• What happened at Canonical

    A tale of town halls, tears, IPOs and brutal lay-offs

    We ask the person sitting across the table from us what it’s like to work at Canonical and they stare at their drink for a while contemplating the question: “Most companies purely want to make money,” says the Canonical employee, whom we’ll call ‘DeepC’ as they want to remain anonymous. “Whereas I feel, in Canonical it’s been almost like… ‘play thing’ is the wrong word, but it’s kind of like a sandbox of ideas.”

    The exciting and sometimes frustrating Canonical sandbox has lost a lot of its buckets and spades in the last month. The company that financially backs the Ubuntu distribution, which is used by tens of millions of Linux users, is in the process of a massive transformation.

    Growth and profitability

    On April 5, Mark Shuttleworth, the millionaire founder of Canonical, announced on the company’s blog that the firm would be trimming down to focus on growth areas and all financial support for Unity, its flagship and default desktop environment, would cease. The distribution would switch back to Gnome by 18.04 LTS, the desktop that Ubuntu had dropped in favour of Unity over six years ago (and it now appears that Gnome will become the desktop from 17.10 onwards).

    With one swipe, Shuttleworth not only killed Unity, but the company’s whole convergence strategy involving a unified mobile phone and desktop OS (essentially, Microsoft’s Continuum but better) and with it at least six years of work and tens of millions of pounds in investment.

    The official line was a need to focus on profitability: “The choice, ultimately, is to invest in the areas which are contributing to the growth of the company,” said Shuttleworth. “Those are Ubuntu itself, for desktops, servers and VMs, our cloud infrastructure products (OpenStack and Kubernetes) our cloud operations capabilities (MAAS, LXD, Juju, BootStack), and our IoT story in snaps and Ubuntu Core.”

    IPO iceberg

    But Canonical’s sudden U-turn on Unity is the tip of a rather large iceberg that has ploughed through departments dumping staff in its path, and this hulking chunk of ice has ‘IPO’ chiselled on its side. Based on performance-related shares that were being offered to the remaining staff by Shuttleworth (we’ll come back to that later), we’d also estimate that the IPO is slated for four years’ time.

    To get to IPO, the company has decided to seek outside investment, as revealed by the Register , so within two days of the blog post, Canonical managed to run town halls explaining its IPO ambitions to staff scattered across the globe (the company has many remote workers living in over 80 countries), and announcing the departure of popular CEO, Jane Silber, and the return of Shuttleworth as chief executive officer.

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