Ubuntu Linux developer squabbles go public

Ubuntu Linux developer squabbles go public

Summary: It's no secret that Linux and open-source projects have fights over the direction of a project, but it's unusual for Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, to publicly fuss with programmers via his blog.


Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution, like all Linux and open-source projects, has had its share of internal battles over the project's directions over the years. Recently, though, Mark Shuttleworth, founder of both the operating system and its sponsoring company, Canonical, has taken the latest squabbles public in his blog.

As Ubuntu moves from PCs to tablets and phones, founder Mark Shuttleworth is making it clear that Unity is its interface moving forward.

It all began when Rick Spencer, Canonical's Ubuntu engineering director, proposed on the Ubuntu developer mailing list that, since Canonical is porting Ubuntu to smartphones in the coming months, "Ubuntu should drop non-LTS [long-term support] releases and move to a rolling release plus LTS releases right now".

In a rolling release, major changes and improvements are released to users as soon as possible. As Spencer proposed it, new releases would come out monthly. The advantage is that users get best-of-breed modifications very quickly. Spencer then proceeded to make the case for this change. This wasn't the first time that rolling releases had been proposed for Ubuntu.

The disadvantage is that, as Shuttleworth put it, "[rolling release] offers little certainty for those who need certainty", such as business users. Of course, for them there are the LTS versions. Still, as Shuttleworth observed, "there's real confusion around interim releases". He's willing to consider them, but "It's nonsense to portray Rick's position as a final position for Ubuntu. The TB [Technical Board] have not weighed in, the CC [Community Council] (who were briefed that the assessment was being made and that a straw man would be proposed) are still considering their perspective, and I'm not convinced either".

However, even though the issue of rolling releases is far from being decided, it has led to hot disputes within the Ubuntu developer community. It got to the point that Shuttleworth felt he had to say, "The sky is not falling in."

Shuttleworth continued:

Ubuntu is a group of people who get together with common purpose. How we achieve that purpose is up to us, and everyone has a say in what they can and will contribute. Canonical's contribution is massive. It's simply nonsense to say that Canonical gets "what it wants" more than anybody else. Hell, half the time I don't get exactly what I want. It just doesn't work that way: Lots of people work hard to the best of their abilities, the result is Ubuntu.

The combination of Canonical and community is what makes that amazing. There are lots of pure community distros. And wow, they are full of politics, spite, frustration, venality, and disappointment. Why? Because people are people, and work is hard, and collaboration is even harder. That's nothing to do with Canonical, and everything to do with life. In fact, in most of the pure community projects I've watched and participated in, the biggest meme is "if only we had someone that could do the heavy lifting". Ubuntu has that in Canonical – and the combination of our joint efforts has become the most popular platform for Linux fans.

If you've done what you want for Ubuntu, then move on. That's normal – there's no need to poison the well behind you just because you want to try something else.

He also made it clear that Ubuntu is not going to try to be everything to everyone. In particular, he singled out Ben Collins, an Ubuntu developer for the PowerPC processor, who worries that rolling releases might "leave us with no stable Linux distribution for our hardware, basically yanking the rug out from under all of our work".

To this concern, Shuttleworth replied, "Ben is a friend and former colleague; I'd like to be supportive, but the real cost of supporting an architecture is way outside the scope of Ubuntu's non-commercial commitments. IBM and Canonical discussed bringing Ubuntu to the PowerPC architecture some years ago and chose not to; the gap is not something Canonical will close alone. I'm delighted if Ubuntu is useful for Ben, and pretty certain it will remain the best platform for his work regardless, but we should not spend millions of dollars on that rather than cloud computing or mobile, which have a much broader impact on both society and our commercial prospects."

Shuttleworth then moved to broader issues of what problems Canonical and Ubuntu will tackle.

It's also the case that we've shifted gear to leadership rather than integration.

When we started, we said we wanted to deliver the best of open source on a cadence. It was up to KDE, GNOME, XFCE to define what that was going to look like; we would just integrate and deliver (a hard problem in itself). By 2009, I was convinced that none of the existing free software communities could create an experience that could challenge the existing proprietary leaders, and so, if we were serious about the dream of a free software norm, we would have to lead.

