Is Ubuntu the last, best hope of Linux? Or the betrayer of everything that open source stands for?
Whether more people love Ubuntu or loathe it is an impossible question to answer. I know people who spend most of their free time promoting it as volunteers — and just as many who denounce it as a betrayal of everything free and open source software (FOSS) represents.
The trouble is, so many hopes have been invested in Ubuntu over the years that it invites extremes. While some still hope that it will live up to its initial promise and bring Linux to the mainstream, others find the compromises for the sake of business a betrayal of those same promises.
There is ample evidence for both these reactions — and, no doubt, for those in between.
In the first few years of its existence, Ubuntu was widely praised as a welcome addition to the community. The main dissenting voices were from members of Debian, who foresaw that Ubuntu's success would mean the decline of Debian.
However, throughout the years, Ubuntu has stumbled enough times that it has attracted serious criticism. Here are some of the reasons for reservations about Ubuntu:
1. Increasing Insularity of Development
Traditionally, distributions have relied on so-called upstream projects like GNOME for many of their features. However, while Ubuntu continues to focus on GNOME technology, over the past few years it has increasingly distanced itself from the GNOME project.
The original dispute is complicated. On Ubuntu's part, it seems to have involved an impatience about the pace at which GNOME integrated new contributions, as well as disagreements about the direction of the project.
Briefly, Ubuntu maintained its own version of GNOME. Then it began development of Unity, its own interface. This move began the fragmentation of GNOME that accelerated when many users proved hostile to GNOME 3. Unity, of course, is free software, but few other distributions have shown much hurry to include it in their repositories.
Ubuntu is also criticized for not contributing enough to projects like the Linux kernel. Defenders claim that Ubuntu contributes to the larger community in other ways, but the perception remains widespread that Ubuntu is a maverick — more interested in its success than that of FOSS in general.
2. The Commercial Controlling the Community
Several community-based distributions, including Fedora and openSUSE, are associated with commercial companies, just as Ubuntu is associated with Canonical. However, in most cases, the relationship is kept in the background. The corporate sponsors are well represented on the governing board, and key community figures are employed by the sponsor, but otherwise the company generally avoids direct interference with the distribution.
In Ubuntu's case, the development of Unity involved numerous cases where design decisions were made by Canonical, rather than through the usual community processes. To many, Unity's design team appeared out of nowhere, with a sudden veto over decisions. In fact, they frequently even stifled discussion.
Some of the controversy was probably due to inexperience and the apparent rush to make Unity one of Canonical's distinguishing features. But whatever the reason, it evoked the community's fear of corporate motives, and the impression has yet to diminish altogether.
3. Designing for Mobile Devices
Mark Shuttleworth describes his goal in the coming year as, "Shaping Unity to provide the things we’ve learned are most important across all form factors, beautifully."
Judging from the prototype of Ubuntu Phone, this comment is a slight exaggeration, because modifications must be made for some form factors.
However, the design of Unity suggests that, as far as possible, Shuttleworth's intention is use the same code as much as possible for every form factor. Although intended as a desktop interface, Unity is obviously heavily influenced by mobile devices.
Unfortunately, mobile computing primarily involves consumption — leisure activities, or tasks quickly accomplished. On the other hand, desktop computing also includes productivity — serious tasks that may take some time to accomplish.
Consequently, the frequent taps and changes of screens that mobile users will endure quickly add up to inefficiency on the desktop. The same can be said of opening most applications full-screen. Unity is simply not designed for anything except the simplest of productivity — especially if more than two windows need to be open at the same time.
4. Forgotten Roots
You have to drill down deep on Canonical and Ubuntu's sites to find any mention of Linux. If you didn't already know, you might assume that Canonical had built Ubuntu from scratch, instead of assembling it from the efforts of Debian and hundreds of other projects. Even "open source" is barely mentioned.
The reason for these omissions is obvious: Canonical is selling Ubuntu, not Linux. Promoting Linux doesn't benefit Canonical in any direct way. However, to members of the FOSS community, the omissions look ungrateful, a rewriting of history that distorts what actually happened.
5. Ads on the desktop
If Linux desktops have anything in common, it's the absence of ads and logos. Yet over the last few releases, Unity has been returning ads to the desktops — ads for Ubuntu services like Ubuntu One and the Ubuntu One Music Store, and, more recently, for Amazon and other affiliate services.
These additions remove the rationale for positioning the launcher on the left side of the screen, since on many screens they force users to scroll down to see the complete collection of default icons.
More to the point, these ads are exactly what many people hoped to avoid by moving to the Linux desktop. Naturally enough, Canonical prefers to describe them as services, but users continue to recognize them for the ads they are.
6. Privacy and Security Issues
In the 12.10 release, Canonical entered into an affiliate agreement with Amazon. Under the agreement, search results from Amazon appear when users search their local hard drive. In the upcoming 13.04 release, this feature is going to be greatly expanded, with results from dozens of other companies appearing unless users turn the feature off.
This feature has not only been criticized as a needless distraction and a reduction of Ubuntu to adware, but condemned as a major invasion of privacy by both Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The criticism has resulted in modification of the function, but it remains in place.
Canonical's response is that users should simply entrust their data to it. However, the issue is not whether Canonical or any other corporation is trustworthy, but that basic security suggests that no one should be entrusted with your data. Consequently, the feature is seen by many as a simple cash grab.
7. Introducing Proprietary Elements
The FOSS community often has a inconsistent response to proprietary software. On the one hand, FOSS is supposed to provide an alternative. On the other hand, many distributions have compromised their anti-proprietary positions in order to get working hardware drivers and audio codecs.
