Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?

Once the darling of the open source crowd, Ubuntu is now increasingly criticized.
Posted February 22, 2011

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

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When Ubuntu first appeared, the free and open source software (FOSS) community was delighted. Suddenly, here was a distribution with the definite goal of usability, headed by a former space tourist who not only understood computer programming but had the money to throw at problems.

The only objections were that Ubuntu was ripping off Debian, the source of most of its packages. For everyone else, Ubuntu and its parent company Canonical seemed everything FOSS had been waiting for.

Now, in 2011, that honeymoon is long past. Although Ubuntu remains the dominant distro, criticisms of its relationship with the rest of FOSS seem to be coming every other month.

What happened? Ubuntu supporters sometimes dismiss the change as jealousy of Ubuntu's success.

But, although that may be an element, the change in attitude is probably due chiefly to the gap between the expectations created by Ubuntu and Canonical in their early days and their increasing tendency to focus on commercial concerns.

Instead of being the model corporate member of the community that it first appeared, today Ubuntu/ Canonical increasingly seems concerned with its own interests rather than those of FOSS as a whole. No doubt there are sound business reasons for the change, but many interpret it as proof of hypocrisy. Added to the suspicion towards the corporate world that lingers in many parts of the FOSS community, the change looks damning, especially when it is so clearly documented in Canonical's corporate history.

A Brief History of Canonical and Ubuntu

After Ubuntu's first release in October 2004, Ubuntu/Canonical seemed in many ways a model FOSS entity. Nor was there much reason to doubt that initial sincerity. Shuttleworth, in particular, who was then the main speaker for both Ubuntu and Canonical, made considerable efforts to express support for other aspects of FOSS.

For example, Shuttleworth emphasized that "we all win, when Red Hat has a win." He made a special point of attending DebConf, Debian's annual conference, and of insisting that "Every Debian developer is also an Ubuntu developer" at a time when relations between Debian and Ubuntu were strained.

However, even in the first years there were signs of isolationism. Ubuntu/

Canonical insisted on using the proprietaryLaunchpad for development rather than existing free tools. Launchpad components did not begin to be released under free licenses until 2007, and the entire code was only released under the Affero GNU General Public License in 2009.

Similarly, in November 2006, Shuttleworth himself created controversy when he invited openSUSE developers to join Ubuntu. Although Shuttleworth later claimed that the offer was a response to Microsoft and Novell's cooperative agreements (Novell being openSUSE's corporate sponsor), it was widely condemned as an effort at corporate raiding unprecedented in the FOSS world, and Shuttleworth apologized a few days later.

However, the real turning point in Ubuntu/ Canonical policy appears to have been Shuttleworth's failure to convince other FOSS projects to coordinate their release cycles.

Shuttleworth first made the case in December 2006 that "it would be nice at the beginning of an Ubuntu release cycle to have a really confident picture of which projects will produce stable releases during those few months when we can incorporate new upstream versions. It would be even better if, during the release cycle, we knew immediately if there was a *change* in what was going to be released."

Over the next few years, Shuttleworth continued to stress the advantages of coordinated releases, arguing that it would allow centralized bug tracking, and suggesting that the cooperation might extend to common training materials.

The FOSS response, though, showed a distinct lack of interest. Many, including KDE's Aaron Seigo, saw the suggestion as squeezing projects into a uniformity that might not fit their needs.

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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux downloads, Gnome, Debian, Shuttleworth

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