Ubuntu's Community Problem

Tuesday Mar 12th 2013 by Bruce Byfield
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Are the interests of Canonical and Ubuntu identical? Some Ubuntu contributors are starting to question that assumption.

For years, the relationship between the Ubuntu distribution and its commercial arm Canonical has been strained, but nobody has publicly discussed what was wrong. However, last week, that changed, as one community blogger after another expressed their dissatisfaction about the relationship, while Canonical supporters defended it.

Exactly why this discussion should have started now is hard to understand. Unlike Red Hat's relationship with Fedora or SUSE's with openSUSE, Canonical has never held Ubuntu at arm's length.

In fact, over the years, Canonical and Ubuntu have clashed many times. Canonical's withdrawal from other community projects like GNOME; its increasing tendency towards private, in-house development; its imposition of design decisions upon Ubuntu; its withdrawal of support for a completely free Ubuntu variant; its proprietary-like contributor's agreements — all these and more have prompted complaints among Ubuntu developers, with only a handful challenging Canonical's right to make distributions for the project.

The difference now seems to be the number of major decisions Canonical has announced in a short time. While few in the Ubuntu community question the announcement of an Ubuntu phone or tablet, other recent issues have been more controversial.

For example, the addition of commercial results to dash searches seems to benefit Canonical while serving little practical purpose and leaving Ubuntu open to accusations of behaving contrary to the spirit of free software. Similarly, many viewed switching the Ubuntu Development Summit from an in-person work-session to online as a cost-cutting measure that handicaps development.

Ubuntu developers have also questioned the wisdom of dropping the Wayland display server in favor of a new in-house project. Still others, hearing the discussion about switching to rolling releases rather than twice-yearly general releases, have been wondering if their preparations for the upcoming 13.04 release would be discarded.

Probably, any of these issues alone would not have been enough to provoke criticism. However, the accumulated effect — especially when the decisions seem so open to question — has apparently resulted in many long-time Ubuntu contributors expressing doubts about Canonical's leadership in a way they never did before. What will come from that expression is still anybody's guess.

Looking at Leadership

While various issues may have prompted the current questioning, the complaints focus on the leadership of Canonical in general and founder Mark Shuttleworth in particular. From the earliest days of Canonical, Shuttleworth's role of self-appointed dictator for life has been accepted with surprisingly few expressions of discontent, but now some are publicly questioning his decisions.

The milder form of criticism is represented by long-time Ubuntu advocate and community volunteer Elizabeth Krumbach. Krumbach's complaint is that the community "has been tossed to the side due to announcements which Canonical has clearly been talking about for months."

Her concern is that the community has been relegated to the lesser role of advocacy and support:

"It’s no longer one where individuals can get deeply involved in development of many of the pieces of the [operating system] in a regular cadence -– if you do you risk the carpet being pulled out from under you in the form of some new announcement that causes all your plans and work to be less valuable (or useless) . . . You feel like you've been duped."

Ubuntu has changed, she suggests, and as a Community Council member, Krumbach feels she "let the community down" by going along with the changes. While deciding to continue her Ubuntu development, she suggests that other community members need to decide if they want to continue to support Canonical's decisions.

Other bloggers suggested that Canonical was becoming increasingly similar to a proprietary company and had drifted from the ethics of free software.

For instance, developer and community activist Martin Owens drafted a post on February 2 that he only posted on March 7 about why he no longer wished to be an Ubuntu developer. He accused Canonical of ignoring users, suggesting that, from a free software perspective, users were "the core and source, not the periphery to be ignored." He also diagnosed Canonical as having an "unintentional institutional bias" that fit poorly with free software's "sustainable connections that focus latent user demands to developers and potential developers' attention."

"There isn't an Ubuntu community any more," Owens concluded. "There's a Canonical community, an ubuntu-users [list] gaggle and maybe an enthusiasts' posse. But no community that makes decisions, builds a consensus, advocates or educates. It's dead now, [and] it's been that way for a while."

Owen's comments provoked a response by Jonathan Riddell, the project lead for Kubuntu, the variant of Ubuntu which Canonical stopped funding a year ago and which has since been independent.

Noting the complaints, Riddell invited discontented Ubuntu contributors to become involved with Kubuntu. Riddell characterized Kubuntu as "an Ubuntu community that cares about everyone's contribution, doesn't make random announcements every couple of days that have obviously been made behind closed doors and cares about a community-made upstream desktop." The last phrase is a reference to cooperation with other projects like GNOME or Wayland, in contrast to Canonical's apparent preference for in-house development.

