Jono Bacon Defends Ubuntu: An Insider's Perspective

Monday Feb 28th 2011 by Bruce Byfield

Ubuntu's community manager responds to a recent Datamation article that sparked widespread discussion.

Last week, in "Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?" I presented one view of Ubuntu and its relationship with other parts of the free and open source software (FOSS) community. One of the first and most articulate responses to the article came from Ubuntu's community manager Jono Bacon.

In Bacon's view, far from being increasingly inward-looking and commercially-oriented, Ubuntu today is what it has always been: A company well-grounded in FOSS values that continues to innovate. Although he admits that relationships with the GNOME project could be improved and that Ubuntu/Canonical has sometimes made mistakes, he continues to see Ubuntu as a major force in bringing FOSS to people outside the traditional community.

Bacon was cautious in his criticisms of the original story, saying twice that "the last thing I want to be perceived as is as stomping on journalists." All the same, he characterized it as "one side of the story," suggesting that "if both sides had been presented, it would have provided a really interesting story."

Bacon also points out that some aspects of Canonical are never seen by outsiders. The implication is that, as a long-time employee, he is in the position to present that insider's perspective. If his perspective is a biased one, it is also an informed one, and that makes it worth hearing, and not only in the interests of developing a balanced perspective.

Usability Vs. FOSS Values

"I want to do everything I can to bring free software to everybody," Bacon says. "And that's why I'm passionate about Ubuntu. Canonical as a company is incredibly committed to that goal. But you know what? With the best intentions in the world, people make mistakes."

Bacon suggests that there is currently a "natural tension" in FOSS between those who want the configurability and full set of options that is part of the traditional philosophy and those who emphasize usability.

He personally favors focusing on usability first on the grounds that it "is additive and the other isn't. If you take Ubuntu and design it around end-users, so it's really simple, really easy, and there's no unnecessary clutter -- if you make some opinionated decisions, which we've always done -- it's easier to then build configurability on top of that. Giving my Mom and Dad an incredibly configurable distribution for Linux enthusiasts and trying to make that easier is harder. So that's why I think the approach we've taken Ubuntu is a good one."

Similarly, although Bacon spends considerable time as community manager communicating FOSS values, he considers usability more important than educating users in FOSS values.

"It's the same way that I don't know the full history of freedom of speech," he says. "I know some of the ways that it came about, but the most important thing is that I benefit from that right and privilege. The digital divide needs to be taken away, irrespective of whether people understand the philosophy. "But to me it's not black and white. I don't feel we need to compromise or sell out to take free software to the masses. I think we can take the teachings of people like Richard Stallman and apply them in ways that millions of people around the world can benefit from."

Referring to Geoffrey A. Moore's metaphor of the chasm separating early adopters of a technology and a broader audience, Bacon suggests "that we've been perching at the edge of the chasm." For him, Ubuntu innovations such as the Unity desktop represent one of the best opportunities for FOSS to move from its traditional base of geeks and find a wider range of users.

Ubuntu and GNOME

Asked if relationships between Ubuntu and other major FOSS projects are breaking down, Bacon dismisses the idea in general. Relationships with Mozilla and LibreOffice are strong, he says. As for Debian, Ubuntu's parent distribution, "the relationship is better than it's ever been," thanks largely to the efforts at outreach by the last two Debian Leaders.

Bacon does acknowledge that relationships between Ubuntu and GNOME are widely perceived as strained. Yet, even there, Bacon's response is qualified. "GNOME is just one relationship -- and it's an important relationship -- but I don't think it's indicative of a problem with Ubuntu working with other groups. And if we look at the relationship with GNOME, it's actually pretty decent. I mean, Ubuntu ships the GNOME platform, and we encourage people to build GNOME apps. But it's been an inside joke for some time that what the press thinks is the relationship between Canonical and GNOME is very different from the relationship between the developers [of the two projects]."

Where tensions between Canonical and GNOME have occurred, according to Bacon, is in Canonical's desktop innovations for improved usability, such as the Ayatana indicators for sound and social media, and the new Unity desktop, all of which were submitted to GNOME and rejected, leaving Canonical to develop them outside the GNOME project.

To Bacon, this is a potentially healthy situation, because it leaves users with at least two choices for using GNOME -- the upcoming GNOME 3.0, and Unity -- and probably a third since the GNOME 2 series is likely to be preferred by some. "It just means a new level of choice for users," Bacon says.

All the same, the tensions seem inevitable to Bacon. Asked whether Canonical could have developed its usability modifications within GNOME, he replies, "To be honest with you, I don't think it could have been done. The fact that nothing's been accepted is a pretty reasonable indicator that the two projects have widely different directions."

However, at the same time, Bacon says that "one place where Canonical could have done a better job is that we could have tried harder to get our technologies included."

Citing the insistence within GNOME that development should occur within its development infrastructure, as well as discontent with the Canonical Contributors' Agreement, Bacon adds that "the GNOME community could also have worked more towards that conclusion. When anyone who goes to a project and says, "I would like to donate this technology," we should be respectful of the gift."