The result is Unity, which is an experience that could become widely adopted across phones, tablets, PCs, and other devices. Of course, that is a disruptive change, and has caused some members of existing communities to resent our work. I respect that others may prefer different experiences, so we remain willing to do a large (but not unlimited) amount of work to enable KDE, GNOME, and other DEs to thrive inside the broader Ubuntu umbrella. We also take steps to accommodate developers who want to support both Unity and another DE. But if we want to get beyond being a platform for hobbyists, we need to accelerate the work on Unity to keep up with Android, Chrome, Windows, and Apple. And that's more important than taking care of the needs of those who don't share our goal of a free software norm.

And what does that mean? Shuttleworth pulled no punches. "I simply have zero interest in the crowd who wants to be different. Leet. 'Linux is supposed to be hard so it's exclusive' is just the dumbest thing that a smart person could say."

What Ubuntu is doing, he continued, "is amazing ... a free software platform is actually winning awards for innovative leadership in the categories that count: Mobile, cloud. Investing your time and energy here might have a truly profound impact on the world."

As for those who want to be techie cool, "Just roll your eyeballs at the 1337 crowd, roll up your sleeves, find something interesting to improve, and join in. To the extent that you can master a piece, you will get what you want. If you think the grand vision should follow your whims, you won't."

This has not gone over well with many Ubuntu developers. Jonathan Riddell, a KDE and Ubuntu developer, commented, "Canonical has done some moves recently, which show a lack of concern for the Ubuntu community." Specifically, he doesn't believe Canonical should place so much emphasis on its controversial Unity interface. "If you want to be able to take a strong part in contributing, then Ubuntu Unity is not the best part of Ubuntu to go. That's fine, as there are many parts which are waiting for more people to help out, I recommend Kubuntu [the version of Ubuntu that uses KDE as its interface] but there's dozens of other flavours and sub-projects waiting with open arms."

Shuttleworth immediately replied with another blog post: "Canonical, as one stakeholder in the Ubuntu community, is spending a large amount of energy to evaluate how its actions might impact on all the other stakeholders, and offering to do chunks of work in support of those other stakeholder needs. You, as one stakeholder in the Ubuntu community, are inviting people to contribute less to the broader project, and more to one stakeholder. Just because you may not get what you want is no basis for divisive leadership."

These comments, in turn, led to Harald Sitter, another KDE and Ubuntu programmer, to blog that "You [Shuttleworth] may think that KDE and other upstreams failed to deliver what is necessary to succeed in taking down the proprietary operating systems; however, that does not make it true. Our colleagues creating flavors of the Ubuntu base, as well as the Kubuntu team, are part of the broader Ubuntu project, we are part of the Ubuntu community and we all share the common goal of bringing free software to all the people. Suggesting that only the Ubuntu products Canonical holds a stake in are part of the broader Ubuntu project is outright insulting to all the great community members pouring their passion into a flavor of the Ubuntu vision."

Shuttleworth once more quickly came back with still another blog. This time, however, he wrote it in a more conciliatory tone. "Of course, what Kubuntu and Xubuntu and Ubuntu GNOME Remix et al do matters." Within Ubuntu, he continued, "You get the benefit of an enormous and concentrated investment in making a core platform that can be widely consumed (on top of the already enormous efforts of the open source community, Debian, and any number of other groups). That investment brings with it a pace of change, and a willingness to be focused on specific outcomes."

So Shuttleworth concluded, "So, before you storm off, have a cup of tea and think about the gives and gets of our relationship. Seriously."

Jono Bacon, Canonical's community manager, also tried to calm things down. In his blog, Bacon posted, "From my perspective, there is a balance that needs to be struck. Our community needs to be transparent and open, but also nimble to react to opportunities (such as the convergence story), but also Canonical play an important role in helping us to drive Ubuntu to the masses."

Thus, Bacon believes that "one cannot exist without the other; Canonical cannot deliver this vision without our community and Ubuntu would be significantly debilitated if there was no Canonical providing staff, resources, and other investment into Ubuntu. Canonical is not evil, and the community is not entitled; we all just need to step back and find some common ground and remember that we are all in the circle of friends".

That's where matters sit now. This kind of dispute is commonplace in open-source circles. By the standards of the, ah, "outspoken" Linus Torvalds, these arguments are quite mannerly.

What is unusual is that, instead of happening within the confines of a developer mailing list, it's spilled over to public blogs. Underlying this dispute, from where I sit, is that Canonical, under Shuttleworth's leadership, has made Unity its one true interface. It will be with Unity — not KDE, not GNOME — that Ubuntu tries to extend itself from PCs to smartphones, tablets, and TVs.

