The choices inside Ubuntu

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jan 27, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Hearing that the next Ubuntu release will use Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox leaves me with a twinge of uneasiness. My misgiving -- and it's a small one -- is not so much with the decision as with why it was made.

In itself, the decision is trivial enough. If you dislike Yahoo!, you can easily change the default by going to the search engine field in the upper right corner and clicking on the icon and choosing Manage Search Engines from the drop-down menu.

More importantly, to my surprise, comparing half a dozen sets of search results in Google and Yahoo! suggests that Yahoo! generally returns more results than Google -- often at a ratio of three or four to one. Nor are the first page results very different in the two search engines. Yahoo!'s image searches are generally less successful than Google, but otherwise, from a practical viewpoint, the change in the default may actually be an improvement.

However, that isn't the reason the change is being made. According to Platform Team member Rick Spencer, who broke the news in an email to the ubuntu-devel mailing list on behalf of Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, the change will be made because:

"Canonical has negotiated a revenue sharing deal with Yahoo! and this revenue will help Canonical to provide developers and resources to continue the open development of Ubuntu and the Ubuntu Platform. This change will help provide these resources as well as continuing to respect our user's default search across Firefox."

I am not sure that the last sentence has any meaning outside of marketing-speech, but the first sentence makes clear that the change is due to a business deal. The probable technical merits of the change aren't mentioned at all.

Business reasons vs. FOSS reasons

Some people will object to the deal automatically, because, last year, Microsoft emerged as one of Yahoo!'s major partners. As I write, I am sure that others are already reflexively ranting about how Ubuntu is inching closer to Microsoft, citing its use of Mono applications as further proof of this alleged trend.

But that seems a relatively remote concern. What makes me uneasy is that the change is apparently being done solely for business reasons.

I understand that Canonical is searching for a road to profitability. No matter how idealistic, Mark Shuttleworth can't be expected to finance Canonical and Ubuntu indefinitely. I understand, too, that without investment from corporations such as Canonical, free and open source software (FOSS) would not be nearly as advanced today as it is. All things considered, I can't blame Canonical looking for some return on its investment after five years.

But FOSS isn't supposed to be like that, and neither is Ubuntu. The main justification of the open source position is that it produces better quality software, and most of Ubuntu's other innovations seem motivated by exactly this rationale.

Perhaps at times, Ubuntu developers have been motivated by the wish to be the first to work with a new technology. Yet whether you are talking about its replacement of the Init daemon with Upstart or of GRUB with GRUB 2, or its ongoing efforts to improve its interfaces, most of Ubuntu's changes have had sound practical reasons behind them. They made Ubuntu faster or more efficient, and by extension, the free desktop as well.

As things happen, the switch to Yahoo! is probably an improvement, too. The difference, though, is that the improvement is accidental. The trouble with making changes for business reasons is that they don't necessarily coincide with technical reasons. What is good for Canonical may not necessarily be good for Ubuntu, or the GNU/Linux desktop in general.

A change of view?

I am not suggesting that Canonical has sold out, or that we should start organizing boycotts of Ubuntu because Yahoo! is replacing Google. But I do wonder whether, as Canonical becomes -- presumably -- more desperate to turn a profit, if more decisions will be based on business reasons rather than practical ones.

If so, the FOSS community may have to re-evaluate Canonical. In the past, Canonical has mostly seemed a good corporate citizen of the community. Admittedly, its use of Mono has been criticized -- and deservedly so -- but that decision seems to have as many supporters as detractors.

Possibly, the switch to Yahoo! is an anomalous decision. Yet I can't help wondering if it signals a change of direction, away from FOSS ideals towards a more hard-nosed business approach.

If so, the community may find itself re-evaluating Canonical. Instead of regarding Canonical as a firm supporter, we may find ourselves viewing Canonical more the way that many of us regard Google: As a fellow traveler and some time ally, but one that acts out of its own concerns at least as often as it acts for the good of the community.

Am I worrying about nothing? I hope so. All the same, I'll be watching -- a little sadly and reluctantly -- to see if this re-evaluation is necessary.


  • cool subject

    I think linux distros should leave the applications options/features intact as the maker of the application intended. Who is Ubuntu to decide what default search engine firefox has.
  • great post my friend

    Thanks a lot for sharing the article on cash. That's a awesome article. I enjoyed the article a lot while reading. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article.I want to say very thank you for this great informations. now i understand about it. Thank you !
  • reply

    This is a good topic. I like it very much. When I use Firefox, sometimes I meet some problems. Next time I will ask you for help. Please update the post!
  • switching to yahoo

    At first I felt uneasy about the switch notification. That only lasted 30 seconds because we must remember that a team/organization is behind ubuntu and some of them want to get paid for their efforts.

