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Perspective: Do you have it?

[Blogger's Note: FOSS Force, which provides news and commentary on all things Free/Open Source, currently has a poll running to rank the Best Personal Linux or FOSS Blog, in which they include Larry the Free Software Guy. All the blogs are excellent, but I shamelessly admit that this is an appeal to vote for me. So if you like this blog, use one of your two first-round votes -- yes, you have two votes to vote for two blogs (not two of the same one) -- to vote for Larry the Free Software Guy. If you don't like this blog, cast your votes for two of the others: I'd vote for Ken Starks' Blog of Helios or write in Jim Eriksen's Jim's 2011 blog at http://jims2011.blogspot.com (write-ins must be accompanied by the URL). And whomever you choose in the privacy of the digital voting booth, thank you for voting!]

Grab some coffee. Perspective is important, and you’re going to be here for awhile.

mark_32milI had been sitting on this since midweek, thinking, “Well, if I give it a few days of thought and reflection, today’s post might be a more well-rounded item than shooting from the hip.” Which, of course, is true. If there’s anything I’ve learned in blogging as Larry the Free Software Guy over the past several years, it’s that when shooting from the hip, body counts usually follow.

That said, despite a litany of questionable and debatable premises involving unwashed masses, sitting around wringing our hands (I don’t know anyone doing that, do you?) and Windows’ “success” being the result of something other than having a monopoly in the market — maybe this is all sarcasm that I missed on multiple readings? — FOSS Force’s Christine Hall somehow miraculously reaches a valid conclusion in her midweek article about Mark Shuttleworth.

Forget nitpicking about certain points Hall makes that are well off-base — Ubuntu/Canonical’s lack of contributions back to the community is widely documented, and if someone brought Cadillac blueprints to the Yugo factory, the Yugo folks would probably laugh themselves into a change of underwear before asking, “Do you realize how much it would cost to retool our factory — any factory — to make a car for which the factory was not designed?”

Never mind all that: Christine Hall is right that Mark Shuttleworth has made a solid contribution to the desktop, and it’s a contribution for which we are grateful. No one has ever disputed that. However, it’s a contribution nestled upon laurels that are well-rested upon, and one that is well past its prime. Where once it was about putting Linux in front of people, it’s now about putting Mark’s Linux — his own Ubuntu OS brand of Linux — front and center and in the public eye.

That’s how the real world works, boys and girls. We get that. It’s unfair to think that Mark Shuttleworth shouldn’t make a profit on the heavy investment he’s made. That’s not — nor has it ever been — the issue here. What actually has been front-and-center is a variety of issues including, but clearly not limited to, treating the community in a less-than-open manner, picking up the mantle of Apple’s “reality distortion field” in taking credit for things it does not deserve (Debian is part of Ubuntu’s ecosphere — really, Mark?) and repeating once again not contributing back to FOSS in a manner expected of a entity that claims to be a leader in the field. Especially contributions back to FOSS, looking at the last couple of years: If the widespread adoption of Unity, to say nothing of the wider community’s embracing Mir so far, is any indication of Ubuntu/Canonical’s contributions back to the wider FOSS world . . . oh, wait.

So Mark Shuttleworth laid the groundwork for his enterprise on the backs of trusting developers contributing to a project which started out as a community effort, and now he’s ramping it up a notch, in a corporate way, to recoup his investment.

Again — regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, whether we agree or disagree, whether or not we think it’s disingenuous of Ubuntu to eventually coerce long-time community members to become serfs to Canonical’s profit margin — we get that. That’s how this works. Deal with it.

Which brings up another interesting scenario: Let’s say Canonical is wildly successful at Ubuntu Edge, goes off on that tangent as the phone/computer-hybrid-king-of-the world and leaves the FOSS realm to — pardon the pun — its own devices. It may even change licenses, or may even become closed: Taking into account the remote, but entirely possible, page from the Steve Jobs playbook that Mark Shuttleworth may choose to close the code, making Canonical into Canonisoft.

Would we even miss them once they’re gone?

A few years ago on a road trip to Linux Fest Northwest, Red Hat’s Karsten Wade and I had a discussion around this question: If Red Hat immediately pulled the plug on Fedora (or if Red Hat just disappeared — relax, Mark, that’s not happening), would Fedora exist? Assuming that all the data for the distro existed somewhere, which it does, the community would still continue in some form. But the consensus was that Fedora would continue without Red Hat if Red Hat didn’t exist.

The same could be said for Ubuntu, if Canonical ceased to exist. Ubuntu would clearly still exist, espcially since it has the luxury of having Debian as a fallback.

So while you are chowing down on this food for thought — well, a feast for thought worthy of Henry VIII — keep in perspective that Linux and FOSS have been growing and thriving before Ubuntu came along, and it will continue to grow and thrive whether Ubuntu/Canonical stays or goes. To say nothing of that desktop/laptop Linux and FOSS will continue on its march of progress, though I’ve already addressed that here.

This blog post could end here, except there’s dessert at 140-characters-per-spoonful, thanks to a series of tweets last night with the hashtag #linuxmalaise posted by my journalistic colleague Steven Rosenberg (Steven and I both work for different newspapers the same newspaper chain, though we both blog independently of our employers). If you’re not following @passthejoe, you should.

