Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Mark Shuttleworth's big mistake

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Last week marked eight years since Ubuntu made its appearance on the GNU/Linux scene. Since October 2004, there has been a release of this distribution every six months, the initial buzz being very loud and then gradually fading away.

Over the years, it is noticeable that every time Mark Shuttleworth, the man who owns Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, introduces some feature that is calculated to bring in some income, there is a mighty hue and cry. Then the Ubuntu people try to explain it away and finally there is a half-arsed compromise which satisfies nobody.

The latest such feature, in the 12.10 release, was the addition of search results from Amazon, to regular search results. This means some income from Amazon for Canonical; the compromise was to make it an optional feature.

Similar situations have arisen in the past and will continue to come up in the future. There is one simple reason for this – Shuttleworth failed to clearly enunciate his vision at the start of the Ubuntu project. It was a big mistake.

When Ubuntu made its first release, there was a lot of talk about the meaning of the word – humanity to others. There was lots of other touchy-feely stuff, with much emphasis laid on the involvement of "community". Free CDs were shipped to people. It looked like a FOSS charity on steroids. Or EPO, a la Lance Armstrong, if you like.

But there was never any open talk about the fact that Ubuntu was a commercial distribution; it needed to make money to ensure its existence. Shuttleworth has deep pockets but they do have some finite limit. The software could be free, but the books would some day have to be balanced.

By contrast, when Red Hat, the most profitable GNU/Linux company by far, was born, in 1994, everyone knew it was geared towards making money off the free operating system. There were no illusions. Why back in 1997, when I first read about GNU/Linux, people in the FOSS community were already calling Red Hat (the distribution) the Microsoft of Linux distributions!

But over the years, Red Hat has gained a great deal of positive karma in the community. It contributes in no small way towards the progress of Linux by hiring a large number of developers who make massive contributions to the kernel. It funds peripheral activities to help the FOSS ecosystem grow.

Of Ubuntu, nobody initially said a bad word. But at points along the road, whenever there was a move towards incorporating some feature or the other that could be used to generate money, the users rose up in droves. One cannot blame them; they had been led to believe that the community was paramount and hence they reacted.

After a few such confrontations, Shuttleworth put his foot down and continued on the path he had chosen. He really had no choice but to do so when his plans to gently introduce mass-market features were criticised, first gently, then bitterly.

FOSS community members have no problem with those who try to make money off free and open source software. Slackware's Patrick Volkerding is a hero to many for continuing to bring his users the distribution they want. They, in return, buy anything and everything he puts out to raise money and help keep him going. And his distribution is one which, for the most part, has been in the black all along.

But Shuttleworth more or less dug his own grave. He should have been clear about the path he was going to take, clear about what he was aiming for, careful to put his whole plan out in the open. A GNU/Linux company has to tread a somewhat different path to the average software firm; perhaps Shuttleworth was unaware of this.

Whatever the reason, his lack of communication has resulted in what happened with the Amazon search results and what will take place in the future. It was Mark Shuttleworth's big mistake.

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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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