Does Ubuntu Contribute its Share to Free Software Projects?

The dispute about this issue reflects a clash of changing values about the future of open source.


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Ubuntu is a distribution that people have strong feelings about, both pro and con. Last week, those feelings erupted again after former Red Hat employee and Fedora community architect Greg DeKoenigsberg ranted about Ubuntu's contributions to the GNOME desktop in his blog.

DeKoenigsberg has since apologized, but the issue is still worth a closer look, because it raises several issues about how the free software community works and one of its unspoken expectations.

DeKoenigsberg based his comments on Dave Neary's analysis of contributions to the GNOME 2.30 release. Speaking at GUADEC, the yearly meeting of GNOME programmers, Neary was interested primarily in patterns in GNOME development.

However, what DeKoenigsberg noticed was the difference in the contributions made by Red Hat versus those by Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm. While Red Hat had made 16.3% of all contributions, topping the list of corporate contributors, Canonical’s contributions comprised only 1.03%.

DeKoenigsberg now says that he wrote the now-infamous blog entry because of his lingering resentment over Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth's description in 2007 of Red Hat as a proprietary company. He now thinks that the entry was rash, and that he should not have written it.

However, whatever DeKoenigsberg's motivations and second thoughts, his comments amounted to an attack on Canonical. Calling Canonical a "marketing organization masquerading as an engineering organization," DeKoenigsberg described it as being hypocritically adept at claiming credit for promotion of the Linux desktop.

"One of the most irritating things about working at Red Hat was watching Canonical take credit for code that Red Hat engineers wrote," DeKoenigsberg says. "Of course, Red Hat engineers, being the upstanding sort of chaps that they are, never said a word about it, because they’ve always been too busy carrying the load." But the truth, DeKoenigsberg alleged, was that, "Canonical has been riding on Red Hat's coattails for years."

In less than four days, the blog entry attracted over 300 comments, to say nothing of numerous posts elsewhere agreeing or disagreeing with him -- sure signs of how strongly the community cares about the issues behind his comments

The Canonical responses

DeKoenigsberg is far from the first community figure to denounce Canonical and Ubuntu. Most notably, in his keynote at the Linux Plumber's conference in 2008, kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman noted that, over the previous three years, Canonical's kernel contributions were .1% of the whole. This number placed its level of participation far below those of comparable distributions, such as Red Hat and Novell.

Since 2008, cynicism about Canonical has become commonplace, to the point where Ubuntu Developer Manager Scott James Remnant can talk about "this week’s popular anti-Ubuntu FUD" in a blog entry as though it were routine. The fact that his announcement that Canonical was hiring quickly turned into attacks on its hiring practices in the comments section suggests that his perception is more or less true.

However, DeKoenigsberg's attack was the first from a major community figure in some time. Moreover, since DeKoenigsberg is no longer a Red Hat employee, or active in free software development, he felt no need to moderate his language. Consequently his comments were much more strongly worded than most criticisms of Canonical.

But, whatever the reason, responses from Canonical were quick in coming. Canonical Chief Operating Officer Matt Asay tweets that Neary's analysis "tracks *all-time" Gnome contributions. Canonical will never catch up w/ RHT. It's not helpful data." Asay is referring to the fact that Red Hat was already founded when GNOME began in 1997, while Canonical did not exist until 2004.

Next Page: Shuttleworth's comments

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Gnome, Shuttleworth

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