Is Canonical the Victim of High Expectations?

Wednesday Jun 29th 2016 by Bruce Byfield

From being the darling of open source, Canonical is closely and cynically scrutinized, its motives constantly questioned.

When Ubuntu was new, those who questioned it were mostly Debian developers, disgruntled because they were not hired or because Ubuntu failed to acknowledge its debt to Debian. Today, however, a vocal minority seems to view Canonical Software, the company behind Ubuntu, as a Microsoft in the making. From being the uncritical darling of open source, Canonical is closely and cynically scrutinized, and its motives constantly questioned.

So how did this transformation happen? Suspicion about corporations is hardly new in open source, yet Canonical seems singled out in a way that SUSE or Red Hat only occasionally are.

Asked to explain this attitude, the non-Canonical partisans point to a growing association with Microsoft. They cite support for Ubuntu on Windows Azure, and a patent licensing agreement with Microsoft. More recently, the announcement that a special form of Ubuntu would be used to run the BASH shell on Windows has been taken as further proof of Canonical's betrayal of open source.

This list of charges might be convincing, except for one thing -- with Microsoft an active participant in the Linux Foundation, hardly a month goes by without similar reports about other open source companies. Just this morning, for example, I received an email about a new open source protocol whose developers include both Microsoft and Red Hat, yet few are attacking Red Hat because of the deal.

In fact, the last time I heard Red Hat being attacked the same way that Canonical routinely is, the reason was fears that the company was using Systemd to gain control of the Linux desktop.

Sources of Discontent

So why has Canonical received more than its fair share of hate? A large chunk of the reaction may be the company's media relations. Too often, the media takes Canonical representatives at their word.

Recently, for example, Canonical PR had much of the open source media believing that Ubuntu's Snappy packages were on the verge of becoming a universal package format. When the exaggeration was revealed, the disillusionment led one commenter to remark that the experience was "a lot like an MS PR stunt" -- that is, the sort of announcement to be expected from traditional businesses and lacking the honest expected from an open source company.

Another reason seems to be Canonical's increasing diversification. After years of concentrating on the desktop, Canonical could easily be perceived as losing interest in the desktop.

The problem was not that Canonical was no longer involved in development for the desktop, than its developments were not obvious. For instance, for the last few years, improvements to Unity focused on convergence -- that is, on making Unity a desktop to everything from phones and tablets to laptops to phones. The only trouble was, Ubuntu phones and tablets have had limited distribution, while the relative scarcity of touch screen monitors meant that the changes could not be seen by most users. As a result, the impression for many was that Unity development was standing still, and Canonical was moving away from the desktop.

Meanwhile, Canonical was moving into OpenStack, a new area of technology that many casual desktop users would be hard-pressed to define, except to say that it did not seem to have much to do with the desktop. When Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth speculated last year about taking the company public on the strength of its OpenStack sales, it seemed one more sign that Canonical was abandoning its roots.

However, the greatest reason for the suspicion about Canonical is its own record of dealing with the open source community. Canonical burst on to the scene as the company that was finally going to put Linux on everybody's desktop. And for several years, it seemed to be doing just that, improving international language support, and providing an easy to use installer.

Gradually, however, Canonical began showing its proprietary side. Its Launchpad code repository was originally proprietary. Similarly, would-be contributors started being required to sign an agreement granting Ubuntu rights in their code -- including the right to re-license it.

At the same time, Canonical became fed-up with trying to work through GNOME, and started developing Unity itself. Other in-house projects like Upstart and Mir followed. All these projects were technically open source, but in practice they were controlled by Canonical.

When Ubuntu volunteers complained about some of the unilateral decisions made about the design of Unity, Canonical made clear that its community distribution was only as independent as it allowed.

All this behavior was very different from how rival companies such as Red Hat or SUSE interacted with their own community distributions, or with open source projects in general. Nobody is shocked that corporations should be only interested in open source for what it can do for them, but it is considered -- at the very least -- good manners not to make the interest too obvious. Red Hat, for instance, while officially uninterested in the desktop, still assists in the development of fonts and LibreOffice from time to time.

By contrast, Canonical has created the impression that it is determined to go its own way, and not to worry about the expectations or customs of the community in general. Under the circumstances, the change in attitudes towards it is only natural.

Learning the Trick

From an impartial viewpoint, equating Canonical with Microsoft is ridiculous. Even within open source circles, Canonical does not have the influence Microsoft exerts upon computing in general. Nor are Canonical's business relationships with Microsoft anything out of the ordinary. If refusing to do business with Microsoft was a requirement for the Linux Foundation, then the Foundation would have no more than half a dozen startups as members.

All the same, Canonical is the victim of the high expectations it created -- and then failed to live up to. If its loyal fans are quieter or fewer in numbers than they were a decade ago, then the change is hardly surprising.

Other companies can balance business with open source involvement. Canonical, however, is still learning the trick.

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