Slashdot it! Delicious Share on Facebook Tweet! Digg!

Both Ways


Dear Ubuntu User Reader,

The other day, I got into an Internet ArgumentTM when I tweeted about the French Gendarmerie switching to an Ubuntu-based Linux OS. Some user popped up and said that Ubuntu wasn't Linux. "How do you figure?" I replied. His answer was "I'm sorry. I meant it's non-free." Oh dear.

It didn't end well for him. When I pointed out the (open) source repositories and matching licenses for every Ubuntu-related project he threw at me (Unity, Search Lens, Software Center) and finally advised him to do more research before getting into any future discussions, he called me "an arrogant git" and did the Twitter equivalent of storming off – that is, he stopped tweeting.

I admit being a bit of a sucker for online discussions, and I don't let things rest easily (which has got me into trouble in the past), but the deeper issue here is that perceptions are important, especially in a supposedly community-driven project like Ubuntu.

Increasing numbers of users are starting to see Ubuntu, not only as "not Linux," which is bad enough, but as a proprietary version of Linux, which is much worse. Most people who are confused in this way are usually not very aware of the real difference between free and proprietary, and they see Ubuntu as no different from Windows or Mac OS X – as an end user-oriented, non-open, non-techie version of Linux. This is not a good thing.

I agree that "good" is a relative term, but if the creators of Ubuntu are going to benefit from the safety net that a community affords and do more than pay lip service to the greater good of the Open Source movement, they must decide whether it is in their interest to continue maintaining the community side of things. The company needs to state publicly and non-ambiguously whether it is going to keep a tight rein on the development of its products á la Red Hat, or whether it is going to be less anal and let users and developers have their say.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with whether the company decides to contribute to existing projects or do its own thing. The evils of forking open source projects or reinventing the wheel exist only in the eye of the beholder. But, it does have to do with using questionable tactics to draw people to their point of view, such as badmouthing the projects perceived as "competition." Case in point: the FUD spewed against Wayland when the Mir project was announced.

Here, again, the creators of Ubuntu demonstrate a strange schizophrenia – not willing to let the community participate in the core development of the project (although, as I pointed out above, all projects up until now are distributed under a free license once completed) but still wanting to be relevant to independent programmers by putting Wayland down and name-calling critics. Another case in point: Recently, with the release of Ubuntu 13.10, Mark Shuttleworth himself compared bloggers who had taken aim at Ubuntu and its development policies to Tea Partiers, managing to enrage both sides of the equation.

This sort of childish behavior makes Canonical's attitude toward the bigger Open Source community confusing at best and perceived as hypocritical at worst. The FLOSS community is made up by very smart, very opinionated people – people who are used to analyzing stuff to death and can easily see through faulty logic, spurious rhetoric, and shill-speak. If Canonical wants to go down the commercial, corporate road, as Red Hat and SUSE have done before it, there is nothing wrong with that, but the company must come out and say it.

If Canonical still wants Ubuntu to be a community-driven project, it must stop making summary decisions and start relying more on the input of the users and independent developers again. That's the price you pay to keep a Linux community happy and loyal.

Of course, this doesn't have to be an either/or situation. Maybe Canonical can follow a middle road and have a community-driven version of its OS and a stricter corporate version for its commercial endeavors. This can be a bit of a balancing act for sure. How do you keep the community version from diverging too much from the commercial version? Tough and tricky, but it has been known to work.

So, what do you think? Should Canonical concentrate on business and stop acting like it cares for the community? Now that the company has laid down the foundations for such interesting projects, should it open up and, with a little steering, hope the community helps out? Or, should it find a middle ground?

Send your thoughts on this issue to me, Paul Brown, at

Paul C. Brown

Editor in Chief

Buy this article as PDF

Express-Checkout as PDF

Pages: 1

Price $0.99
(incl. VAT)

Buy Ubuntu User

Get it on Google Play

US / Canada

Get it on Google Play

UK / Australia

Related content