Other open-source projects will still be welcome under the Ubuntu umbrella, but the main focus, for now, will on Unity on Intel and ARM. Other hardware platforms, rolling releases or interim releases, and other interfaces, will all be secondary issues. I hope that the Ubuntu community can understand why Canonical, as a business, has to do this.

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Topics: Ubuntu, Linux, Open Source, Software Development

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  • Ahhh, the hallmark of open source...

    ..namely, project directors who spend more time saying "pretty please" to their developers, instead of.. you know.. directing them.
    • If you want to direct people...

      ...you should pay them.

      In the case of Ubuntu, Mark Shuttleworth has the authority to direct his own employees and he has the authority to say what goes in the final product; but his ability to direct volunteers is very limited in that they have much greater freedom to quit.
      John L. Ries
  • Shuttleworth is spot on...

    It is past time for the interface development communities to step up to the plate and either hit it out of the park, or sit on the bench. In any case, he's right to suggest that if they can't do that, then Canonical must lead. It only makes sense.
    • ???? {snort}

      > It is past time for the interface development communities to step up to the plate and either hit it out of the park,

      Done, in spades.

      In the Linux world, there are several quite excellent user interfaces (aka "desktops") suitable for general and/or for specialist use (heck, some people would even count Unity as one of them). Check out KDE, Enlightenment, Cinnamon, and many others... Certainly at least as good as anything Microsoft has produced -- and few would count Windows 8's TIFKAM (The Interface Formerly Known As "Metro") among them.

      And the beauty of it is -- if you don't like the one you're given, you're not stuck with it -- it's generally not too difficult to swap it out for one that suits your needs and/or taste much better. Or even keep multiple environments around, handy for whatever workload comes up or whatever mood strikes you, when you sit down in front of your computer.

      Or you can, you know, just accept as given, whatever desktop environment the distributor picked for you, just like you were using Windows.
      • Desktop paradigm, except for Unity and KDE Plasma Active

        Mr. Shuttleworth is looking forward to a future where Ubuntu is running on smartphones and tablets with multi-touch gestures. Unity seems to make sense as the default desktop environment for Ubuntu when viewed across the spectrum of device form factors from smartphones to desktops/workstations. How many other desktop environments support multi-touch gestures? KDE Plasma Active, for one. Are there any more?

        And how does Unity compare with KDE Plasma Active wrt multi-touch gestures on smartphones and tablets?

        P.S. Wayland as a replacement of X.org seems to have fallen off the edge of the Earth. Where is Wayland in all of this?
        Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Looks like Canonical has abandoned Wayland in favor of Mir

          Apparently, Wayland is not taking the display server where Canonical believes it needs to be going for Ubuntu Touch and converged devices. Thus, Canonical plans to roll their own display server, Mir. More here:

          "taking Unity to the next level

          And here's one response to this change of display server horses by Canonical:

          Rabid Howler Monkey
          • It was all BS

            Shuttleworth and company came out and claimed Wayland can't/won't do this, that or the other thing and so we're making our own. However, experts weighed in and showed that all of Canonical's claims were BS. On top of that, they never even talked to the Wayland folks before setting out on their own. This is just more of Shuttleworth's attempt to control everything and fragment Linux in the process.

            He wants his own OS like Jobs, but first he wants to take as much as he can from open source developers for free. Then like Unity, he'll make his own component that relies so much on custom forked versions of other libraries that no one else will be able to get it to run on their systems (only one distro has ever gotten Unity to work outside Ubuntu). Shuttleworth gives nothing back to the community (Microsoft has contributed more lines of code to the kernel than Canonical - seriously) and if Canonical vanished tomorrow the Linux community would barely notice. If it lost Red Hat, Debian, SUSE or IBM it would be in big trouble.
          • RE: "He [Shuttleworth] wants his own OS like Jobs"

            Then he should have dipped into a BSD as Jobs did.

            Mr. Shuttleworth is more like Larry Ellison of Oracle with Oracle Enterprise Linux which is derived from RHEL. Oracle acquired KSplice. Their MySQL is moving in a more closed direction. But, even this comparison with Mr. Ellison is overdone.