    Ubuntu is free and probably always will be free. They simply want to make a few dollars to keep the project alive without asking for money from the users. The fact that they are upfront and tell you how to opt-out means the entire issue is a non-issue.

    What is wrong with microsoft? I run Linux because it does a certain task very well for me. I do not run Linux because I hate microsoft. I wished Linux ran MS Office much better and also iTunes for my ipod (not interested in discussing alternatives - I know hem all!).

    To the ubuntu team, keep those releases coming!!
  • not impressed... at all

    I am really not impressed with Ubuntu management. Do they realize that yahoo utilizes microsoft's bing technology as their search engine? Not only will Ubuntu be utilizing microsoft technology yet they will be effectively receiving a revenue stream indirectly from microsoft! Talk about hell freezing over. What's next, a patent sharing deal with microsoft ala the novell deal from a few years ago? Come on Ubuntu management, you can't take money or use microsoft technology and still be legit. You just lost any rep points you had with me. *sigh*
  • microsoft is in bed with everybody

    When are people going to wake up and realize that MS is in bed with everybody and has been in bed with everybody, hence the reason they are riddled with disease. Dell, Intel, HP, and more. So I am guessing that since Microsoft is in bed with those companies, far more than they are in bed with Yahoo, the FOSS community shouldn't be doing deals with Dell, Intel, or HP? Has anyone taken the time to look over all of the Microsoft and Open Source partnerships, deals, and agreements? If you do, you will notice things like MySQL, Apache, SourceForge, and so many more. You know, if we continue to shun stuff just because Microsoft has touched it, we might as well stay in our basements, grow our beards, and continue this hobby known as Linux and FOSS.
  • Hey, let Yahoo spend the money!

    Unfortunately, Yahoo are in bed with Microsoft, the latter of whom has chosen to be our sworn enemy. Oh well, that's their choice. But I see this in the same light as why Linux Today accepted those "Linux Reference Center: Get The FUD" ads by Microsoft. I boycotted Linux Today at first back then until I understood what was really happening. Microsoft was FUNDING A GNU/LINUX INFORMATION SITE! That = good! You see where it got Microsoft? They eventually stopped the ads, because they figured out we don't like their behaviour and have the REAL facts already, not their made-up stuff. happy

    And remember, we always have the choice in Firefox to change our default search engine anyway.

    So, let Yahoo/Microsoft fund Canonical, and thus Ubuntu. HALLELUJAH, I say!
  • not good

    I’m all for a linux company making money. But regardless of how this deal money flows, it will make it back to microsoft, as yahoo is in bed with them.

    How much longer until we are changing everything in linux to suit corporate interests. It starts here, next thing you know there will be more concern about corporate interests than user experience and user choice.

    I think this is a start to bad.

    In my opinion, I think linux distros should leave the applications options/features intact as the maker of the application intended. Who is Ubuntu to decide what default search engine firefox has. But please, rape away mozillas right of distributing their product the way they intended, so canonical can make a dime.
  • Overconcerned

    This is a well-put essay but I find these concerns a bit too -well, concerned. overconcerned. Personally, I do not see very much of a difference between microsoft and what google has become - and yahoo, in this regard, seems much more sympathetic to me lately. And if it makes canonical make some profit, then let it be.. (and I hope so, really).
    we often miss the point -what makes canonical not just a 'business'. this had been a man's, Shuttleworth's dream that he shared it with the community -and now that it's all ours to develop further. so, expecting ubuntu make profit is good. but the reason behind it is not to make 'business' but make this dream sustainable -as much as possible. so reevaluation with such a dry stance would be far too much, I believe.
  • marketing

    >> Do you not see how much Canonical + FOSS have changed the face of Linux desktop? It completely made Desktop Linux actually usable WITH some kick ass features like Ubuntu One which is free to use. <<

    Actually, Mandriva (or Mandrake as they then were) did this a long time before Canonical. What Canonical have done very well is the marketing. Much as I admire what Canonical have done with Ubuntu, it's not the on;y distribution that makes things super-easy for the noob.
  • Google, Yahoo does ti really matter? Google without all the crap.
  • M$ as usual

    M$ is slowly penetraring its teeth under the wood of Open Source movement... Via Mono trojan horse, deals with Novell & now thanks to Yahoo & Ubuntu in some browsers. Don't forget that M$ not much time ago speacks about Open Source movement in terms of cancer, virus... I add "that eventually can erode its monopolistic envoirments & its king cash cow revenues".
  • FOSS goals

