No thanks, Google--we've got Ubuntu

perspective If there is one problem the open source community has suffered repeatedly over the past two decades, it's fragmentation. Google is about to make it worse.
Written by Renai LeMay, Contributor

commentary Google's revelation that it will create its own operating system will bring just one reaction from operating system enthusiasts worldwide.

"Not another Linux distribution," they'll cry.

They'll say this because if there is one problem that the Linux and open source community has suffered repeatedly over the past two decades, it's been fragmentation.

It was bad enough that the Unix operating system fragmented repeatedly through the 1980s and 1990s. Systems administrators (like myself, earlier this decade) were forced to learn several different platforms: Solaris, AIX, HP-UX, FreeBSD...the list was always growing longer.

But the hojillion different directions Linux has taken over the past several decades has even dwarfed that problem. Depending on what part of the world you live in, odds are that you (and sometimes the company you work for) have personally switched among different Linux distributions several times over the past decade, as one or the other gained prominence.

Personally, I started off using Red Hat, which split off into the official Red Hat version and a community edition dubbed Fedora. I toyed with Mandriva and Suse for a while, before settling on Slackware for some years, and then moving to Debian. Throughout that time, I've had to learn quite a few different package management, configuration, boot, and window management systems.

Of course, I have also used a variety of Microsoft operating systems and Apple's more focused Mac OS X and its predecessors.

Now, over the past few years, some of us had begun to believe that we could see a bright light forming at the end of that confused and heterogeneous tunnel. Out of the ferocious Linux distribution wars, one contender has emerged with the seeming strength to take on the rest--at least when it comes to the Linux desktop platform.

I speak, of course, of Ubuntu.

Mark Shuttleworth's juggernaut has, over the past few years, blasted through the Linux community like he blasted into space, drawing in all like some kind of monstrous black hole.

If you attend conferences like Linux.conf.au these days, where you used to see Debian and Slackware die-hards, you'll see a massive wave of Linux laptops proudly sporting Ubuntu paraphernalia. I switched the Linux half of my home desktop PC to Ubuntu four years ago, and my media center followed this year, as I said goodbye finally to the venerable Windows XP.

The growing dominance of Ubuntu (at least on the desktop, the server room seems to have been won by Red Hat) has delivered the Linux community a serious advantage in its ongoing war against the incumbent Windows and Apple platforms because of its ability to give software developers a single platform to concentrate on and polish to a degree not seen previously.

In this context, Google's decision to create its own Linux distribution and splinter the Linux community decisively once again can only be seen as foolhardy and self-obsessive.

Instead of treading its own path, Google should have sought to leverage the stellar work already carried out by Shuttleworth and his band of merry coders and tied its horse to the Ubuntu cart.

If Google truly wants to design a new "windowing system on top of a Linux kernel", there should be nothing to stop the search giant from collaborating openly with the best in the business. I'm sure Linus Torvalds would have something strongly worded to say about Google's plans to "completely redesign" the underlying security architecture of Linux.

There's no doubt Google has made moves in this direction with its pledge to open source Chrome OS, the same way it did with several previous projects: the Chrome browser itself and its Android mobile OS.

But doubts still remain about those projects also. For example, where do they fit in between true open source projects, maintained and supported by the community, and to what extent are they extensions of Google's online advertising empire?

Android is a great mobile operating system, second only to Apple's iPhone platform. But Google still controls most aspects of Android's development. Also, anyone using Android would have no doubt that the operating system ties in very nicely with Google's cloud offerings (for example, Gmail). But things are a lot trickier if you prefer Windows Live or other rival systems.

Chrome too, is a great browser that I use for much of my daily needs. But it's mainly still in Google's hands, and so those of us who prefer true competition to exist in the browser world take great comfort from the fact that Mozilla Firefox is completely independent and not pushing anyone's agenda.

Who are you going to trust and believe in? The noncommercial Ubuntu Foundation (and wider project), which has developed an open source operating system second to none and virtually ended the Linux distribution wars? Or Google, which also makes free products (well, mostly) and packages advertising in (sometimes)?

You can e-mail Torvalds or Shuttleworth directly and get answers to your Linux questions, sometimes within minutes or hours. Try that with whoever is in charge of Android or Chrome development.

Google makes great products. But it's currently trying to tread a nice middle ground between completely embracing the open source community and keeping control over software it has developed. That's an impossible path to walk and one that leaves it open to being criticized for the same sort of arrogance that operating system vendors have been accused of for decades.

Editorial standards