Why Ubuntu's Donation Model is Brilliant

Tuesday Oct 16th 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Ubuntu’s request for user donations could use some tweaks, yet it’s a system worth supporting.

I believe most people are quite content using something for free, especially if they think there's no obligation to pay for it.

This certainly rings true when it comes to various Linux distributions. The mindset appears to be: if it's open source, there is no need to worry about sustaining it financially.

For some open source projects, perhaps there is a pass to be given here. After all, many projects in the open source space are merely done as student projects or created by hobbyists.

However there are also a number of larger projects, which do indeed need to become "revenue positive" in order for development to continue. One such project needing to be revenue positive is the Ubuntu project.

For years, the primary focus has been to get Ubuntu ready for the masses. And while non-Ubuntu users will likely debate this point, the fact is that Ubuntu is the face of Linux on the desktop these days.

Whether you hate or love it, this is our reality as Linux users. And the face of Linux is seeking to buildup a sustainable revenue model.

Revenue efforts thus far

As you may remember from a previous article I wrote, Ubuntu has experienced some interesting results from their recent adventures with Amazon affiliate links. Considering the mixed success they've seen in public reaction to this new shopping lens, it was pretty clear that an additional source of revenue was in order.

Today we find Ubuntu presenting a download page that solicits a donation in exchange for access to Ubuntu ISO images. While it's certainly not mandatory that someone decide to donate to download Ubuntu, clearly the Ubuntu development team is actively seeking direct revenue here.

The recent efforts with Amazon have had and will likely continue to have mixed results. The latest donation page launched by Canonical, however, is brilliant. Allow me to list the reasons why I feel this way, in no particular order.

Reason 1 – Donating to the Ubuntu project is a reasonable request. Considering the vast amount of value that the end user receives from Ubuntu, or any distribution for that matter, asking regular users to spend a few dollars in support of the project is the least that can be done.

Reason 2 – The donation page put together by Canonical for Ubuntu is laid out so that the page visitor feels like they have a say as to where their donation funds go. For example, the page visitor can use the provided slider to set the dollar amount desired. Even better, each slider allows the end user to select how much money goes to which part of the project. What better way to make your voice heard by Canonical!

Reason 3 – Even if you decide not to donate, the following page presents you with additional options such as cloud storage, Ubuntu help, and their free help solutions as well. So no matter how you look at this, Canonical has structured this page to present you with as many up-sells as possible. And they have managed to do so without being annoying.

Now as great as their donation page is, there are some minor issues that should be addressed. First off, unlike the download pages for Ubuntu server and cloud solutions, the Ubuntu desktop page presents you with access to a donation page before you actually begin to download the Ubuntu ISO image. Another thing I noticed was the missing link to download a torrent file for Ubuntu.

Don't misunderstand me, you can still find torrent files from releases.ubuntu.com, even for the latest 12.10 beta. However, for anyone looking to download Ubuntu there after making a donation from the main download page, your only option is to download Ubuntu automatically via your web browser. That's right – you won't even be presented with a prompt and you will not find a link to find a torrent alternative.

Mixed messages

I think the idea of Canonical seeking to recover some of the tremendous investment that they've put into Ubuntu makes a lot of sense. It's their approach, however, that has been hit and miss lately. As I mentioned above, their donation wall is a great idea. Yet when you visit their "why is Ubuntu free" page, the message you see there is that Ubuntu is supported through various services – not by direct compensation.

To the individual passing by, new to Ubuntu, the message seems a bit mixed up. First the site says it's free, but on their download page they want me to "show some love" to Ubuntu with a donation.

Okay, perhaps you could call it "donationware" and then the conflicting definitions might simply take care of themselves. In the meantime, however, I think newcomers are going to be a tiny bit confused.

I don't dislike Ubuntu

I’m guessing that some of you reading this are thinking I must be "anti-Ubuntu" or somehow merely complaining that Canonical's trying to earn additional revenue. To put this confusion to rest, allow me to clarify a few things.

Ubuntu's grabbing lots of attention – I love this distribution not because I think that everything the development team does is an absolute win, rather because Ubuntu has done what countless other distributions have failed to do – capture a whole new audience of users.

If it wasn't for Ubuntu, I don't see Linux gaming via Valve taking off like it is. Plus there has been an entire ecosystem of websites built up around this Debian-based distribution.

Ubuntu's solving problems – Despite the fact that I think Ubuntu One's music service needs some work before it's stable enough to replace other music sources, Canonical's introduction of the Ubuntu One Music store is awesome. And once they get a handle on the smart phone apps crashing when caching a song, I'll be able to happily recommend it to others.

Ubuntu's trying new things – Hate it or love it, the Unity desktop took guts to bring to fruition. Unity, bundled with its lenses, has shown us a whole new way to look at our applications and data. Once again, I think the Unity Dash still has some development ahead of itself before I would say it's perfect, but it's getting better with every new Ubuntu release.

Ubuntu, looking forward

While I am still fairly certain that the idea of a shopping lens for Ubuntu may not be as popular as Canonical may have hoped, I am quite sure that Canonical is on the right track with their donation page.

So where does this leave the services for the desktop that Ubuntu is hoping to make money with? At this point, a couple of them are ready to go right now.

The first item that I think Ubuntu needs to push much harder is Ubuntu One cloud storage. Backing up your home directory to Ubuntu One has certain advantages. Imagine how much cleaner restoring a "borked" Ubuntu upgrade could be if, during the reinstallation process, you're prompted to pull down your backed up Home directory from Ubuntu one?

Now before you go off and mention anything about Déjà Dup doing this already, there are a few reasons why Déjà Dup isn't an instant solution.

First off, Déjà Dup is not to be trusted (in its current state). A quick Google query or even reading the reviews in the software center will make you think twice about depending on this application for critical backups. My goto alternative would have to be Grsync.

With Grsync using the power of rsync to ensure nothing is overwritten unless it's by design, the added benefit of knowing that synchronizing a directory is going to be successful is more comforting than what Déjà Dup is offering.

Whichever application or method Ubuntu opts to use, Canonical's end goal should be to ensure a user's home directory is bullet proof. If the end user is hooked up to a broadband connection, their entire home directory should be sent to the cloud (opt-in of course). This way, should their computer crash or something else happens that leads to the purchase of a new PC, no data is lost.

Wait, doesn't any modern Linux distribution already offer this functionality with the right tools in place? Sure, if the end user happens to know about these options, where to find the commands needed and how to use them successfully. The shorter answer is an obvious NO. Most people have not put this together.

Surprise to the Linux purists: not everyone out there using Ubuntu is a Linux professional. So offering a simple solution to newbies is an obvious move for Ubuntu considering their growth audience is, in fact, newbies.

Taking into consideration everything above, if Canonical would like to double their subscriptions to Ubuntu One (and increase their revenue), all they need to do is follow this simple formula.

Installation – prompt the user to allow Ubuntu One to keep a backup of their home directory. If they have a home directory backup from another installation they'd like to sync up, allow this option as well. This means offering this functionality within the installer itself, not merely expecting newbies to wander around the Web looking for similar solutions.

Post-installation – Run a new user welcome alert page explaining that once they have installed all of the software they wish, they're free to use the Software Center to backup or "sync" their software titles. To the new user and even for many advanced ones, this option is largely unknown.

Canonical's biggest challenge is to make sure folks know what they're getting into. They do a great job on the Ubuntu website in this area, but they still need a little work post-installation in my opinion.

My advice – implement the tips above. Because as fantastic as the donation page may happen to be, it's not going to be residual income. Ubuntu One storage, however, is passive income for Canonical. The secret is to get users to use it.

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