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Ubuntu is not a community distribution

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That should be obvious to anybody who’s been following the development of Ubuntu, but for those who have not, here’s the deal: Ubuntu is not a community distribution.

The sooner you get that, the better, especially if you’ve been under the illusion that Mark Shuttleworth cares very much about your own idea of what a community distribution should be.

Yes, Ubuntu is open source, but so is Android? If you are a developer, how many times have you been consulted by Google before any feature is implemented in Android? Well, why, then, are you surprised and pissed off that Canonical is not doing the same.

Ubuntu Mark Shuttleworth Canonical

So much fuss is being made about Canonical’s decision to use a new display server called Mir, but whether you agree with the reasoning behind Mir or not, if you view it from the perspective of a commercial entity, you’ll be less bothered by the fact that the community was not consulted, or what the impact on existing community projects will be.

What most people fail to realize is this: Ubuntu is a suite of operating systems (Desktop, Server, Cloud, and Touch) sponsored by a company called Canonical Ltd. And Canonical is a commercial entity with employees, paid employees. As such, any decision taken by its management is taken with the commercial interest of the company front and center.

And that’s where it begins and ends. Commercial interest(s). Even though Canonical has been in business since early 2004, the company is not profitable. Keep that in mind, because that’s the driving force behind almost every decision and project coming from the mind of Mark Shuttleworth and crew. The need to be profitable.

If the effect of a Canonical decision impacts your pet project positively, it’s only by accident, definitely not intended. At the same time, don’t be disappointed if your project is adversely impacted by what Mark Shuttleworth decides to do.

With that in mind, be prepared for more commercial interest-driven decisions from Canonical. Because there will be more coming down the pike. If you’ve studied Mark Shuttleworth from afar as much as I’ve done, you’ll see a man who considers himself an open source version of Steve Jobs. That’s neither good nor bad, but that’s the profile of the man that I’ve able to piece together.

Couple that image with the need to run a profitable outfit, it is easy to see the company making decisions and forging future partnerships that will rub everybody with an idealized definition of “community” the wrong way. As a firm believer in the Free Software philosophy, I don’t care a whole lot about Canonical. That said, from the perspective of a profit-driven entity, the company is making the right moves. The problem, of course, is no heavy-hitter in the industry has shown any real interest in what Mark Shuttleworth is hawking.

The string of projects that have failed to gain traction in the marketplace (Ubuntu TV, Ubuntu for Android, and Ubuntu for Phones) will ultimately drive Mark to forge partnerships not unlike what Novell pulled off with Microsoft. And do not be surprised to find Steve Ballmer across a negotiating table from Mark Shuttleworth.

One more thing. If you fashion yourself after the likes of a Steve Jobs, and you run a for-profit company, a hidden objective would be to take your company public – eventually. That will also be a factor in the types of decisions and deals that Mark Shuttleworth makes.

For emphasis, Ubuntu is not a community distribution. The sooner you get that, the less likely you will be disappointed by any decision that Mr. Shuttleworth makes.

You might also be interested in these articles:

1. Mark’s divisive leadership

2. Ubuntu Membership



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10 years ago

Oh for god sake, is anyone allowed to pay any bills and eat in the Linux world without everyone claiming sour grapes, please, the next time you go to the grocery store ask them if you can have it for free because nature is open source.

Reply to  Ronnie
9 years ago

I have no objection to companies making money off Linux. I have objections to companies pretending to care about the Linux ecosphere when they really don’t. Mir is a great example, but Canonical has a history of pretty well ignoring what the community thinks since at least 2008.

The article itself isn’t even objecting to Canonical looking after its interests so much as pretending its interests lay in the community. Mir is a terrible direction for Ubuntu. It effectively means that Ubuntu will be cut off from the rest of the ecosphere which is either staying on Xorg or going to Wayland. The only people who want Mir are Canonical people. So many upstream projects have even out-and-out stated they’ll refuse to offer support for Mir themselves.

Ubuntu’d be better off embracing Wayland.

Mike HH
Mike HH
10 years ago

Of COURSE it isn’t a community distribution. Who ever said it was, or should be ? Mark Shuttleworth spends *his own millions* on Canonical and thanks to his enjoyment of the science of computing in general and operating system design in particular, we have the powerful engine of Linux promotion, and worthy star child of Debian, that is Ubuntu.

That has done INCALCULABLE GOOD for the Linux community.

