came out. Ubuntu Music did not allow me to choose the folder where I keep all my purchased music (on a partition that can be accessed from all OSes and even Windows). Ubuntu Music wanted me to copy all the music files that I wanted to keep on cloud in Home folder. Google Music allowed me to choose any folder of my choice. I buy my music from Amazon and it sits on the /media/music so that I can access it from any distribution (even Windows). I simply point Google Music to that folder and all my purchases stay synced with Google Music. Ubuntu Music fails to do that.
Google has succeeded because it offers what is ‘normal’ use-case. It offers something which every other cloud player does. Ubuntu One on the contrary offers very little, very restricted. Once Google Drive is available for Linux, I think a majority of users will switch to Google Drive.
Can Canonical Turn The Tables?
I have been a strong supporter of Ubuntu from the very beginning as I appreciate their seriousness for the desktop. We wish Canonical to succeed in this and many other markets (without attacking Red Hat though).
Canonical can turn the tables by paying attention to the 'normal' usage pattern instead of how Ubuntu developers use their PCs. They don’t have to go miles to find it. Just look at what SkyDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox or Spider-Oak are doing. A few minor, yet important, improvements can make Ubuntu One the de facto personal cloud for the entire GNU/Linux community. Honestly speaking I don’t see any scope for Ubuntu One on iOS or Mac other than those Ubuntu developers who use it and often show it on their Google+ page. The lack features and cross-platform support won't give Ubuntu a chance on Windows PCs as well. SkyDrive has more to offer than U1. So, Linux is the first territory Ubuntu One must conquer.
Ubuntu One could have been the de facto cloud for Linux users, just the way Chrome, Firefox, LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Evolution, GIMP have become preferred applications for GNU/Linux platform and are going beyond it. Ubuntu One can still be a great cloud solution if:
1. Canonical plays nice with other Linux distributions and packages Ubuntu One for major distributions such as Fedora and openSUSE. Otherwise Ubuntu will earn the reputation of a walled garden like Apple which doesn’t care about anyone outside it.
2. Ubuntu One needs to include basic features found on competing products.
3. Ubuntu One needs to innovate and introduce features to have an edge over competitors like Dropbox or counterparts from competing OSes like SkyDrive and iCloud. (check out what out Google+ fans expect from Ubuntu One).
Canonical has already showed that they have a very promising vision for the future. The projects like Ubuntu TV, Ubuntu Tablet, Ubuntu Mobile and Ubuntu for Android hold great potential if bring to the market in time. While I understand constraints around products which involved 3rd party hardware vendors thus not everything is under the control of Canonical, but when it comes to services like Ubuntu One, Canonical can do what ever they want. Ubuntu One team earlier added features like online streaming and ‘Send to Ubuntu One, which are nice but doesn’t solve the problem users like me are facing and as a result can’t use Ubuntu One as our prefered personal cloud.
So, make Ubuntu One cross platform and include the basic features found in competition and there will be One cloud to rule them all -- at least on the GNU/Linux platform.
Note: Thanks to Alan Pope, Michael Fulgenz, Sebastien Lemarinel, Asim Zeeshan and many others for helping out with this story.