Ubuntu and the Unspoken Rules: Page 3

Ubuntu's disagreements with the rest of open source are really less about issues than relationships.


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More recently, the controversy has continued in more muted tones, with Robert Ancell, a Canonical developer, insisting that "the display server doesn't matter" -- the implication being that KDE has exaggerated the issue -- and KDE leaders countering that the issue does matter, and accusing Ubuntu and Canonical of failing to coordinate their efforts with the rest of the community.

You do not have to read either side in the Mir vs. Wayland debate to conclude that both sides are talking about much more than technical details.

The Leader Who Never Was

However, despite these other concerns, probably the most important single reason for the reservations about Ubuntu is its frequent attempts to assume the leadership of free software -- a position that no one has ever filled, and that no one particularly wants to see filled.

In its first few years, Ubuntu's influence was mostly by example. However, by 2008, Shuttleworth was promoting the idea that major projects should coordinate their release schedules.

That idea was received without enthusiasm. However, it is worth noting that some of those who opposed it, like Aaron Seigo, have re-emerged as critics of Mir -- another indication that personal differences are as important as the issues under discussion.

At any rate, Shuttleworth rapidly abandoned the idea of coordinated releases for a "challenge" to free software to rival Apple in design. That proved no more popular -- mainly because the community was already starting to focus on design. However, the poor response may have helped Ubuntu and Canonical to become more isolationist.

On the strength of Ubuntu's popularity, Shuttleworth has continued to write as though the rest of the community is waiting to follow his lead. For example, recently Shuttleworth concluded a blog about the need to improve firmware with "Our mission in Ubuntu is to give the world’s people a free platform they can trust. I suspect a lot of the Linux community is motivated by the same goal regardless of their distro."

Judging from the grandiose language and the sentiments, he continues to regard himself as a leader of the community. Large segments of the community, though, consistently articulate a very different view of Ubuntu and Canonical's leadership.

Under these conditions, any change in relationship seems unlikely. Many were pleasantly surprised when Debian announced it would support systemd over init or upstart, and Shuttleworth announced that he would do the same. However, the graciousness turned out to be temporary, and not a change in relationships after all.

Ambition and haste

Ubuntu has always been ambitious. In addition, though, when you look back on its history, it has usually been in too much of a hurry to realize its ambitions. No doubt the drive to make Canonical profitable has only increased its rush.

The main problem with this rush is that it has encouraged Canonical to focus on its own goals, and too often to neglect its relationship with the rest of free software. Instead of cultivating tactical alliances, it has trampled over the unspoken conventions, creating animosity instead of acting in its own best interests.

Admittedly, the larger community can be slow to change and quick to defend the way things are. You could argue with some success that an attempt to innovate and to do things differently is long overdue. But while Canonical has helped to transform the Linux desktop, at times its rashness has made its failures (and partial successes) as significant as its successes.

The bottom line is that Ubuntu and Canonical's relationship with the rest of free software is severely dysfunctional -- and that no one on either side appears to have the will to fix it.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, FOSS, Shuttleworth, Canonical

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