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Editor's Note: Ubuntu, the Bad Selfish Linux

Jul 30, 2010, 22:04 (63 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

You know it's a weird news week when I defend Canonical. Once again they are under attack for not contributing enough, and for ascending to peaks of glory on the backs of Real Linux Contributors. Um, yeah. I'm not much of an Ubuntu fan, but this latest barrage seems based more on peeve than substance.

I use Lucid Lynx on my multimedia production PC mainly because it has a realtime kernel and packages the FFADO Firewire audio drivers, and I always have a the latest Ubuntu running on a test box so I can stay up to date. My main work PC is an old Debian box running KDE 3.5.

I get a little tired of all the Ubuntu hype and over-exuberant fanpersons, but we all know that comes with popularity, and Ubuntu is very popular. Back before Ubuntu it was Red Hat and Debian that had annoying fanpersons and overheated hype. I think Mark Shuttleworth and Jono Bacon (Jono is the Community Manager) are more adept at deflecting criticism than addressing it. But I can't get too worked up about this because nobody likes being criticized and crabbed at, and the higher your profile the more people see you as a target than a person. I've been guilty of all of these things. Most everyone has.

Only Developers Matter

The latest salvo at Canonical came from Greg DeKoenigsberg, who wrote the rather angry Red Hat, 16%. Canonical, 1%. These figures came from Dave Neary's GNOME Census. Mr. DeKoenigsberg calls these figures "absolutely egregious."

So the discussions grew, with people taking this side or that side, and then Brian Proffitt summed it up the most succinctly in Canonical's Disconnect with Linux Developer Community:

"That's the problem Canonical needs to address. Developers value contribution. Rightly or wrongly, Canonical is perceived as a low contributor."

But how is this microscopic self-centered viewpoint Canonical's problem to solve, as Mr. Proffitt says? Greg Kroah-Hartman criticized Canonical for not writing more kernel code. Now it's GNOME supporters getting all mad at not seeing more Canonical commits. They're so busy getting mad they're missing some key points: one, they're wrong on the numbers, and two, code commits are just one part of the Linux ecosystem.

Wrong Numbers

Mr. Proffitt quotes Matt Asay:
"Important to note http://bit.ly/crPYYk (the GNOME Census) tracks *all-time" Gnome contributions. Canonical will never catch up w/ RHT. It's not helpful data"
He also notes
"The economy of Linux contains different kinds of currency: users, documentation, and contributions are all separate parts of the greater whole."

So they're basing their criticisms on bad numbers, and a very narrow definition of what a contribution is. It seems to me the reason for all the flames seems to boil down to one thing: peeve at Ubuntu's success.

"They've been very successful at positioning themselves as the Eternal Champion of the Linux Desktop, and positioning Red Hat as the boring old has-beens who long ago abandoned the Desktop fight, and just do backroom server work that Real Linux People don't care about," DeKoenigsberg wrote."

I have a glass half-empty type of perspective much of the time, and I've leveled my own share of carping at Canonical. I may have missed it, but I have never heard Mark Shuttleworth, Jono Bacon, or anyone representing Ubuntu or Canonical put down other Linux distributions or contributors. In my grumpier moments their relentlessly positive, cult-like Kumbaya-or-else approach makes me want to turn the hose on them. But I don't remember them attacking anyone else the way they've been attacked.

Canonical Contributions

I'm very tired of the outmoded, self-centered perspective that only code contributions matter. I don't know how much code Canonical contributes upstream, or how much they write in total. They are often criticized for not "working better" with upstreams. Again, I don't know.

I do know that it takes much more than code to make Linux successful: marketing, user interface design, attracting new users, documentation, partnering with Tier 1 and independent vendors, turning users into contributors, getting Linux more into the mainstream, and much more. Isn't it funny how all these years many Linux fans have been wishing for someone to come along and do all these things? And here they are, and what happens? Flames.

Canonical excels in all of these arenas, where no other Linux distribution has had any real success. The retail desktop arena is littered with the corpses of failures; it's an ambitious and difficult market segment to tackle. In some ways the major Linux distributors are just as slow to adapt as the proprietary world. For one example, wide-screens and netbooks-- these so-called wide-format screens are really square screens with inches lopped off the bottom because they're cheaper to produce. I don't recall if Ubuntu was first to tailor the graphical interface to fit better on netbook screens (I am not counting the pitiful proprietary efforts by the likes of ASUS and HP), but they're the most successful, with many spinoffs. They are devoting considerable resources to user interface design, which the traditional hard-core only-lines-of-code-matter geeks have long neglected.

Who else besides Ubuntu welcomes everyone, and tries to maintain a sane, friendly community? My favorite distribution is Debian, but no way will I ever try to be contributor. If I were an ace coder I would rather eat dog doo than try to become a kernel contributor. Life is too short to waste living in a flame-proof suit. There are a lot of FOSS projects that build rational, productive communities. But none of them are as big as Ubuntu, and few place as high a priority on community-building. When the Ubuntu folks say "Anyone can play!" they mean it.

It's tempting to see this as plain old envy, the billionaire and his pet distro cashing in on the work of others. News flash: everyone cashes in on the work of others. What good is GNOME by itself? Or the Linux kernel by itself? Not much. It's a giant messy ecosystem, and every part of it has an important role.