    Every time anyone brings up the issue of whether a particular decision by a FOSS actor contributes to or harms the goals of the FOSS movement, a string of angry responses accusing the author of being an ideologue or bringing up what other firms do (as if that would invalidate the point of the reflection) ensue. To a large extent, this mirrors the various perspectives on what the movement is about that can be found out there: Better software? A fight against big corporations? The FSF's 'four freedoms'? A non-commodified way of producing and exchanging software? If someone sees FOSS as having a certain goal and somebody else asks a question underpinned by a different understanding of the movement, outbursts of the “who cares?”-type are sure to follow. I believe this is a very limited way of looking at the movement. We should, at the very least, realize that the core features of FOSS are not restrictive, in the sense that they open the doors for several very different understandings of the implications of using and promoting this type of software. All of the options I mentioned above (and surely many others) are possible. Trying to shut people off and dismiss their opinions just because they do not see the movement in the same way as you is a very close-minded response, and I would argue that it is only hurtful for the movement as a whole, no matter how you understand it. More helpful than labeling someone as an ideologue it would be to start a productive dialogue in which you give substantive reasons why you think that some goals should be pursued in the FOSS movement and why others should be left aside or given less priority. In the end, arguing that FOSS should only be about better software or that it is another way of making money is as much ideological as focusing on freedoms, for instance. Pragmatism and economism are also ideologies, in the sense of sets of ideas that are used to establish goals and guide action.

    As a sociologist, the fascinating thing about FOSS for me is how it opens the door to pursue different goals, as well as the challenge of how the community makes sense and manages those different sensibilities. However, I always get a little more pessimistic about the future of FOSS when I see that the richness of the movement is bypassed and irate and dismissive responses are the answer to very interesting and relevant questions.
  • Honestly it doesn't matter

    I don't see a problem with the choice, beyond the fact M$ is now providing the search results for Yahoo (and all the possible censorship that entails). Canonical should be able to get some revenue as long as it doesn't preclude the whole FOSS ideal.

    On the other hand, to say Google isn't FOSS, they only take and not give...bull pucky! That's really a horribly disingenuous observation about Google. Summer of Code? 20%? Android? Any of that sound familiar? They do have folks that contribute directly to the kernel. You can complain about their cooperation with China (guess what, Yahoo and M$ are worse!) or that they won't allow a closed-source app (Google Maps for Android) be redistributed even though it was never licensed that way anyway. Get over it!

    Others will say FOSS fanatics should just drop the idealism and do whatever feels good. Guess what! Pragmatism is a philosophy as well filled with the thinking that just about any other ideal that doesn't allow you to achieve a goal, ethics and morality be damned, go for it! Ends justifies the means, right?

    Not in FOSS. Gonna have to deal with that, too! Don't like it? Start your own code base and make it as restrictive as your little fingers will allow.
  • Re: Ideology has reared its ugly head, again!

    "This whole article echos the "Ideology over features""

    Actually, it's more about "technology over business."
  • Ideology has reared its ugly head, again!

    This whole article echos the "Ideology over features" mindset that I despise in the open-source community! Who cares if Microsoft is providing the backend for Yahoo! It is not like Google is a good FOSS citizen, they are not, they are leeches.
  • other choice?

    The alternate choice was to keep Google as default. Google is not FOSS. Therefore,
    either they should have an agreement with Google or they would be just stupid
    by not changing to Yahoo. Actually, a good idea would be to have the Google
    agreement, as much more people uses Google.

    From my side, I will not change the default if the Yahoo search provides good
    results. I will be happy to be contributing to Ubuntu without any effort.

  • Why not make money

    Why shouldn't Canonical try to capitalize on this? They have a view on how to push FOSS forward and it seems to be working thus far so this will just give them more money to do that. I do think they have a responsibility to Mozilla to help better the Firefox product since they are making a lot of money off of it. Possibly provide Ubuntu with the latest version of Firefox, instead of sticking with the major version shipping with Ubuntu.
  • Mozilla's response?

    Mozilla has this same deal with Google which is why Google has been the default search engine in Firefox as long as I can remember. Mozilla also gets revenue from Google searches queried from the toolbar search box so I'm curious how Mozilla feels about a downstream vendor changing this revenue-generating default.
  • Give me a break!

    What the heck if this authors problem?

    Do you not see how much Canonical + FOSS have changed the face of Linux desktop? It completely made Desktop Linux actually usable WITH some kick ass features like Ubuntu One which is free to use.

    We can all download Ubuntu FOR FREE and see the source code!!! What in the hell are you worried about?

    Changed a simple setting in Firefox is not Innovation as you say, but simply a way to pay for all the awesomeness that we ALL get for free.

    Canonical needs to become self sustaining, and the more better it gets the better the world will be.

    How can you sit there and say we should re-evalutate a company for which has GIVEN away so much for FREE?

    Also, they came right out and said the change is to happen. Now if they changed it and did NOT publically mention the change THAN you can complain.
  • Ubuntu default search

    GNU/Linux users are very different to the sheep who use Windows/Apple. Even Ubuntu newbies. The default search will mean nothing to us and we will quickly change it to our own choice. It is really just an annoyance.

    Yahoo are wasting their money. I have already switched to Google Chrome anyway.

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