Ubuntu's Community Problem

Are the interests of Canonical and Ubuntu identical? Some Ubuntu contributors are starting to question that assumption.
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For years, the relationship between the Ubuntu distribution and its commercial arm Canonical has been strained, but nobody has publicly discussed what was wrong. However, last week, that changed, as one community blogger after another expressed their dissatisfaction about the relationship, while Canonical supporters defended it.

Exactly why this discussion should have started now is hard to understand. Unlike Red Hat's relationship with Fedora or SUSE's with openSUSE, Canonical has never held Ubuntu at arm's length.

In fact, over the years, Canonical and Ubuntu have clashed many times. Canonical's withdrawal from other community projects like GNOME; its increasing tendency towards private, in-house development; its imposition of design decisions upon Ubuntu; its withdrawal of support for a completely free Ubuntu variant; its proprietary-like contributor's agreements — all these and more have prompted complaints among Ubuntu developers, with only a handful challenging Canonical's right to make distributions for the project.

The difference now seems to be the number of major decisions Canonical has announced in a short time. While few in the Ubuntu community question the announcement of an Ubuntu phone or tablet, other recent issues have been more controversial.

For example, the addition of commercial results to dash searches seems to benefit Canonical while serving little practical purpose and leaving Ubuntu open to accusations of behaving contrary to the spirit of free software. Similarly, many viewed switching the Ubuntu Development Summit from an in-person work-session to online as a cost-cutting measure that handicaps development.

Ubuntu developers have also questioned the wisdom of dropping the Wayland display server in favor of a new in-house project. Still others, hearing the discussion about switching to rolling releases rather than twice-yearly general releases, have been wondering if their preparations for the upcoming 13.04 release would be discarded.

Probably, any of these issues alone would not have been enough to provoke criticism. However, the accumulated effect — especially when the decisions seem so open to question — has apparently resulted in many long-time Ubuntu contributors expressing doubts about Canonical's leadership in a way they never did before. What will come from that expression is still anybody's guess.

Looking at Leadership

While various issues may have prompted the current questioning, the complaints focus on the leadership of Canonical in general and founder Mark Shuttleworth in particular. From the earliest days of Canonical, Shuttleworth's role of self-appointed dictator for life has been accepted with surprisingly few expressions of discontent, but now some are publicly questioning his decisions.

The milder form of criticism is represented by long-time Ubuntu advocate and community volunteer Elizabeth Krumbach. Krumbach's complaint is that the community "has been tossed to the side due to announcements which Canonical has clearly been talking about for months."

Her concern is that the community has been relegated to the lesser role of advocacy and support:

"It’s no longer one where individuals can get deeply involved in development of many of the pieces of the [operating system] in a regular cadence -– if you do you risk the carpet being pulled out from under you in the form of some new announcement that causes all your plans and work to be less valuable (or useless) . . . You feel like you've been duped."

Ubuntu has changed, she suggests, and as a Community Council member, Krumbach feels she "let the community down" by going along with the changes. While deciding to continue her Ubuntu development, she suggests that other community members need to decide if they want to continue to support Canonical's decisions.

Other bloggers suggested that Canonical was becoming increasingly similar to a proprietary company and had drifted from the ethics of free software.

For instance, developer and community activist Martin Owens drafted a post on February 2 that he only posted on March 7 about why he no longer wished to be an Ubuntu developer. He accused Canonical of ignoring users, suggesting that, from a free software perspective, users were "the core and source, not the periphery to be ignored." He also diagnosed Canonical as having an "unintentional institutional bias" that fit poorly with free software's "sustainable connections that focus latent user demands to developers and potential developers' attention."

"There isn't an Ubuntu community any more," Owens concluded. "There's a Canonical community, an ubuntu-users [list] gaggle and maybe an enthusiasts' posse. But no community that makes decisions, builds a consensus, advocates or educates. It's dead now, [and] it's been that way for a while."

Owen's comments provoked a response by Jonathan Riddell, the project lead for Kubuntu, the variant of Ubuntu which Canonical stopped funding a year ago and which has since been independent.

Noting the complaints, Riddell invited discontented Ubuntu contributors to become involved with Kubuntu. Riddell characterized Kubuntu as "an Ubuntu community that cares about everyone's contribution, doesn't make random announcements every couple of days that have obviously been made behind closed doors and cares about a community-made upstream desktop." The last phrase is a reference to cooperation with other projects like GNOME or Wayland, in contrast to Canonical's apparent preference for in-house development.

Almost identical sentiments were widely expressed on at least two dozen blogs and in their comments. Although none said so in as many words, the consensus is that the interests and working relationships of Ubuntu were at odds with those of Canonical, and that Ubuntu's interests had been consistently suppressed by Canonical in its drive towards commercial success.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Canonical, community

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