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Wednesday, 09 November 2011 12:31

Ubuntu: time to get rid of the sense of entitlement


One of the big problems that any company faces when it decides to get into the GNU/Linux business is how to deal with users, a group who have an extraordinary sense of entitlement.


Mark Shuttleworth, the owner of Canonical, which develops and distributes the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, would know what I am talking about. Over the seven years of Ubuntu's life, Shuttleworth has had to put up with an enormous amount of flak from users who think they have a right to make policy decisions for his company.

The typical user demands to know why a certain decision - say, to change the default mail program in Ubuntu - has been taken. And if Shuttleworth is anything other than willing to go back on his decision, the user in question has one response: "Okay, I'm switching to openSUSE/Fedora/Debian/Mint (take your pick)."

The sense of entitlement that users of this kind feel is fed by the army of groupies who write about GNU/Linux. Many of them claim to be journalists but it is obvious that they have no idea what this profession is about.

I found a typical example of this feeding of the trolls in the Linux Magazine recently. The author, Bruce Byfield, writes about the posting of a bug in order to create a conversation about the way decisions are taken by Canonical. (The one decision taken by Canonical that has caused much adverse comment recently is the switch from GNOME to the Unity desktop interface.)

After detailing to some extent the messages posted by the man who opened the bug, and Shuttleworth's replies, there is this curious, illogical statement by Byfield: "To what extent this discussion voices the opinions of Ubuntu members or Canonical employees is uncertain. However, the discussion reinforces my long-held inference..."

When long, rambling anti-Shuttleworth pieces are based on this kind of logic, there is really no way that Shuttleworth can win.

What people tend to forget is that Shuttleworth is running a company. Apart from providing a GNU/Linux distribution that works as well as other operating systems, he has also got to look after the bottomline. There has to be a middle line between idealism and pragmatism. And that's where the problem starts.

People talk about transparency with regard to Canonical. What do they want - details of intra-company discussions as to why the desktop interface was changed?

It doesn't matter if the people who are calling for transparency have voluntarily got involved with Ubuntu - they forget that they have no rights in this situation. Whatever they do have is privileges.

Just because one finds a bug or two and then reports it to Canonical does not give one any special rights. People report bugs for purely selfish reasons - they'd like to have them fixed to get something that's annoying them out of the way. But few will admit this.

People join the Ubuntu community - or any other free software or open source software community for that matter - for their own selfish reasons. Every human act, no matter how altruistic it may appear on the surface, is ultimately selfish. But one doubts whether GNU/Linux users would be able to admit this truth to themselves.

Ubuntu is but the latest project to face this problem. GNOME developers have faced this problem for a long time but they have chosen to be openly hostile and tell their users, in civilised language, to go to bloody hell.

The problem that Shuttleworth faces is that GNU/Linux users tend to regard Ubuntu and Canonical as two divergent entities. They fail to understand that while Ubuntu is just one of the projects that Canonical has going, it is the one with the best potential to make the company profitable. Its success or otherwise will decide the fate of Canonical.

And success is sorely needed if Ubuntu is to survive. Shuttleworth may have deep pockets but he cannot keep throwing money into a project if there is no way to at least make the books balance. Anyone who thinks he can, is a fool.

One of the great strengths of FOSS is the degree of choice that it affords. One does not expect many long-time GNU/Linux users to like the Ubuntu interface. They are free to use something else - neither the Mac nor Windows affords one that choice.

Or if one does not like GNU/Linux, why there are other free operating systems like the BSDs. Again, choice is left in the hands of the user.

The same goes for Ubuntu - if you don't like it, there are more than 300 GNU/Linux distributions from which one can choose. Why you can even start your own distribution if you wish.

Trying to impose one's will on Canonical shows that one has really not understood how this project differs from the other 300-odd distributions. It's time to start showing some gratitude for what Ubuntu provides in terms of usability to a very large number of users.

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Sam Varghese

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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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