SO FOR GOODNESS STAKE STOP MOANING – if you don’t like Ubuntu, go sit in a corner and start your own distro.

(I don’t like Unity, either: but I do take my hat off to Mark S. for his commitment to advancing Linux).

Linux user
Linux user
Reply to  Mike HH
10 years ago

Of COURSE it isn’t a community distribution. Who ever said it was, or should be ?

Er, Mark Shuttleworth?
He even picked a name (Ubuntu) that is arguably the very definition of ‘community’.
Back in the beginning he couldn’t stop using the word.

I don’t like Canonical and I have the right to complain just as much and as often as I want to. Don’t like it? Go and sit in the corner and don’t read articles you know in advance are going to annoy you.

Reply to  Mike HH
9 years ago

How many of Canonical’s decisions and software for Ubuntu have found practical use anywhere outside of the Ubuntusphere? Have you ever tried to port something like Unity or Upstart to something NOT Ubuntu-derivative?

Canonical has done scant little for Linux, unlike Novell or Red Hat.

10 years ago

Does Fedora, Redhat or SUSE garner the same attention? I don’t know much about them, but aren’t they also run as a business? I barack for Ubuntu because some commercial profitability yeilds benefits. It can still be forked and be a community distro, as evidenced by Mint. Mint wouldn’t be as good without Ubuntu imo.

Ubuntu has also brought some creative thinking that may not appeal to all but then that potentially applies to any distro.

For the record, i’m not a fan of the UI, i prefer Mint. But i’m happy Ubuntu is still doing well and could crack it big time in China with Kylin. If Linux takes hold in China (at a consumer level) then the balance could shift massively as China powers ahead. China’s emergence /could/ be Linuxes emergence and lead to a genuine competitor to Microsoft on the desktop.

My only concern really is the quantity of different DEs that are around are only growing, while the desktop user base (as a %) doesn’t appear to be.

I’m a noob, so welcome corrections. Just be polite about it.

Go Ubuntu! 🙂

Reply to  Derek
9 years ago

There’s nothing wrong with companies makign money off Linux. That’s not the problem here. The problem here is Mark pretending Ubuntu is anything but a corporate-backed-and-led distribution. It’s not community members designing and leading Ubuntu. If you want to know what an actual COMMUNITY distro works like, look at Debian, Gentoo, or Arch.

People can make money and profit off Linux fine. That’s not the issue at all. It’s how they pay lip service to the community and continue to make piss poor decisions on Ubuntu.

10 years ago

Read the article, and am thoroughly torn about it, as well as the issue as a whole. At first: To some point, indeed I agree. Ubuntu doesn’t seem a community distribution right now, to me. Then again: Was it ever intended to be one, at least from a Debian or Fedora “community” point of view?

I don’t think so. It always was about Canonical backing Ubuntu, it always was all about Canonical pouring considerable amounts of money into things (to the point of even sending out wagonloads of free CDs to whoever wanted some, earlier in the life of Ubuntu) without, so far, having a real way to reliably refund this (leaving Ubuntu One and some of the fiercely disputed amazon recommendations in unity lenses aside for a moment). From that point of view, at the very least everyone should possibly accept Canonical of course has a certain economic interest in Ubuntu, and be that just covering costs. Also keep in mind that, looking at other Linux distributions in some way related to commercial vendors (take RedHat or SuSE), you always ended up with the “commercial” and the “community” version being more or less drastically different for obvious reasons. In Ubuntu, it’s just Ubuntu or Ubuntu Server, no matter whether “commercial” or “community” use.

Then, another example of community:See GNOME-Shell vs. Mate, or KDE vs. Trinity. That’s also community. There’s some piece of technology moving into some direction, and some who don’t agree with that direction decide to jump off and do things on their own. That might or might not be a good thing – in the end, if you want to build a usable, accessible, “good” Linux system for end users, it doesn’t help you much. So far, I just have to say Linux community (I have been part of it ever since 1996) then and now muttered about Linux not making it to the desktops, but ultimately, Linux community hasn’t really done much to change this, talking usability, accessibility, end user “compatibility” (no, that kind of “end user” who is into Ubuntu, Android, iOS, …, will _not_ join a community, become part of it, change things to the better – that kind of end user eventually will “just” be a consumer wanting a working piece of technology). From that point of view, Ubuntu might have been the one Linux distribution that has done more to make Linux reach _this_ kind of end users than any other distribution or open-source project before (feel free to prove me wrong by pointing out things I eventually overlooked).

