Has Ubuntu exceeded the Ben & Jerry's hippie threshold?

Summary:Like Ben & Jerry's which started out with a pair of obscure, idealistic Hippies, Canonical is coming to the realization that it needs to compromise some of its core values in order to make its Ubuntu Linux desktop successful.

Like Ben & Jerry's which started out with a pair of obscure, idealistic Hippies, Canonical is coming to the realization that it needs to compromise some of its core values in order to make its Ubuntu Linux desktop successful.

Cherry Garcia. Chunky Monkey. Chubby Hubby. Peace, love, and Ice Cream.

Funky flavors made by a company with a Hippie image. One which has been largely retained even to this day, 32 years after its founding and humble roots as a locally sourced, small-batch ice cream store in a quaint lakeside town in Northern Vermont.

Like Haagen-Dazs, Ben & Jerry's is now synonymous with superpremium ice cream in North America, with over 200 franchised stores and over $230M in annual revenue. But they didn't always used to be that way.

Ben & Jerry's started out in 1978 with two Jewish boys from Long Island, who took a course on Ice Cream production at Penn State. With a meager initial investment of $12,000 they opened up a store in Burlington and began to produce small batch ice cream using only locally sourced, all-natural ingredients.

They fought and successfully litigated the Pillsbury company, owner of the Haagen-Dazs brand, which tried to prevent them from expanding into local markets during the 1980s. In 1985 the company set up a charity, the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which set aside 7.5% of the annual pre-tax profits towards community projects. The company also set a policy that no employee's salary would exceed seven times that of the most entry-level employee.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan awarded Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield Small Business Persons of the Year.

All of this was great for the company's idealistic, Hippie image. But it couldn't stay this way indefinitely.

Seven years later after receiving their award from President Reagan, in 1995, Ben Cohen resigned as CEO and immediately after the company abolished its salary cap policy in order to retain a new CEO. Five years after that, in 2000, Ben & Jerry's was acquired by the Dutch multinational UNILEVER, and Ben Cohen ceased working for the company entirely, with the exception of a minor advisory role.

With the UNILEVER acquisition of Ben & Jerry's, many things changed. The Ben & Jerry's Foundation which originally was set up to give away 7.5 percent of the company's pre-tax revenue was adjusted by the parent company to donate at more realistic levels as to not significantly affect profitability. Today, the Foundation only funds about $1.8M in grants total, which is closer to 1% of revenue AFTER taxes, if that.

The locally sourced and All-Natural ingredients? Well, that was also unrealistic to maintain indefinitely. The company had to abandon the "All Natural" moniker in 2010 after it was discovered that High-Fructose Corn Syrup and other artificial ingredients were used in their products.

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Ben & Jerry's grew up and is without a doubt an American success story. But it came at a significant cost and compromise to the founders' core principles. The world of big business, however, is not a Hippie commune. Unfortunately.

As I watch Canonical and observe the evolution of its Ubuntu Linux distribution, as well as its philosophy of "Linux for Human Beings" and subtext of "Humanity towards others" I can't help think of what happened to Ben & Jerry's.

Like the ice cream company that is now part of a giant conglomerate, Ubuntu is undergoing a gradual shift away from Community and Free Software/Open Source ideals to one of balanced pragmatism.

Unlike the Debian project on which it is based on, that tries to closely follow Free Software ideals and govern design and changes by committee, which has always made that distribution lag behind its more progressive rivals such as Fedora or openSUSE, Ubuntu tries to accelerate the process with biannual releases and a more effective and agile management/governance team.

Ubuntu has also taken a more pragmatic approach by allowing non-Free software into its stack, as well as technologies such as Mono which are considered controversial or even toxic by the Free Software purists.

This week, Canonical's CEO, Mark Shuttleworth, announced that GNOME, which has been lagging behind in development of its next version, 3.0, for several years, would no longer be the default User Interface for the OS as of the next version, 11.04. Instead, the company's own Open Source Unity interface, which it developed originally for netbooks, would succeed it.

Is this the end of Canonical and Ubuntu's Free Software ideals? Hardly. But the company has come to the realization that in order for Linux to have a chance on the desktop, it has to make some hard choices and compromise. It can't sit and wait for the GNOME Foundation to twiddle its thumbs and lag behind in desktop innovation from Windows, Mac OS, or even KDE.

Ubuntu needs to innovate and provide a compelling alternative environment that users would want to switch to, otherwise the dream for a mainstream Linux desktop is hopeless. And at the same time, it has to provide the same technologies, such such as multitouch, that next-generation OSes such as Mac OS X Lion and Windows 8 will also provide. If Debian, GNOME and other projects cannot provide this, Canonical and Ubuntu has to do it on its own.

He who writes the code gets to make the decisions -- not the Community. And that's the inconvenient truth when it comes to software development. I suspect that like Ben & Jerry's, Canonical will continue to make the same difficult choices in order to adapt and become even more successful.

Lucid Lynx. Maverick Meerkat. Natty Narwhal. Linux for Human Beings and Humanity Towards Others. Funky names for an operating system from an obscure company in England with a community-oriented, Free Software image. One which I hope it will be able to retain, many years from now.

Will Canonical and Ubuntu go the route of Ben & Jerry's? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Open Source

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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