Bacon also suggests that, while he does not believe hatred of Ubuntu or Canonical is widespread in GNOME, "there's been a public image of Ubuntu crafted inside the GNOME community that I think is unfair. Some people feel that just because we're pitching Unity that we're ditching GNOME -- which is frankly and totally untrue. We're still shipping GNOME technology and we're still investing in GNOME technology. Unity is a shell, and the shell is nowhere near as important as the apps."

But the real problem in the relationship between Ubuntu and GNOME, Bacon states, is a difference in values. He characterizes GNOME as having "a healthy conservatism" that allows innovation, but "doesn't optimize the way that people innovate. I feel that, in some circumstances, innovation is only welcome if it fits inside a certain set of boxes."

This attitude within GNOME conflicts with Ubuntu's rush to innovate, which Bacon describes as "an absolutely unbelievable bit between everybody's teeth and as creating "a ferocity of excitement around delivering this technology."

An even more important aspect of the relationship is that, by developing GNOME technologies by itself, Ubuntu is transforming the traditional relationship between distributions and upstream projects like GNOME. Where Ubuntu used to ship a version of GNOME that was largely what the GNOME project offered, it is now building upstream applications itself.

While some might see this change as allowing the distribution's interests to prevail over everybody else's, Bacon suggests that this change could be a healthy one, because distributions are more in touch with users' needs than upstream projects. For example, "GNOME has great insight into GNOME itself, but distributions will have great insight into how GNOME intersects with X, and how it intersects with the kernel. To me, it's not an either nor an or; upstream and distributions have to work together. Where I think things are interesting in Ayatana is that it's an upstream project born out of a distribution. I think that brings a different insight that's interesting."

As for the concern that Canonical's domination of the projects it starts or encourages could lead to a stifling of innovation, just as Sun's and Oracle's domination has handicapped, Bacon states that Canonical is too well-grounded for that to happen any time soon.

For one thing, Bacon describes technical development at Canonical as "operating in an environment that is rarely driven by corporate requirements. The vast majority of decisions about what goes into a new Ubuntu release is driven by the community and by key stakeholders. We build a version of Ubuntu, then on top of that the OEM team and the other corporate groups inside Canonical build solutions for other companies on top of that. The commercial sides of Canonical don't decide what goes into Ubuntu, because the team is reasonable insulated from those types of issues."

For another thing, FOSS software companies require "a product sensitivity and a community sensitivity to succeed. You need to make a great product, but you also need to be respectful of your community. I've been working with Canonical for about four and a half years, and I feel that Mark [Shuttleworth] designs a lot of product strategy, and he's deeply involved in the community. He sees what's necessary and does it." According to Bacon, efforts are already being made to expand the contributors on sub-projects such as Unity beyond the current core of Canonical employers.

According to Bacon, this perception is often lost "because the legend of Mark Shuttleworth is out there. A lot of people who have never met him and never worked with him have views about him. I've worked with him quite a bit and I think he's phenomenally talented at what he's doing. I think that the sensibility of him and the other senior execs will help to make sure that we stay on the right path."

And if that doesn't happen? Then "if it goes downhill is when I leave Canonical," Bacon says flatly. "Because I'm not going to be part of a company that's going to abuse what I think is an important mission."

Looking Ahead

Bacon repeatedly told me that Ubuntu and Canonical were capable of mistakes. For example, he cites the abrupt appearance of the Design Team a couple of years ago as "something we could have done a much better job on. The Design Team did come from nowhere. Mark hired them when he started getting interested in the interface side of tings. It was culturally a very different group coming into Canonical; they took up this whole part of the office with notes and drawings stuck to the walls and culturally they were unfamiliar with IRC, mailing lists, and a lot of the norms of open source development."

Consequently, the Design Team's ability to make decisions affecting a release temporarily disturbed many Ubuntu criticisms. Now, though, Bacon claims that "the design team today is in a much better state" and has largely overcome its "teething problems."

The same is true of the relationship problems that Canonical faces. For instance, relationships with KDE have improved because leaders on both sides have made an effort to interact more. Relationships with Debian have also improved since a rocky start, largely because "there's been a lot of effort placed into the relationship. It's like a relationship with a wife: the best relationships are the ones where you work at them."

Similarly, Bacon characterizes most of the issues between Ubuntu and GNOME as temporary rather than systemic. "Where I feel Canonical is innovating is bringing more work closer to the distribution, where you have both the upstream and distribution perspective. But this is new, and it's going to take some time, in the same way that it took a little time for the Design Team to settle in.

"The most important thing we need to banish from both distributions and upstream is any sense of entitlement. The moment entitlement sets in, things perish. It's a partner relationship."

Companies are organic groups of people," Bacon says. "And organic groups of people make good decisions and bad decisions. I think that, by and large, Canonical's decision making has generally been good, but there have been a few skirmishes and mistakes and mis-steps along the way.

"But ultimately, the users are going to decide. It doesn't matter what Mark Shuttleworth says about Unity, or what I say. It doesn't matter what anyone says about Unity. If users think it sucks, they ain't gonna use it. We can just all do our best to make our users happy."

ALSO SEE: Ubuntu: Where Did the Love Go?

AND: 53 Open Source Replacements to Spice Up Your Desktop

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