This, however, is something that didn’t happen out of the blue. It happened because, in the end, there were people who _did_ it. People who, at Canonical, do not just think about technology but also think about design, about usability, about “look-and-feel” and make things work out well. Sure, this is something a community can do as well, but in the end it needs two things: Someone to make a final decision, and people willing to accept that this decision has been made.

I am not all too happy about Mir, and at the moment I am not too happy with Ubuntu Touch/Phone either as, so far, most of the “new” use cases I see seem focussed on doing the things you’d do on a mobile device / tablet pc, doing the same bad thing other vendors do by completely ignoring the fact that there still are users who will use desktop PCs with massive keyboard input and large screens simply because it’s the way they can work most effectively in environment in which, at least by now, touch UI simply doesn’t work out. But that’s a personal point of view, and in the end I accept Canonical to do that, same as I accept Debian packaging philosophy to keep stable (yet at times helplessly outdated) versions of software in debian-stable releases. Someone has to make decisions, at some point. Community or not.

Reply to  KR
10 years ago

What a great post. At least as good as the article. Kudos.

Reply to  KR
10 years ago

“Ubuntu doesn’t seem a community distribution right now, to me. Then again: Was it ever intended to be one”

Well then shuttleworth miss led EVERYONE! Every time his lips produced some sort of sound one thing was always a guarantee he would at some point mutter the words “Our Community” or The Ubuntu Community”

Never the less, He is a Jerk!

Reply to  syncdram
10 years ago

Usually, calling people “jerks” is not going to help or change anything. Also, I don’t see Mark Shuttleworth in any way misled anyone. Did by now you ever read ?

Mark Shuttleworth never got tired elaborating his role as a “benevolent dictator” behind Ubuntu, which essentially is what it boils down to, and what I tried to point out earlier: In order to push anything forth, someone ultimately has to make decisions. Shuttleworths intention is making decisions to move Ubuntu and the Ubuntu mission forward (which of course also will be about a certain commercial interest, but also about making Ubuntu a platform for end users, “human beings” – he also never got tired telling people about this) rather than making _everybody_ in the community happy.

I emphasize “everybody” here because, starting with the Mir/XMir dispute (which seems to initially have started this whole thing), I do not at all see it’s a “Mark Shuttleworth vs. rest-of-the-Ubuntu-crowd” kind of decision. I actually see quite a bunch of people supporting Mir, and not just because they’re Ubuntu / Canonical employees.

I could go on dive into Mir and Wayland and spend a load of time outlining why I prefer Wayland from a “standards” based approach, why I think Mir is a better idea technically, and why I am overally worried that trying to “replace”(?) X11 by _two_ competing approaches might cause more harm than do benefit but that, to me, is not the point. It’s about community and community-based decision making. Would you mind outlining what _you_ see in a community distribution?

Because, even with vanilla Debian, you will immediately end up in situations in which you see someone making decisions you might not like, and you will be supposed to either learn to live with these decisions or eventually leave the community. “Old packages” in Debian, to me, is a pretty good example. Been administering cyrus imapd in professional environment for ages now, I fairly well remember a time when discussing some cyrus 1.5.x related issue on a cyrus IRC channel, and by then the cyrus folks essentially were complaining about the “st***d Debian fools” still delivering that absolutely old 1.5.x release in a _stable_ distribution while cyrus community already released a bunch of stable 2.x releases, fixing many critical flaws as well as many performance issues, and Debian folks still “wasted energy” in trying to backport these fixes just in order to keep a hopelessly outdated piece of software alive. Feel free to subscribe to a Debian mailing list and suggest that a Debian stable release should always contain the latest “stable” upstream releases of all software packages included – but before you do so, please give me a sign so I can subscribe myself and get me some popcorn to watch what will follow up. 😉

Bottom line: In communities as large as these, you won’t only have decisions each and everyone agrees with, and the larger the community and/or the more important the decisions, the more likely it will be that there are people who don’t agree at all with a decision made by whoever is in charge of doing so. This is not something specific to Ubuntu, and this is not something to blame Mark Shuttleworth as a “benevolent dictator” for. Just talking Cinnamon vs. GNOME again – this is pretty much the same. To me, a “community” also should be capable of supporting decisions unpopular to some.

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