Ubuntu Linux developer squabbles go public

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.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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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