On Saturday night, Steven posted a series of interesting tweets that you should read, starting with:

“Is it just me, or do I sense a profound malaise in the #linux world? #linuxmalaise”

Which of course segues eventually to:

“So many put so much hope into the @Ubuntu basket, and after @canonical lost its mind over the past few years … #linuxmalaise”

There are others, but you get the idea. The fact of the matter is that Steven brings up a lot of things that many won’t say. Take a look.

Meanwhile, I think #linuxmalaise is a very valid subject to be discussing, so thanks for bringing it up, Steven (and I hope a blog post on it is forthcoming).

This blog, and all other blogs by Larry the Free Software Guy, Larry the CrunchBang Guy and Larry Cafiero, are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs CC BY-NC-ND license. In short, this license allows others to download this work and share it with others as long as they credit me as the author, but others can’t change it in any way or use it commercially.

(Larry Cafiero is one of the founders of the Lindependence Project and develops business software at Redwood Digital Research, a consultancy that provides FOSS solutions in the small business and home office environment.)

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  1. Colonel Panik
    August 4, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    Where will Linux/FOSS be in 25 years? Why will it be where it is and what
    path did it take to get there? Will there be an implosion or an explosion?
    In light of all the dystopian news about our (all) governments spying in the
    PC’s of honest citizens do we even bother to have a computer?

    Larry, how many distros have come and gone?

    • August 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm

      According to DistroWatch.com, there have been about 500 distros started since 1991, and there are roughly 300 currently active. So that shows you how many have come and gone, and come along since new ones are created every day as others atrophy and die. There’s a Darwinian aspect to this — the good distros thrive and the not-so-good ones don’t (there are exceptions, too. Not all dormant distros are bad — Wolvix is one example where the lead developer couldn’t keep maintaining it for personal reasons and the community didn’t rally around it).

      In 25 years, Linux/FOSS will be 25 years older, and hopefully that much more the wiser.

  2. August 4, 2013 at 10:21 pm

    Larry, the *desktop* has malaise. The rest of Linux is thriving and growing and expanding and full of energy.

    Personally, make mine Debian! I have hated every minute I’ve been forced (yes!) to use Ubuntu, but Canonical’s participation has made Linux better. I hope the Edge campaign is a success, personally, although as a recovering MeeGo developer, I’m more intrigued by Jolla and FirefoxOS.

    Larry, your hatred of Canonical is palpable. Do yourself a favor and refrain indefinitely from blogging about them; you are giving yourself an ulcer.

    • August 5, 2013 at 5:44 am

      Glad to hear you’re a Debian user. Also, thank you for your concern about my health — I have no ulcers and, by the way, I don’t hate Canonical. However, I do think I have a duty to expose the hypocrisy of building a FOSS community to solely serve the interests of a corporation. Sorry you seem to have a problem with that.

  3. August 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    To say that Ubuntu doesn’t contribute back to the FOSS community is ridiculous; all of Ubuntu itself is foss. Unity is FOSS, and so is Mir, like it or not.

    Just because it doesn’t build on top of things that other projects are using doesn’t make it bad- the fact that a project can be so criticized for freely taking its own course is ridiculous. It’s basically an argument that, because of your choice in using certain underlying technologies, your project isn’t contributing anything back. Granted, it might not be contributions upstream want, but not everyone wants the exact same thing, and a downstream developer sticking it out on their own can’t exactly be faulted for that.

    • August 7, 2013 at 6:59 am

      “To say that Ubuntu doesn’t contribute back to the FOSS community is ridiculous; all of Ubuntu itself is foss. Unity is FOSS, and so is Mir, like it or not.”

      Actually, it’s not ridiculous to say Ubuntu/Canonical doesn’t contribute back, especially in the same way real FOSS leaders like Red Hat or Novell do. Contributions by Ubuntu/Canonical back to kernel development alone is pegged at around 1 percent, and it’s about the same for other projects that are non-Ubuntu specific as well. You have to ask yourself: Is this the behavior of a leader in the field or a company that is solely interested in itself before the wider community? I think the answer is pretty clear.

      As for Mir and Unity, you don’t see the complete lack of widespread acceptance of these, ahem, “contributions” saying something about the need or quality for these things?

      “Just because it doesn’t build on top of things that other projects are using doesn’t make it bad- the fact that a project can be so criticized for freely taking its own course is ridiculous.”

      That’s funny, because that’s a false argument. Clearly Ubuntu/Canonical is going off on its own course and writing its own software for itself, not for the wider community. The fact that it’s open is irrelevant. Again, the fact that absolutely no one — no one — is adopting them for widespread use speaks to that. They’re certainly allowed to do that and some might argue that it’s good for them. I would say that it’s not benefitting the wider FOSS community, and that’s where contributions count.

      “Granted, it might not be contributions upstream want, but not everyone wants the exact same thing, and a downstream developer sticking it out on their own can’t exactly be faulted for that.”

      Right. If I need a shovel and you hand me a screwdriver, that’s going to help. A lot. Thanks for that.

  1. August 8, 2013 at 4:01 pm

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