History is written years after the events it describes. But when the history of free software finally is written, I am increasingly convinced that this last year will be noted as the start of the decline of Ubuntu.
At first, the idea might seem ridiculous or spiteful. You can still find Ubuntu enthusiasts who exclaim over every move the distribution makes, and journalists still report founder Mark Shuttleworth's every word uncritically.
Community manager Jono Bacon is working hard to develop a community of app developers for the Ubuntu Touch mobile operating system, and occasionally Ubuntu's commercial arm Canonical announces prestige projects such as working with the Chinese government to develop a national Chinese operating system, or being chosen to deliver the Steam gaming platform to Linux.
Nor can you deduce too much from the fact that Google trend shows a sharp decline in searches for "Ubuntu." Except for Android and Mageia, the same can be said of other major distributions. It is true, though, that none of the other distros have declined as sharply as Ubuntu, which is at less than half its height in October 2007, at a low that it has not been at since June 2006.
All the same, the suspicion remains. Ubuntu and Canonical have isolated themselves from the free software community that Shuttleworth once hoped to lead. In the last year, the community has signaled repeatedly that at least parts of it feel disempowered.
Worst of all, in the last year, initiative after initiative has failed, and profitability apparently continues to elude Canonical. All these seem like indicators of organizations that are starting into a tailspin that will be difficult to correct, assuming they are correctable at all.
The last year is a marked contrast to the first years of Ubuntu. In 2005-2007, Ubuntu was the latest and greatest hope for the Linux desktop, and criticism was limited largely to those who felt that Debian was not given enough credit or distrusted the motives of an eccentric millionaire.
In those early years, Ubuntu did many things to improve usability on the desktop. Probably the most noticeable was the installed support for multiple languages and keyboard locale switching that are now standard in all major distributions.
Gradually, however, Ubuntu and Canonical began to isolate themselves from the mainstream of the free software community. Shuttleworth's proposals that projects coordinate their releases and emphasize usability were largely ignored. Impatient with the speed of development in GNOME -- and, perhaps, seen as an upstart in the GNOME community -- Shuttleworth began the development of the Unity interface, a design project that intrigued him so much that he stepped down as Canonical CEO to oversee it.
Unity and all its details quickly became the major focus of new Ubuntu releases. If the package versions were sometimes less up to date as they once were, few noticed as Canonical imposed change after change, effectively giving the design team a veto over the Ubuntu community.
Yet for all the development effort lavished on Unity, the result was an interface that, for all its eye candy, was better suited for mobile devices than workstations or laptops. According to Distrowatch, only 11 distributions default to Unity, although 79 are listed as derived from Ubuntu in general. Nor have other major distributions rushed to make Unity available, much less promote it.
The same is true of Upstart, Ubuntu's replacement for the init daemon, and more recently, Mir, Ubuntu's replacement for Wayland, which other projects see as the upcoming replacement for the X Window System.
While both remain free-licensed, in practice both Upstart and Mir are controlled by Canonical, mainly through a contributor's agreement which assigns all rights to the company.
This control is perhaps one of the reasons why Intel recently announced that it would not be supporting Mir. In the last four years, Ubuntu and Canonical have gone from welcome members of the free software community to being perceived as mavericks who obey the letter of free-licenses while undermining their spirit. Few, apparently, are prepared to do them any favors.
The more Canonical has isolated itself from the rest of the community, the more it has also attempted to control the Ubuntu community.
This effort is widely interpreted as the result of increasingly determined efforts to make Canonical profitable. Although Canonical is quick to make support and partnership announcements, these announcements are always lacking any mention of a monetary value -- an omission that, after nine years of running the business, would seem unthinkable if there was any good news to report. But, whatever the reason, Canonical has increasingly imposed its decisions on the community of Ubuntu volunteers without consulting them.