The governance of Linux distros


Ubuntu's governance page [9] declares, "This is not a democracy, it's a meritocracy. We try to operate more on consensus than on votes, seeking agreement from the people who will have to do the work." Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, is the "self-appointed benevolent dictator for life (SABDFL)" and reserves the right to make the final decision on any issues that may arise. Although the governance page describes this situation as "happily undemocratic," in practice this organizational structure has caused problems once or twice in the past, particularly during the development of Ubuntu's Unity desktop, when decisions by Shuttleworth or his employees at Canonical have over-ruled community volunteers. However, in the last few years, such conflicts have become rarer, as Canonical has turned its attention to servers and away from the operating system.

In ordinary affairs, Ubuntu is governed by the Community Council and the Technical Board. Both groups consist of both community representatives and Mark Shuttleworth. Shuttleworth also appoints members of the Community Council and nominates members for the Technical Board to be accepted by Ubuntu developers. Like the rest of Ubuntu, these groups are governed by the Code of Conduct, which outlines how project members should interact with one another. I have heard Ubuntu described as governed by discussion and consensus in everyday matters and governed by Shuttleworth and his appointees on project direction and strategy.

A Distro for Everyone

Judging distributions by their governance is not always easy. A distribution with a democratic structure can still be dominated by veteran contributors. Conversely, a distribution with no structure beyond consensus might give a newcomer a larger say in decisions than one with regular offices. And in any distribution, an eager volunteer may quickly find a place, no matter what the structure.

Whatever your reason for distro shopping, remember the basic tenet of corporate structure: The formal structure is often compensated for with an informal structure. The same is true for distributions. Hang out in the forums and IRC channels for a while, and you should soon see how a distribution is actually run – and who runs it, officially or unofficially. How a distribution runs on a daily basis could be just as important to you as a user or contributor as its technical aspects.

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