Thursday, March 14, 2013

Why I support Ubuntu

by +Pete Mazzaccaro 

Ubuntu sure has started some trouble in Linux Land.

Its announcement last week that it would abandon plans to go with the Wayland display server and instead develop something new called Mir uncorked a lot of pent up hostility towards the Linux distro and its corporate parents at Canonical, and in particular, the company's iconoclast founder Mark Shuttleworth.

Today, on Linux blogs everywhere and on Google+, it's open warfare between Ubuntu supporters and those who  who believe it is committing free software heresy. Muktware's own Swapnil Bhartiya suggested on this site that the company was morphing into a new Apple, with Shuttleworth in the roll of Steve Jobs.

And there's not much worse you could call an open source company than Apple.

I get the criticism and the discomfort with many of Ubuntu's decisions. I appreciate that the heads of various open source projects feel betrayed in many ways and that longtime users feel that they've been left out of the loop. Decisions are now made at the top not the bottom. The community opportunities at Ubuntu are no longer up to the standards of many free software advocates that once championed the distro.

It has made a lot of their directional choices that I find questionable. I think their mobile push is an unnecessary distraction from a PC game in which they can still gain ground. And I think Mir represents a challenge that may very well be far too great for a company so small.

On top of that, Shuttleworth does has a hard time containing his, um, passion in the defense of his company and Ubuntu. Some call it arrogance and it's a fair charge.

I get that. But I still support Ubuntu because Ubuntu is the only real Linux distro that has a shot at gaining any sort of foothold in the mainstream. No other Linux company has the polish, the structure or the resources to do what Canonical has done. And, from the perspective of someone who would really enjoy the opportunity to buy really great Linux hardware with great free software, I really want to see Ubuntu succeed. And I think it's doing right now what it thinks it must do to realize that goal. It's certainly not trying to pick the many wars of words it now finds itself embroiled in.

It is clear that the main principal that Canonical has adopted since it first began work on its Unity interface in 2010, is that in order to gain the confidence of hardware partners and produce a product it believed was ready to ship, it had to take as much of its operating system in house as possible. It could not arguably pin its future on the uncertain path of the GNOME foundation that decided to retool its desktop in radical ways that struck an equally divisive chord in the Linux community. Ubuntu did what it thought it must at the time, control its own desktop and not risk sweeping changes for its users without a say.
Mark Shuttleworth might be prickly and arrogant,
 but he's no Steve Jobs (and that's a compliment).

That logic has clearly guided its decision to develop Mir. It clearly does not have the confidence that Wayland can be ready to compete against competing products from Google, Apple and Windows. Might it have done more to contribute to Wayland and to GNOME and to Mutter. Perhaps. But there's no way Canonical could have demanded the sort of accountability that quite simply is necessary to get ship a market-ready product in the time frame it needs.

And that, folks, again, is what it's all about. Shipping a product to market. I don't think anyone ever mistook Canonical for a charity. It's always been in the business of trying to take a great Linux distribution -- Debian -- and polish it for mass consumption. What's wrong with that?

What continues to perplex me in the man, many critical comments I read about Ubuntu is that it and it alone is forcing a "more closed" position on users. And that simply isn't the case.

Why the same people who complain so bitterly about Ubuntu continue to embrace Google and it's open source efforts is a mystery to me. Despite the top-down directional shift at Ubuntu, it remains a much more open company than Google, which continues to be lauded by many of the same people who accuse Ubuntu of being more closed. Sure, both Android and ChromeOS are open source,  but no community is dictating to Google a single thing about how it develops both of those projects. Google releases code when it wants to. There's no Alpha testing. No community boards or biannual conferences in which developers are given at least a voice if not a say in the direction of Ubuntu.

Also, no one forces anyone who wants to use Linux to use Ubuntu. Anyone who doesn't like the direction or ambitions of Canonical can simply swap distros and use something else. From Mint to Fedora, Fuduntu and Bodhi, there are plenty of other options. I personally am not a fan of Unity's dash so I use and enjoy GNOME Shell. It works great for me.

 If you don't want to use commercial software, don't buy it. That one seems pretty simple.

So no, not in anyone's wildest imaginations is it fair to compare Canonical to Apple. It's not even fair to compare Canonical to Google. When Ubuntu begins shipping software that is illegal to use without the hardware it sold you, or its Ubuntu1 music store prompts you to agree to the terms of a 100-page legal agreement, than you can call Canonical Apple. For now, we should be either excited that the company is taking a shot at the Linux mainstream or decide that its path is not for us and go about our business with another worthy OS.

The fear and loathing has really been too much, no?  -- Pete Mazzaccaro

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  1. If we all go our own way and don't discuss matters, how will we know whether we want to be excited or if the path is not for us?

    Assuming a baseline of civility and respect, open discourse is the only way to form informed opinion.

    The request for quietude really means that only one small set of actors, in this case predominantly Canonical, get to set the communication agenda. Or should we just fall into dark silence all around in order to be fair in our request to squelch discussion? No, that'd be madness too.

    Societies that only have that and none of the rabbly discourse around it usually fail by succumbing to the propaganda of a self-interested few. Consider that when you suggest that only certain people should be speaking.

    I always find the odd juxtaposition of someone writing to tell other people to be quiet to be .. odd and disconcerting.

    Btw, your proposal that the people complaining are hypocrites because they use google is a pairing of logical fallacies: it's an ad-hominem utilizing the fallacy of hypocrisy. Someone may be a hypocrite and yet still be telling the truth; those two concepts are orthogonal. To cluck at the messenger being hypocritical simply moves the discussion away from the facts of this matter and onto the messenger. I'm not sure people are hypocrits in this in the manner you describe, but it's completely beside the point. So much for fear and loathing ...

    Then there's your riff on Google. Well, if Google is Doing It Wrong(tm) with Android (something I've unabashedly commented on publicly in the past .. and even today on G+ *shock*) it doesn't somehow make other similar decisions correct. It just makes the pile of wrongness bigger.

    What would be refreshing is if people put aside these argumentative sophistries and allowed, by engagement, the discussion of the actual matters at play.

    If you're unaware of what those are, that may be a testament to the damage done by people taking this discussion and turning into a pissing match about fear and loathing.

  2. Hey Aaron,

    I certainly would never tell anyone to be quiet. Just offering my own perspective. And I don't think Canonical is above criticism. Something I was trying to make clear here. I think almost everything I've read you say and have heard you say is fair and you have been, well, a gentleman.

    I'm more concerned with a line of rhetoric that jumps immediately to the an uncompromising view that would equate Canonical with Apple, which is far fetched, at the very least.

    And, not to belabor the point, but just because a hypocrite might be telling the truth doesn't make him a non-hypocrite....

  3. Good points but it is clear that Ubuntu GNU/Linux is not something that I can recommend to users these days. It's not about total loss of freedom as with that other OS but it's about giving Canonical as much control as possible with FLOSS. Given that Canonical is whiplashing its users with one radical change after another, the installed base of users are being abused. Change is a good thing but not when it hurts. One can configure around much of what Ubuntu has for default but why bother? One can manage resources and software much easier on several other distros.

    The one point about Canonical that is important is that they have opened the door to OEMs in a big way. I expect those OEMs will be afraid of Canonical's wild gyrations and will choose distros with real stability like RedHat, Suse or Debian GNU/Linux. Canonical had a great idea but has dropped the ball.