            Ubuntu is still free to download and install whether you are a consumer, SOHO, SMB or enterprise. And Ubuntu updates, both security and non-security, are also free. With its Debian (unstable) GNU/Linux roots, it's hard to imagine Ubuntu not being free.

            As Red Hat, SUSE and Oracle do with their commercial GNU/Linux distros, Canonical offers paid support for Ubuntu. Google is a prime example of an enterprise using Ubuntu and paying Canonical for support.
            Rabid Howler Monkey
          • Maybe

            You're probably right about the Wayland/Mir business.

            I don't know about the second half of your comment -- but it is, unfortunately, a plausible interpretation.
      • Dear God - what the hell are you on?

        "> It is past time for the interface development communities to step up to the plate and either hit it out of the park,

        Done, in spades."

        Right because because everyone's copying any of those. You're argument seems to be 'We like it - and we don't like Windows, ergo we win.' In case you've missed it, 90% of desktops are running Windows, not any of those variants of Linux. And people are leaving Windows to go to iOS and Android - which again, aren't any of those.

        Android is the ONLY Linux based system that's made any serious headway - and they did it by firmly and intentionally burying Linux so deep there's absolutely no way it will ever see the light of day.

        Even with MacOS (and iOS), again, it worked because for most people, they never interact with the BSD Unix underneath the system.

        There isn't a single example of a Linux desktop out there that's broken even 0.5% market share on anything.

        Hit it out of the park? Sheesh - you're not even playing in the big leagues.
        • They Get Copied All the Time

          Open source desktops get copied by Microsoft and Apple all the time. To someone who has actually used these interfaces over the years it becomes quite obvious that copying goes in all directions (not just from proprietary desktops to open source ones as some people seem to think). Also, open source software has a lot to do with the improvements we saw with the release of Windows 2000 and XP in general stability and utility.

          I find it hard to believe that you think that Windows got to its position on the desktop purely through technical and/or aesthetic merit, so you should realize that being good won't make Linux into the most popular desktop.

          My nephews and nieces use Linux based laptops all the time and have no problem doing so. They're not all technically geared kids, yet they take to it without notable issues.
        • What is it with you people?

          The existence of Windows on desktops has no relation to the quality of Windows. Remember that it's A MONOPOLY? The ghosts of Ritchie and Steve Jobs could design an OS guaranteed never to crash and that pays you $50 per seat to use it, and it wouldn't make a dent in the desktop market so long as people cling to their ancient proprietary Office docs and other vendor lock-in artifacts.

          KDE surpassed Windows desktop in features a few years ago, and in fact, as PC World noted, ALL of the major Win8 features were already present in Linux, down to the file copy dialog.
  • Great look into one of the

    most vibrant open source project. I like many things about KDE and Gnome but think Mark is right about Unity being the vehicle to mobile and tablets. They (the Ubuntu community) will likely shrug it all off and keep on trucking.

    Biggest difference in how Ubuntu get out to the public compared to Windows is that there is built-in flexibility and user choice. I don't see this dispute changing that.
    • given that unity

      is probably the most user friendly of the interfaces, I think it's the best one to have at the head of the pack
      • Eh

        I think GNOME2 (and its fork, MATE) are a lot more straightforward than Unity; GNOME2 was part of my demonstrations of how user-friendly Ubuntu was, but with the switch over to Unity, I've begun using Mint for that demonstration of user-friendliness.
        • gnome 2 and mint

          are pretty good too. I seriously do think that unity is a bit more user friendly though. gnome 2 and mint are very straight forward windows style. anyone coming from windows will be able to figure it out. unity is more OSXish with some of its own flavor, but it's very straight forward and simple. you don't need to be a windows person to be comfortable with unity, it's just easy to use IMO.
          • It depends what you're doing...

            ... and also what you're used to.

            Some people really like Unity, others find it gets in the way.

            I personally find it passable for light use, but sometimes, if I need multiple open windows, it is a pain in the neck to co-ordinate everything I need to handle at once, efficiently.
  • who would have thought it

    the smell of win8 is equivalent to linux in the long run....
  • if android is shown us anything

    it's that open source can be about more than pure altruism. and that's not a bad thing. altruism is great, but sometimes some ulterior motives need to be in there to get things done.
    • I agree

      Sometimes someone must just clean the "mess" and show how it's going to be done.
      These people at ubuntu don't seem stupid at all..