A Disturbing Dialog About Ubuntu and Unity, Part 2

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 08, 2011 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Last week, I wrote about an exchange between Mark Shuttleworth and bug-filer Tal Liron and others. The blog entry has attracted several dozen comments here, plus a number more on Facebook and Google+ and privately. In fact, they're still trickling in, so I thought that some of the thoughts and sentiments expressed deserved some answers, at least in general terms:

Unity stinks! / Unity rocks!

You might believe either of these statements, and I understand that, seeing Unity being discussed, that you might want to express your opinion. Fair enough. But that's not what I was writing about. I was writing about the apparent conflict between the Ubuntu community and Canonical's goals. More specifically, I was writing about how some Ubuntu members feel left out of the decision-making process. The discussion I reported centered on Unity, but could have been about anything else.

Mark Shuttleworth stinks! / Mark Shuttleworth rocks!

You may favor one side of the conversation over another. But there's no villains here -- just a difference of opinion of what's best for Ubuntu.

If you don't like Unity, just use something else

The issue wasn't about what desktop to use. Liron and most of those who share his position aren't especially hostile to Unity. If anything, I'd characterize them as Ubuntu loyalists. They aren't asking for changes to Unity, but for more explanation of why controversial design decisions were made so that they can explain to others and contribute to Ubuntu's success.

Why not give Shuttleworth's approach a chance?

Those on the other side of the conversation are willing to do that. They're only asking for more support in their efforts. They're even trying to be constructive, suggesting an FAQ that answers the basic questions other people have about design decisions.

Shuttleworth has the right to make decisions and act

True, no one has invested as much money or time in Ubuntu than Shuttleworth. Moreover, Ubuntu has always been organized so that he is in charge. But just because you have the right or the power to do something doesn't mean that you should.

In the short term, announcing decisions without explaining them might seem more efficient. You might argue that Ubuntu and Canonical are in a hurry, and there's no time to explain. But in the long term, such behavior reduces enthusiasm and might cause some volunteers to leave. Nor are a few explanations all that time-consuming -- no more than any other blog entry, anyway. Considering that no project ever has enough contributors, alienating those you already have appears self-sabotaging.

What is wrong about Canonical monetizing from Ubuntu?

Absolutely nothing. But trying to be profitable can be at odds with a community project's goals. For instance, a commercial venture benefits from deadlines, and may be willing to settle for something good enough, while a community project might prefer to forget about deadlines and make everything perfect. Neither perspective is wrong, but the two are often hard to reconcile.

Another consideration is that you can't interact with community members the same way that you do with employees. If you tell employees that there will be no more discussion, they have to accept the decision if they want to stay employed. But tell community members that and they may just ignore you -- and no authority figure ever looks weaker than when issuing orders that they can't enforce.

If you want community members to accept your decisions, you have to be prepared for a little give and take, a little persuasion.

Someone has to make the final decision

Nobody is questioning Shuttleworth's or Canonical's authority. They're requesting that it be wielded differently.

Complainers are only marginalizing themselves

Perhaps. But what happened to the community tradition of expressing opinions? The discussion doesn't read like the work of obstructionist, or of people who are arguing for the sake or arguing. Liron and the others appear to believe that they are being constructive, and that their suggestions will help Ubuntu to run more smoothly. That may be wrong, but, if so, why not explain why?

Marginalizing people then claiming that they're marginalizing themselves is a pretty sleazy tactic. If you disagree with them, have the courage to say so.

Complainers have a false sense of entitlement

Get real. These are Ubuntu contributors, not casual users, and they made a modest request.

You're just trying to stir up trouble

I do wonder how representative Liron and his supporters are of opinions in Ubuntu generally. Are they just a vocal minority?

Possibly, but it seems unlikely. In the last couple of years, complaints about arbitrary decisions in Ubuntu have appeared several times, and the same people aren't always making them. Moreover, in the week since I first wrote on the subject, the increased interest in Linux Mint has started being discussed. I've even read a suggestion that those discontent with Ubuntu reconsider Debian (http://technorati.com/technology/article/debian-beckons-ubuntu-refugees-to-come/).

All these signs suggest to me that people are becoming disillusioned about Ubuntu -- and not just about Unity, since everyone knows that Ubuntu has a variety of desktops in its repositories.

On a personal level, this situation doesn't affect me at all. I have Ubuntu installed (as well as Fedora, openSUSE, and -- at any given time -- three or four other distributions installed on netbooks, laptops, and virtual machines), but my main distribution remains Debian, and, philosophically and performance-wise, that decision satisfies me.

However, on a larger level, dysfunction in Ubuntu worries me. Ubuntu is large and influential, and, for all its faults, remains one of the best chances for popularizing free software. Should Ubuntu fail, no doubt another distribution will take its place, but that succession would probably delay the more general acceptance of free software by a year, or even two or three.

For these reasons, I'd prefer to see Ubuntu succeed. Anything that might prevent its success concerns me, and should concern any other free software supporter -- and that makes it news, which is where I come in.


  • community v corporate

    "For instance, a commercial venture benefits from deadlines, and may be willing to settle for something good enough, while a community project might prefer to forget about deadlines and make everything perfect."

    Exactly. And that's why I use Debian (and why any semi-sane user should). Then I read on and...

    "...but my main distribution remains Debian, and, philosophically and performance-wise, that decision satisfies me."

    Why users would want to be beholden to a corporate, increasingly locked-in (http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2010/01/14/ubuntu-debian.html) , identity is beyond me.
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