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Thursday, 24 February 2011 11:19

Ubuntu: there was never any love to start with


Was the Ubuntu GNU/Linux project set up because the founder had some kind of deep love for the FOSS community and wanted to become a folk hero of sorts?

Or did Mark Shuttleworth create the project because of a degree of idealism - but also a steely determination to make it a paying concern so that its future would be ensured?

It's funny that six (corrected) years and a bit after Ubuntu came to life in October 2004, people still write about the project in a dreamy wide-eyed way, even mentioning the word "love" in doing so. Naive is the description that immediately springs to mind.

Or is it that such people are willing to use any, and every, means to attack Shuttleworth simply because they don't like him? Separating the personal from the professional has always been a major problem for those who claim to be part of the FOSS community. Especially when marketing droids are trying to pose as journalists.

Shuttleworth is a shrewd businessman; Canonical is registered in a known tax haven, the Isle of Man. He made a few hundred million dollars by first nurturing, then building up, and finally selling a very successful business, Thawte. At that point, he was in a position where he needed to do nothing else for the rest of his life - and he would still have been in a position to hand down enough moolah for the next three generations to enjoy a life of leisure.

Why did Shuttleworth start the Ubuntu project? There is anecdotal evidence to indicate that he did so because he was riled up about the cost of software supplied to parts of his own country, South Africa - in this case proprietary software aka Microsoft. He wanted to provide something that could replace it so that the poor in his own country were not exploited in this manner.

But still, one can't run a business on love and fresh air. Some of Shuttleworth's doings have been criticised by the FOSS community - and even by people outside the community like yours truly.

No doubt, Shuttleworth has annoyed a number of people in the community, people who like to do things in the canonical (no pun intended) way. He has sought, like any businessman would, to minimise waste - in this case the duplication of programming effort. He failed to get people on-side, so he went his own route.

He has chosen technologies - like Unity and Wayland - which he thinks will help him achieve his own ends. But he is not doing this in isolation - in his chief technology officer Matt Zimmerman he has, arguably, one of the sharpest minds in FOSS development to guide him. There are others like Colin Watson and Lucas Nussbaum, to name just two, to provide intelligent input.

(The Wayland project was started by a Red Hat engineer who is now at Intel. And upstart is also used by Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Fedora.)

But let's look at what Shuttleworth has done. By increasing the uptake of GNU/Linux - Ubuntu is still the most widely used and growing distribution - he has increased the size of its marketshare. That increases the number of support roles that are called for - which means more jobs for people in this space.

He has provided jobs for 100-odd developers and contributes his mite to the sponsorship side of conferences.

And given the amount of coverage that Ubuntu gets, he has increased the visibility of GNU/Linux by a factor of at least 100 percent.

People who write about FOSS are often prone to see the whole phenomenon through misty eyes, and portray the people involved as do-gooders first and foremost. This is patently untrue - every open source project has been begun by someone who wanted to scratch his or her own itch; that it helps others is just collateral.

A chat with some of the luminaries in the FOSS community would disabuse anyone of this starry-eyed notion. Sitting behind a screen and keyboard in the darkness and spinning tales will only increase one's sense of isolation and lead to more fairytales about love and the FOSS community.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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