Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?: Page 2

Once the darling of the open source crowd, Ubuntu is now increasingly criticized.
Posted February 22, 2011

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 3)

Faced with this unenthusiastic response, Shuttleworth used a keynote at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July 2008 to urge a different approach to cooperation, challenging the community to rival and surpass Apple in usability within the next two years.

Given Ubuntu's emphasis on usability and Shuttleworth's own interest in interface design, this challenge was not unexpected. It fit, too, into the growing interest in usability at the time.

However, the FOSS community saw no reason to focus on usability under Shuttleworth's leadership, or within his schedule.

When changes proposed by Ubuntu were slow to be accepted in GNOME -- some say out of hostility -- Shuttleworth began making interface changes to GNOME within Ubuntu. They were accompanied by the announcement of an elaborate new look for Ubuntu that included complicated color codes and a new font.

Then, faced with the choice of supporting these changes in an old version of GNOME or transferring them to GNOME 3.0, Ubuntu announced Unity, a shell for GNOME that was originally designed for netbook computers, would be its new desktop.

This growing tendency to develop in-house has been accompanied by other signs of insularity. As early as April 2006, Ubuntu replaced init, the standard bootup program in GNU/Linux with Upstart, largely to reduce start times. In much the same way, in November 2010, it announced the eventual replacement of Xorg, which provides the graphical interface, with the mostly unproven Wayland.

Since both init and Xorg are flexible enough to provide the sorts of improvements that Shuttleworth advocates, the suspicion is that such decisions are not technical, so much as political. That is, what concerns Ubuntu/ Canonical is not the technical merits of the applications, but its ability to dominate the projects that dominate its software stack.

Other decisions that have negatively affected the perception of Ubuntu/ Canonical include the ending of Gobuntu, an Ubuntu variant that included only free software; a restrictive contributor's agreement; and the question of how affiliate fees for its online music store will be distributed.

The result of all these decisions and actions is an increasingly disillusioned perception of Ubuntu/ Canonical among some FOSS veterans. In 2008, kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman observed that despite its popularity, Ubuntu developers had contributed less than one percent of the patches to the kernel over the previous three years.

In much the same way, in August 2010, former Fedora community architect Greg DeKoenigsberg noted that only 1.3 percent of the code in GNOME 2.30 was attributable to Ubuntu. Currently, there is even a small group of regular critics who are sure to appear in the comments beneath any policy announcement made by Shuttleworth or his senior management. Despite its continued popularity among new users, at times Ubuntu has looked surprisingly like a pariah in the last few years.

The Reason for it All

This summary is enough to establish the change in Ubuntu's approach to FOSS. Yet what is missing is why it happened.

The idea that the changes are due to Jane Silber replacing Mark Shuttleworth as CEO is a tempting but incomplete explanation.

True, Silber is more business than FOSS oriented, and has emphasized projects like Ubuntu One, the cloud storage service, which is aimed more at corporate customers than individuals. But the change in attitude was happening long before Shuttleworth stepped down in December 2009 to focus on usability issues. Anyway, as founder, Shuttleworth remains active in decision-making. At most, the change in CEO only adds to an existing situation.

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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux downloads, Gnome, Debian, Shuttleworth

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