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Whether Ubuntu is declining is still debatable. However, in the last couple of months, one thing is clear: internally and externally, its commercial arm Canonical appears to be throwing the idea of community overboard as though it was ballast in a balloon about to crash.
Internally, the shift can be seen in the recently-released Ubuntu 13.10, a release so focused on Canonical's goal of convergence across form factors and so unconcerned with existing users that it has become the least talked-about version for years.
Meanwhile, elections for the Community Council, which is supposed to be Ubuntu's governing body, were apparently such low priority that they were held a month after the last Council's term of office expired. According to longtime Ubuntu volunteer Elizabeth Krumbach, the delay was due to "waiting on Mark [Shuttleworth]," Ubuntu's and Canonical's founder.
Clearly, the community discontent that has been simmering for the past year has not cooled. Recently, developer Aaron Toponce withdrew from his Ubuntu-related activity because of Canonical's actions. Long-time volunteer Benjamin Kerensa replied by calling for an Ubuntu Foundation that would be independent of Canonical, arguing that it was the only way to preserve the Ubuntu community.
Straining the diplomatic ties
However, these signs of tensions within Ubuntu are more than matched by the hostility that Canonical has recently directed toward the larger free software community.
Five years ago, Mark Shuttleworth wrote as though he respected differences in opinion, responding, for example, to Aaron Seigo's arguments against projects coordinating their release schedules, with a reasoned rebuttal.
By contrast, in recent months, Shuttleworth has sounded increasingly beleaguered, denouncing the "competitors and detractors who love to undermine the work [Canonical] does," while extravagantly praising the "courage and grace under fire" of those who support his direction for Ubuntu.
Reading between the lines, you do not have to squint to believe that he regards his efforts as being in the vanguard of free software and deserving of uncritical support. For example, he accused those who do not support Mir, Canonical's proposed replacement graphical system for Linux, as attacking the project "on purely political ground grounds" and adding that "At least we know now who belongs to the Open Source Tea Party."
Shuttleworth appended a winking emoticon, but few took his comment as a joke. His remarks were widely interpreted as an attack on KDE, which is focusing on supporting Wayland, another replacement graphical system that has no immediate plans to support Mir.
KDE developer Aaron Seigo responded by criticizing Shuttleworth's hostility and challenging him to a debate on the merits of Mir -- a challenge that has had no response.
An even stronger reaction came from Martin Graesslin, whose work for KDE includes implementing Wayland. He wrote that "it is no longer possible to criticize Ubuntu/Canonical for their technical decisions and to disagree with them."
Reacting to Shuttleworth's claim that the opposition was political, Graesslin noted that, "I experienced a strong constant pressure that we support Canonical's in-house solution which is completely unsuited for our needs given their provided public documentation....I had to ask several people at Canonical and people close to the Ubuntu community to leave us alone." Shuttleworth, Graesslin claimed, was violating his own Code of Conduct with his incivility.
A week or so later, Canonical responded to what Shuttleworth characterized as a "sucks site" with a legal notice of violation of copyright. In fact, the site was nothing of the sort -- it was simply a page published by Micah Lee of the Electronic Frontier Foundation that explained how users could prevent information being sent to Ubuntu each time they used smart scopes to search on the dash.
The over-reaction and the singling out of Lee's site was quickly and widely denounced. Yet it took nearly three weeks for Shuttleworth to apologize for both his Tea Party remark and Canonical's treatment of Lee.
Unfortunately, any good such a long-delayed apology might have done was diluted by Shuttleworth's careful hedging and his insistence that only technical critiques of Canonical and Ubuntu were valid. Instead of laying the issues to rest, Shuttleworth only managed to have many criticize his apology as evasive and insincere -- in other words, as one more reason for conflict.
The Pot and the Kettle
Shuttleworth is right that some members of the free software community sound as though they enjoy attacking Canonical and Ubuntu. However, at the same time, he seems blind to his own responsibility for the attacks. In many ways, he appears at least as hostile and politically motivated as he accuses his detractors of being.
Even more seriously, he shows no signs of being aware of how far Canonical and Ubuntu have strayed from the norms of community in free software. Too often, he sounds impatient with any perspective other than his own.
Considering that Canonical has gone nine years without a profit, such self-absorption is understandable. All the same, if Canonical's and Ubuntu's leaders would hire a crisis manager to oversee their internal and external responses, they could make life far easier for themselves.