Open Source

It's time to treat Linux like a business

A recent kerfuffle within the Ubuntu Community Council shined a rather negative political light on the inner workings of Ubuntu. Find out what Jack Wallen thinks about what happened.

Canonical

Things haven't been going so well between the Ubuntu Community Council (UCC) and Kubuntu (the KDE-fueled Ubuntu spin off)—more specifically, between the UCC and Jonathan Riddell. If you're unsure what I'm speaking of, I'll make it simple. The UCC forced Riddell out as leader of the Kubuntu project. The release stemmed from the UCC believing that Riddell was becoming "increasingly difficult to deal with."

Of course, it grew quite heated and ugly from that point. You can read much of the email exchange between Riddell, UCC, and even Mark Shuttleworth here.

Instead of diving into the muck and mire of the exchange, I want to address what I believe is the underlying issue at hand. I've hinted at this on numerous occasions, but I won't treat the issue with the same kid gloves I've used in the past.

This can be summed up with a single sentence: Canonical is a business. Their business? To bring Ubuntu to the masses. Because of this, they've had to make some hard decisions at times—decisions that favored Ubuntu over Linux as a whole. And because Canonical is a business, they have to treat their constituent parts as a functioning branch of said business. With that in mind, consider this:

What would any business do with an employee they felt was:

  • Overly aggressive, confrontational, and disrespectful when communicating, both in private and in public
  • Non-responsive to multiple calls for moderation in said communication
  • Knowingly misrepresenting the statements and positions of others
  • Making accusations about the integrity and honesty of members of the community
  • Abusing their leadership position to cause divisions within the community, rather than uniting it

If you said "fire them," you'd be correct. In many states within the continental US, this kind of employee would have no recourse.

So, effectively, the UCC accused the Kubuntu project leader of being disrespectful, apathetic, derisive, aggressive, and unresponsive. All of this behavior could easily wind its way to Canonical and negatively impact the flagship product—Ubuntu. The solution? Cut ties.

And with that simple action, a portion of the Linux community is, once again, up in arms.

The truth of the matter is that we don't really know exactly what transpired behind those closed doors. There could have been misgivings, shenanigans, or simply bad blood. But because Canonical is in the business of making Ubuntu a household name, they are in their right to do whatever it is they think will best serve their needs. We don't have to agree with their decisions. We don't have to like the fact they shunned Wayland and built Mir. We don't have to like that they kicked GNOME to the curb in favor of Unity. We don't have to get a case of the good feels because they jettisoned Riddell from Kubuntu.

All of this is their business. If they're doing everything they can to make Ubuntu a rock solid desktop operating system, they're following through with their mission.

This is one of the inherent issues with the Linux community. The minute a distribution (or project) begins to lean towards business or take the necessary steps towards mass acceptance, they fall out of favor with the community at large. To those on the outrage side of the fence, consider this: What happens when the artificially constructed ceiling over the head of Linux prevents the platform from breaking free of the atmosphere?

It'll have no where to go but down.

In order for Linux to achieve the "World Domination" it cried out for in the nineties, each and every member of the community is going to have to accept the fact that, at some point, Linux will have to be treated as a business. This means that one or more distribution will have to follow Ubuntu's lead and make some hard decisions. Some community members might be relieved of duty. Some software may get jettisoned from the stack. Change and evolution will happen.

I don't want to lay claim to knowing exactly what went down between Riddell and the UCC. However, I've been reporting on Linux and open source since 1999, and I've seen this sort of thing come and go countless times. I remember, so well, Miguel de Icaza's (the man who helped create GNOME) falling from grace and relocating to the land of Mac. I watched Richard Stallman (aka RMS) attempt to undermine any Linux project that dared fall out of favor of GNU.

The Linux community at large (from top to bottom) must understand that if any one desktop distribution is to succeed, councils like the UCC will have to favor groups like Canonical and rule in ways that ensure the continued success of the product.

To that end, I would make a rather bold suggestion for Canonical: Cut the cord with the flavors and focus solely on Ubuntu. Allow anyone to build a distribution based on Ubuntu, but don't bother supporting them. Why? Because the more flavors, councils, groups, etc. you have under your wings, the more likely this sort of behavior will occur. The more this happens, the more cracks will appear in your armor.

That doesn't mean they must pull the plug on the likes of Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, or any of the other flavors. What it means is that Canonical shouldn't be in the business of supporting or governing them. According to its charter, the UCC acts as the governing body for Ubuntu. It does not state that the council is there to govern Kubuntu, Xubuntu, or Edubuntu. It sounds a bit harsh, but if Canonical is to succeed at bringing desktop Linux to the masses, it needs to think and act like a company prepared to do just that. That might mean sending the flavors off on their own or creating a secondary arm of the UCC for flavors and allow it to act as a completely separate entity. This would serve to distance Canonical (and, by extension, Ubuntu) from behavior such as what we've seen between the UCC and Riddell. Would people cry out against Canonical doing this? Yes, they would. But if Canonical is serious about making Ubuntu a household name, it's going to have to continue to make the unpopular decisions.

Linux world domination was never going to be an easy feat. From its very foundation, the challenges that the open-source platform face are mighty. The last thing Linux needs is for some of those challenges to be coming from within.

Was the UCC wrong in canning Riddell? Should Canonical distance itself from the Ubuntu flavors? How can desktop Linux succeed when members of the community threaten to undermine growth and success? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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