Ubuntu's Unity Desktop: Tragically Ironic Product Name: Page 2

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However, Neary also notes that all these independent projects have sometimes had rocky relationships with the main GNOME project. The obvious implication is that, with Ubuntu, history is likely to repeat itself. Based on the past history of relations between Ubuntu and GNOME, this implication seems almost a certainty.

Specific Grievances

On the surface, Ubuntu's decision is usually presented by leaders on both sides as an agreement to disagree. For example, when the plans for Unity were announced, Stormy Peters, executive director of the GNOME Foundation, blogged that the news was disappointing, but represented a change in the free software ecosystem whose challenge GNOME must rise to meet. Her tone and argument alike were an eerie echo of Shuttleworth's announcement of Unity's new role.

The reason for these facades is not hard to see: whenever the relationship between Ubuntu and GNOME are discussed, angry partisans on both sides are sure to sound off.

Ubuntu supporters are apt to claim that the GNOME power structure is unfairly prejudiced against Ubuntu and its innovations. For their part, GNOME supporters suggest that Ubuntu and Canonical are trying to impose their own agenda on GNOME as a whole. How true either claim originally might have been is impossible to determine, but the feedback between them now means that both appear to have a degree of truth.

This basic division is strengthened by two very specific claims against Ubuntu and Canonical.

The first is that, although Ubuntu ships with a version of GNOME by default, it does not contribute its fair share to GNOME development. Superficially, this claim appears to be supported by an analysis in July 2010 of the commits to the GNOME code that shows that only slightly more than one percent of them were submitted by Canonical, as opposed to 16% by Red Hat, and over 10% by Novell.

Undoubtedly, Shuttleworth has a point when he blogs that Ubuntu contributes in other ways, particularly by attracting new users to free software.

The trouble is, a contribution that so directly benefits Canonical may be rejected as not being comparable to the indirect benefit that coding benefits give other companies. Nor are developers apt to appreciate an increase in users when what concerns them are contributions to the code.

The second accusation is that Ubuntu is undermining free software for its own commercial interests. This is a charge that most businesses involved with free software face sooner or later, but in the case of Ubuntu and Canonical, it is supported by circumstantial evidence.

Considering that GNOME is currently trying to develop its own interface innovations in GNOME 3.0, you might easily conclude that Ubuntu and Canonical are trying to create a software stack in which they can dominate the decision-making without having to endure the usual give and take of free software development.

Ubuntu already has some history of unnecessary substitutions, such as the replacement of the Init daemon with Upstart that makes Unity seem like the more of the same -- all the more so since, a week after Unity's new role was announced, Shuttleworth added that Ubuntu would be replacing the X Window System with the largely untried Wayland.

All these projects are free software, of course, just like the software that they are designed to replace. However, when Canonical supplies the money and developers to hasten them along, you can be forgiven for suspecting that the projects are controlled almost as closely as they might be if developed entirely in-house.

This suspicion is heightened by the fact that the Canonical contributor's agreement assigns all rights to Canonical. Similar agreements been used by other companies to maintain a measure of control over projects -- Sun, for example, used them to control Java and OpenOffice.org -- so the community is presupposed to suspicion.

Moreover, in this case, the suspicion seems justified. If enforced, the agreement would not only oblige contributors to make changes requested by Canonical, but also gives Canonical the right to re-license code -- even under a free license.

In a smaller, less influential project, such things might be dismissed as part of a company's struggle to work within the community. However, in the case of Canonical and Ubuntu, they are apt to appear as cynical efforts to undermine the community and the common good.

The fact that Shuttleworth and other Ubuntu leaders rarely respond to such criticism, and only long after the fact when they do only seems to confirm the justice of the accusations.

Or, as Jeff Waugh tweets, Ubuntu's development of Unity seems the triumph of "brand before community, [and] differentiation before collaboration."

In return, because free software values are as widely held throughout Ubuntu as in the larger community, these accusations can only cause Ubuntu supporters to resent what they perceive as unfairness.

Facing the Consequences

In the end, the two sides of this dispute provide positive feedback to each other that threatens to make the whole situation spiral out of control. As Neary blogs, Ubuntu's choice of unity "will inevitably garner some support from within Ubuntu, and much criticism from the rest of the GNOME ecosystem, further isolating Canonical and the Ubuntu community from the rest of the free desktop community."

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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux desktop, Gnome, open source software, Unity

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