Last week, in "Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?" I presented one view of Ubuntu and its relationship with other parts of the free and open source software (FOSS) community. One of the first and most articulate responses to the article came from Ubuntu's community manager Jono Bacon.
In Bacon's view, far from being increasingly inward-looking and commercially-oriented, Ubuntu today is what it has always been: A company well-grounded in FOSS values that continues to innovate. Although he admits that relationships with the GNOME project could be improved and that Ubuntu/Canonical has sometimes made mistakes, he continues to see Ubuntu as a major force in bringing FOSS to people outside the traditional community.
Bacon was cautious in his criticisms of the original story, saying twice that "the last thing I want to be perceived as is as stomping on journalists." All the same, he characterized it as "one side of the story," suggesting that "if both sides had been presented, it would have provided a really interesting story."
Bacon also points out that some aspects of Canonical are never seen by outsiders. The implication is that, as a long-time employee, he is in the position to present that insider's perspective. If his perspective is a biased one, it is also an informed one, and that makes it worth hearing, and not only in the interests of developing a balanced perspective.
"I want to do everything I can to bring free software to everybody," Bacon says. "And that's why I'm passionate about Ubuntu. Canonical as a company is incredibly committed to that goal. But you know what? With the best intentions in the world, people make mistakes."
Bacon suggests that there is currently a "natural tension" in FOSS between those who want the configurability and full set of options that is part of the traditional philosophy and those who emphasize usability.
He personally favors focusing on usability first on the grounds that it "is additive and the other isn't. If you take Ubuntu and design it around end-users, so it's really simple, really easy, and there's no unnecessary clutter -- if you make some opinionated decisions, which we've always done -- it's easier to then build configurability on top of that. Giving my Mom and Dad an incredibly configurable distribution for Linux enthusiasts and trying to make that easier is harder. So that's why I think the approach we've taken Ubuntu is a good one."
Similarly, although Bacon spends considerable time as community manager communicating FOSS values, he considers usability more important than educating users in FOSS values.
"It's the same way that I don't know the full history of freedom of speech," he says. "I know some of the ways that it came about, but the most important thing is that I benefit from that right and privilege. The digital divide needs to be taken away, irrespective of whether people understand the philosophy. "But to me it's not black and white. I don't feel we need to compromise or sell out to take free software to the masses. I think we can take the teachings of people like Richard Stallman and apply them in ways that millions of people around the world can benefit from."
Referring to Geoffrey A. Moore's metaphor of the chasm separating early adopters of a technology and a broader audience, Bacon suggests "that we've been perching at the edge of the chasm." For him, Ubuntu innovations such as the Unity desktop represent one of the best opportunities for FOSS to move from its traditional base of geeks and find a wider range of users.
Asked if relationships between Ubuntu and other major FOSS projects are breaking down, Bacon dismisses the idea in general. Relationships with Mozilla and LibreOffice are strong, he says. As for Debian, Ubuntu's parent distribution, "the relationship is better than it's ever been," thanks largely to the efforts at outreach by the last two Debian Leaders.
Bacon does acknowledge that relationships between Ubuntu and GNOME are widely perceived as strained. Yet, even there, Bacon's response is qualified. "GNOME is just one relationship -- and it's an important relationship -- but I don't think it's indicative of a problem with Ubuntu working with other groups. And if we look at the relationship with GNOME, it's actually pretty decent. I mean, Ubuntu ships the GNOME platform, and we encourage people to build GNOME apps. But it's been an inside joke for some time that what the press thinks is the relationship between Canonical and GNOME is very different from the relationship between the developers [of the two projects]."