Making a Difference; Selling a Difference
See the difference?
A few days ago, Mark Shuttleworth took some time to address critics who scoff at Canonical's contributions to GNOME and the Linux kernel itself by sharing his thoughts on the subject in his personal blog. The post, titled "Reflections on Ubuntu, Canonical and the march to free software adoption", reflecting on Canonical and Ubuntu's contributions to the world of free and open source software. There are a couple of interesting stories, some obvious rationalization, some genuine insights, and more than a few nods to the various forces that come together to create a Linux distribution.
These include not only the people behind the Linux kernel, but GNU and the Free Software Foundation, Mozilla, KDE, GNOME. OpenOffice.org (aka Oracle and SUN Microsystems before that), Sendmail, Apache, the Internet Systems Consortium, IBM, Google, Red Hat, Novell (and SUSE), etc, etc, etc. In his post, Mark Shuttleworth named a few. I've added a bunch of others. The point being that Ubuntu isn't just Linux and Linux isn't just GNU, and so on. There are many thousands of people and a huge number of companies that contribute to FOSS.
For years now, I've wrestled with the question of how free software, and Linux, makes it into the hands of the average person. I have written about Linux and hundreds of packages in magazines and in books. I've given talks and presentations, taught classes, and done radio and television trying to show people how free software is ready to do what they need to do, with the added bonus that the world is a better for place whenever open source and open standards are strong. It's a message I believe in and one I've never stopped giving, but . . . I am thrilled by all the strides that have been made by FOSS and Linux but . . .
There's always a huge "but" attached to the end of those statements. Linux pretty much rules the world of supercomputers. Ditto for big blockbuster type imaging and rendering of movie special effects. Linux is the fastest growing operating system in the mobile marketplace and will surely take its place as top dog there as well. In the server room (inasmuch as there are still server rooms), Linux takes all comers. The "but" falls firmly on the Linux desktop.
Sure there are millions of Linux desktops out there. Canonical claims 20 million of them are running Ubuntu alone. Argue for or against those numbers, but it's paltry compared to deployments of the leading operating system (Microsoft) and it barely registers with the general population when compared with the other small player in the OS marketplace (Apple). With Ubuntu Linux and all the other distributions combined, we, the free and open source software community, have made little more than a scratch on the surface of the desktop landscape.
Some will argue that the desktop no longer matters or if it does, it won't for long. They will tell you that the age of mobile technology is here, that Web apps do it all, and that since Linux, in its Android persona, is on its way to ruling the mobile roost, that we should all sit back happily and congratulate ourselves on finally achieving Linux World Domination.
They are wrong.
Sure, mobile devices are cool. But for the foreseeable future, the desktop will continue to be the place where the real work gets done. It's the place where large scale productivity applications will continue to dominate. It's still where you're going to do your accounting, write letters, create cool graphics, edit video, and so on. Try to imagine creating a complex marketing presentation on your iPhone just for fun. See if you can find many businesses out there that have plans in the next 5 years to dump all their desktop systems in favor of everyone typing on their smartphone touchpads. Uh huh. The desktop matters as much as it ever did and there's a damn good chance that it's never going away, at least not anytime soon. Barring some truly revolutionary *ahem* paradigm shift in the way we interface with computers, of course. That revolutionary shift hasn't happened. Not yet anyhow.
Mark Shuttleworth goes on to say, "I didn’t found Ubuntu as a vehicle for getting lots of code written, that didn’t seem to me to be what the world needed. It needed a vehicle for getting it out there, that cares about delivering the code we already have in a state of high quality and reliability."
And this is where I have to stand beside Mark Shuttleworth.
We credit our fellow FOSS advocates for attending Install-fests, for burning distribution CDs or DVDs and handing out to all and sundry. We credit them even when they aren't coding because getting free software into the hands of more and more people is necessary for free software to grow and thrive. That's what Canonical does. Yes it's a business. Yes, there's a profit motive (whether profit is being generated at this point or not). There's nothing wrong with that. Linux and FOSS can use all the help it can get. That includes coders, designers, documenters, and even marketers and salespeople. I'll go even further. What Linux and FOSS need more than anything now is marketing and sales. I applaud any company that is willing to support desktop Linux in this way.
Because the desktop does matter and will continue to matter, it's the place where we need the average user to understand that they are using free software and reaping the benefits of open standards. That's why we need Canonical and Red Hat and SUSE and Mandriva and anybody else who is willing to step up to the plate and get free software into the hands AND desktops of the everyday user. That's why Linux needs some solid marketing, partnering, and sales. That why Mark Shuttleworth is right.
Until next time . . .