Over the years, Ubuntu and its commercial sponsor Canonical have introduced proprietary elements. These elements include the original Launchpad code, some drivers and codecs, and, most recently, the shopping lenses planned for the 13.04 release.
However, much of the reaction seems due to the rhetoric with which such concerns have been answered. While Canonical's and Ubuntu's home pages emphasize open source and freedom, founder Mark Shuttleworth has commented on Slashdot that, "The people who rant about proprietary software are basically insecure about their own beliefs."
Similarly, early in his career at Canonical, community manager Jono Bacon defended Canonical and Ubuntu by suggesting that proprietary elements are needed just now to make Linux competitive — and never mind that Ubuntu has never hesitated to finance the things Canonical has defined as necessary for commercialization.
Whatever the justification in such defenses of proprietary software, they are a far cry from Mark Shuttleworth's claim when Ubuntu's first release was announced that it was "absolutely committed to free software." Inconsistency, no matter how good the reasons for it, is always apt to draw criticism.
Like other major distributions, Ubuntu and Canonical have contributed to a number of projects that help their long-range plans. Upstart and Linaro, for example, have benefited hugely from Ubuntu and Canonical's interest. There are also countless Debian developers who have had more face-to-face interaction with their peers because of having their expenses paid by Canonical.
However, while such community contributions are rumored to be generous, they are not completely unusual among major FOSS projects, either. Instead, I would single out other features and policies as Ubuntu's major contributions to FOSS:
1. Simplified Installation
Ubuntu was not the first distribution to offer a simple installer. By the time of Ubuntu's first release in 2004, graphical installers had been commonplace for almost five years.
However, Ubuntu has done more to simplify and polish basic installation than any other distribution. Not only does the latest version of its installer include simple check boxes for various choices, such as whether to download updates while installing or encrypting your home folder, but the language of the installer has been refined to the point that it has eliminated much of the terror of installing an operating system.
Of course, the standard Ubuntu installer is not designed for users who want maximum control over the process. But its usefulness is indicated by the fact that it has been adapted by just about every distribution that new users might contemplate.
2. An Emphasis on Localization
Before Ubuntu, few distributions concerned themselves with language support. Most were Anglo-centric, and even switching keyboard layouts and fonts to support Western European languages was difficult. Ubuntu's first releases made graphic switching between multiple languages the norm.
Ubuntu's Launchpad was initially controversial because part of its code was proprietary. However, over the years, Launchpad has emerged as one of the great websites for hosting FOSS projects, along with SourceForge, Google Code, and The GNU Project.
However, because Launchpad focuses on Ubuntu development, much of the code hosted on it can be downloaded as a package, rather than needing manual compilation. Better yet, you can add a Launchpad site to your list of repositories and continue to update a piece of software you are following with a minimum of effort.
4. Regular Release Cycles
FOSS projects have always valued quality over scheduling. Recently, for example, Fedora delayed its latest scheduled release by two months, and just last year, openSUSE suspended its release schedule for several months so that the release team could re-evaluate its approach. The worst example is Debian, whose stability and software selection has often been paid for by gaps as long as several years between releases.
In this setting, Ubuntu's regular releases are almost unheard of. In contrast to the delays of months or even years in other distributions, Ubuntu is so regular that remembering the last release that was late by even a few days is impossible for the average user.
5. Encrypted Home Directories
Encrypted home directories are a major security and privacy solution. Unfortunately, the tools for creating them require a degree of expertise.
Ubuntu was the first major distribution to reduce the complexity of home directory encryption to the selection of a check box, and making it an option for desktop users. It's a precaution that few other distributions not derived from Ubuntu have bothered to include, even though the delay in starting and stopping the system is minimal on a modern computer.
6. Community Building
The idea of a new distribution seemed unlikely when Ubuntu first appeared. However, Ubuntu quickly gained followers and users. It now supports a large and enthusiastic community, not just of developers or documentation writers, but also of Local Communities (LoCos), volunteers who promote the distro in a specific region.
Much of the success of this community building seems due to community manager Jono Bacon. Hired in 2006, Bacon has not only coordinated these volunteer efforts, but in the most literal sense, has written the book on community organizing: The Art of Community, one of the most thorough and practical books on management that I've read. Another of his innovations is Ubuntu Accomplishments, a set of awards for having done certain tasks.
7. Concern About Usability
From the start, Ubuntu has emphasized usability. That emphasis was unusual in 2004, when FOSS was still more about features than design and GNOME had barely formulated its Human Interface Guidelines, much less implemented them.
However, by continually discussing the subject and experimenting with usability, Ubuntu made other developers aware of the need to think about the subject.
The result has been mixed, to say the least, and has often over-emphasized new users at the expense of experienced ones. Still such an awareness was necessary for the free desktop to reach its modern maturity. Without Ubuntu, usability would probably have received far less emphasis in the last decade.
Finding a Balance
None of these negative points make Canonical and Ubuntu evil, and none of the positive ones make them allies of the angels, either. Instead, together they suggest Canonical and Ubuntu are a mixed influence, supporting the rest of the FOSS community or pursuing their own commercial goals, depending on what is most convenient at the moment.
Such a statement should hardly be a revelation. Yet in many circles, it apparently is. Considering how much hope has been invested in Canonical and Ubuntu over the years, and how they have sometimes blundered through inexperience, feelings inevitably run high when they are discussed.
But instead of praising or criticizing Ubuntu and Canonical wholeheartedly, it seems more reasonable to approach them without expectations, judging them by their actions rather than their marketing or their past.
The sooner we can take that attitude, the sooner we can accept Ubuntu and Canonical for what they are: another corporate interest trying constantly to negotiate its exact relation with free software — one for whom both our praise and blame are equally irrelevant.