Almost identical sentiments were widely expressed on at least two dozen blogs and in their comments. Although none said so in as many words, the consensus is that the interests and working relationships of Ubuntu were at odds with those of Canonical, and that Ubuntu's interests had been consistently suppressed by Canonical in its drive towards commercial success.

Canonical Responses

In answer to Elizabeth Krumbach's comments, former Ubuntu developer and activist Mackenzie Morgan commented that when she tried to bring such matters up a couple of years ago, the response was that "Canonical can't be excluding the community, because Canonical ARE the community."

This observation remains an accurate summary of Canonical responses to the complaints. Despite discussing these concerns with Krumbach and other Community Council members, Canonical executives show little awareness of them. Instead, they offer their own reasons for continuing to support Canonical.

Mark Shuttleworth did emphasize that rolling releases were only a topic of discussion, and that he tended to be against them.

Otherwise, Shuttleworth's reply was mostly unrelated to the complaints. His comment that "everyone has a say in what they can and will contribute. Canonical's contribution is massive" seems to imply that, because Canonical contributes the most, it has the largest say, although he didn't say so in as many words.

Instead, Shuttleworth claims that, "It's simply nonsense to say that Canonical gets 'what it wants' more than anybody else. Hell, half the time *I* don't get exactly what I want. It just doesn't work that way: lots of people work hard to the best of their abilities, [and] the result is Ubuntu."

Shuttleworth went on to say that distributions that were completely community based are also full of discussions and quarrels. Ignoring the fact that at least some of those expressing doubts, including Krumbach, were staying in the community, he added, "If you've done what you want for Ubuntu, then move on. That's normal -- there's no need to poison the well behind you just because you want to try something else."

He suggested that Riddell was being selfish by "inviting people to contribute less to the broader project, and more to one stakeholder." Riddell's response was that he was simply inviting people to move to another part of the project.

Bizarrely, Shuttleworth continued his defense by implying that the complainers wanted to keep Linux a preserve of experts. So far as I am aware, none of the criticizers expressed such a sentiment, yet for some reason Shuttleworth commented that "I simply have zero interest in the crowd who wants to be different. Leet. 'Linux is supposed to be hard so it's exclusive' is just about the dumbest thing that a smart person could say."

However, the main argument of both Shuttleworth and most pro-Canonical commenters was that Ubuntu and Canonical are at the brink of becoming mainstream, and that dissent threatens the chances of reaching that goal:

"If we want to get beyond being a platform for hobbyists, we need to accelerate the work on Unity to keep up with Android, Chrome, Windows and Apple. And that's more important than taking care of the needs of those who don't share our goal of a free software norm . . . . What I'm really interested in is this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a free and open platform that is THE LEADER across both consumer and enterprise computing."

In other words, Shuttleworth sees little room for compromises and seems intent on continuing with exactly the same policies that led to the complaints — all on the assumption that success will make everything worthwhile in the end.

The only hint of compromise came from Ubuntu community leader and Canonical employee Jono Bacon, whose dual roles understandably leave him feeling "somewhat trapped" in the discussion.

Bacon tries hard to find a middle ground:

"We need to be able to work in a way that maintains our Ubuntu values but also gives Canonical the opportunity to get our platform out to the market. Canonical cannot deliver this vision without our community, and Ubuntu would be significantly debilitated if there was no Canonical providing staff, resources, and other investment into Ubuntu. Canonical is not evil, and the community is not entitled; we all just need to step back and find some common ground and remember that we are all in the circle of friends."

Unfortunately, Bacon's diplomatic efforts are weakened by his defense of private development and keeping strategy secret. While he is obviously conflicted, this partial defense seems to imply that, should he have to choose, he would side with Canonical, and not Ubuntu — all the more so because he makes no concrete suggestions about how to compromise.

Sooner or Later

It's impossible to determine exactly how widespread the dissatisfaction might be. On the one hand, those complaining include a number of prominent or long-term Ubuntu activists, which would be unlikely unless the criticism had reached an advanced stage.

On the other hand, the number withdrawing from the community seems to be small. In fact, with Krumbach continuing to produce a copy of the Ubuntu newsletter this week the same as every week, the crisis might seem to be over. As discontented as many Ubuntu contributors might be, their discontent has apparently not reached the point of mass resignations.

Very likely, though, if the complaints have diminished, they have only gone dormant. The inadequacy of Canonical's response, to say nothing of the fact that the complaints have been brewing for several years, suggests that the discontent is not about to go away. It could break out again at any moment.

As much as Canonical wants to focus on becoming successful, it may have no choice except to deal with community complaints first. Ubuntu and Canonical clearly have evolved very different cultures, and a clash seems inevitable — if not now, then perhaps at an even more inconvenient moment.

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