Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Open Ubuntu is the way out for Shuttleworth

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Over the past few weeks, the man who runs Canonical, Mark Shuttleworth, has had to announce numerous changes in the way the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution is run.

There has been a decision to change the display server and a decision to change the length of support for non-LTS (long term support) releases. The community around Ubuntu has not been kept informed about these changes until the news was dumped on them.

And, as usual, when that happens, Shuttleworth has faced the wrath of the people who have for long considered Ubuntu to be only a community distribution.

Of course, the people are not to blame - the idea that this project is solely a community one was created and propagated by Shuttleworth and his minions. There was never a whisper that Ubuntu is a commercial distribution that needs to make money or at least balance the books.

Now that Shuttleworth has started cutting back and making changes that he believes will lead to profitability, those who believed in him from the start have become his worst critics.

A good way to get out of this mess is to look at what the two other main commercial Linux companies have done - create community distributions so that users who want a desktop system can have no complaint. Red Hat's Fedora and SUSE's openSUSE have kept the fans on-side and ensured that there are no people jumping ship.

Developers who want to contribute from outside the ranks of the company are free to do so and the two projects have their own system of governance to ensure that communication channels are kept open.

But if Shuttleworth wanted to go down this route - with something which I have called Open Ubuntu - then his main drawback would be the money involved. Plus his admission that what has been called a community distribution all along is really more of a business-oriented distribution.

Both Red Hat and SUSE make enough profits to support their community distributions. What they get back makes the efforts more than worth their while. Both Fedora and openSUSE are strategic investments.

What Shuttleworth needs to realise is that a distribution cannot be both a community and enterprise system. It has to focus on one or the other.

This does not mean that people who handle various aspects of management for a community distribution do not make their own decisions. For example, in Debian, the granddaddy of all community distributions, the mailing lists are open to everyone to see what is being discussed. A decision is made by a person in charge of a particular area of operations.

Unfortunately, when something like this happens, the Canonical reaction has been to allow its community manager, Jono Bacon, to spin out some spiel that looks like a remedy. Six months later the whole fiasco is repeated and Bacon gets ready with more spin.

Canonical is cutting back on expenditure in an obvious sign that it cannot afford to continue on the path it has taken all these years. There are no more summits where developers meet in person; this now happens online. The free CDs stopped some years back. Yes, the bottomline needs to improve.

As Canonical is a private company, it does not have to declare its yearly profit and loss figures. The only revenue figures that one can find on the web are for 2009; the figure is $US30 million. If one assumes that, like SUSE, the profit margin is in the 15 to 20 percent region, then it is not much to write home about.

Getting people back on-side is important for any company that plans to make money off free and open source software. You can have all the proprietary extensions you like, but unless the community is with you, you will ultimately be toast.

Open Ubuntu, methinks, is the way to go.


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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.