Ubuntu's Real Contribution to Free Software

Often overpraised or falsely criticized, Ubuntu’s most significant contribution to open source is often overlooked.
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Reactions to Ubuntu are rarely balanced. Too often, people love or hate it so extravagantly that the opinions negate themselves. Often, the reactions are so extreme that a fair assessment of the popular distribution is difficult. Add some genuine mis-steps, and the assessment seems almost impossible.

So exactly what does Ubuntu contribute to free software? The answer, I think, is different from what those in either extreme seem to believe.

Looking at the praise for Ubuntu seems largely a waste of time. Scanning through "Why do you use Ubuntu?" a page created by the Canonical design team to gather feedback, what is likely to strike anyone familiar with free software is how often Ubuntu is praised for aspects of either free software as a whole, or of the default GNOME desktop.

At times, you can't help feeling that historical revisionism is at work, and Ubuntu is credited for every improvement in the free desktop in the six years of its existence.

The same is true to a lesser extent of Mark Shuttleworth's justifications for Ubuntu , with its stories of how the distribution has positively affected users' lives. The praise does not belong to Ubuntu alone, and most distributions could show similar stories if they chose.

By contrast, the negative views are more thoughtful, but ultimately just as limited.

Some, like the since-recanted attack by ex-Fedora community developer Greg DeKoenigsberg, seem openly partisan. The same is true of complaints from Debian developers, who often seem miffed that Ubuntu's success is built upon their work (as if anything was wrong with that by free software standards).

In other cases, such as the denouncements of Ubuntu because it ships with Mono, the distribution seems unfairly singled out for doing exactly what plenty of other distros are doing. But, of course, other distros are not as popular, so they tend to be overlooked.

Nor is assessment any easier for the fact that a core of valid criticism exists. Increasingly, Ubuntu and its commercial arm Canonical tend to develop internally, rather than with existing projects. Whether this tendency is caused by rejection of Ubuntu contributions or by Canonical's impatience with free software conventions is debatable, but hardly matters. Either way leaves the impression that Ubuntu/Canonical isolates itself from the larger community, and fails to contribute as much as such a large distribution should.

Then, too, Ubuntu has made some genuine mis-steps, such as Shuttleworth's slowness to apologize for sexism in a public speech, or its Contributors Agreement, which is so restrictive that free software developers and advocates such as Aaron Seigo feel unable to sign it.

Such problems seem the inevitable result of a conflict between a company pushing for profitability and the non-commercial standards of much of the free software community. However, if given too much weight, they can easily tempt observers into simply denouncing Ubuntu -- and that would be as unfair as giving it too much credit and praising it uncritically.

Beyond the static

Despite all this background noise, I think that Ubuntu's main contributions to free software are reasonably clear and consistent. Ubuntu is neither the freeloader it is sometimes accused of being, nor simply the savior that is introducing millions to free software. Rather, both directly and indirectly, Ubuntu has been a source of new ideas that has brought the community's attention to matters that it has sometimes overlooked.

Specifically, for the last six years, Ubuntu has been the desktop and usability advocate among free software projects.

Ubuntu is not the first to urge improvements in the desktop. The DotCom era saw an upswing in desktop development at the turn of the last millennium, and GNOME had developed its Human Interface Guidelines several years before Ubuntu began.

p> All the same, since 2004, Canonical has been the main commercial advocate of the Linux desktop. Although both Red Hat (despite its claims) and Novell contribute regularly to the desktop, neither has pegged its success to the desktop the way that Canonical has.

Moreover, while Red Hat's and Novell's contributions have been practical, Canonical/Ubuntu has been almost alone in its efforts to try to articulate a vision of the desktop and what it should be.

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Tags: Ubuntu, Linux downloads, open source software, Shuttleworth, Canonical

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