The Fedora Core 6 distribution is nearing release. Even after the
recently announced delay
final version of FC6 is expected to hit the net on October 17. So one
would assume that there would be little call for controversial changes at
this time in the cycle; the Fedora folks would be expected to be concerned
with fixing the final problems and getting the release out the door. So
the documentation group was a little surprised, at the end of September,
when a request
to modify the Firefox
startup page showed up.
In particular, the Fedora leadership wanted that page to include a tracking
image - an image hosted on a Fedora web site which would allow the project to
track how many people were starting up Fedora's version of Firefox, and
which IP addresses they came from. It would appear that few people had any
sense that there might be objections to this technique; the resulting
discussion seemed to take them by surprise. But a discussion did result,
focusing on a few questions: why does Fedora want to track its users, why
the hurry to get this change into FC6, and isn't there a better way?
At the moment, it seems, the Fedora Project has very little idea of how
widely used their work is. That is an ignorance they share with a great
many free software projects, but Fedora's situation, it seems, has the
potential to make that ignorance expensive. The best description of Fedora's motives came from
Greg DeKoenigsberg; it is worth quoting at length:
Really, this question should be asked this way: "are metrics so
important that you're ready to risk alienating some users and
contributors to get them?" And the answer to that question, from
my perspective, is "yes".
Why? Because, like it or not, every funding conversation inside of
Red Hat's walls begins and ends with metrics. If it isn't
measurable, it doesn't exist. Fact.
This is especially important in the case of Fedora, because Fedora
doesn't make any money directly for Red Hat. We continue to
develop Fedora because it serves other purposes. Research and
development. Quality Assurance for RHEL. The ethics of continuing
to provide free software, which is important to all of us. And,
most importantly from my own perspective, *community mindshare*.
If we can't quantify Fedora's mindshare in some way, we lose one of
the *major* rationales for making the Fedora Project stronger and
more independent. Every time a Red Hat executive asks "how many
Fedora users are out there?" and we answer "oh, somewhere between
100k and a few million," we make it *that* much more difficult to
defend Fedora from bad Red Hat decisions. If a Red Hat executive
has to choose between giving resources to RHEL and giving resources
to Fedora, and if he's got dollar figures on one side of the ledger
and hand-wavy "mindshare" guesses on the other side of the ledger,
he's going to choose RHEL. Every single time. I've seen it
happen, again and again and again and again. And again.
Fedora has, slowly over the years, become a more open and transparent free
software project. It is also clearly a successful project, with a large
(if unknown) number of users worldwide. But the fact remains that Fedora
is a Red Hat project, with Red Hat being the source of almost all of the
funding that keeps Fedora going. This funding is a generous gift from Red
Hat to the community (though Red Hat certainly benefits from it as well),
but it puts Fedora into a strongly dependent position. Fedora must
keep Red Hat happy, and convince Red Hat of its importance, if it is to
continue to be funded properly.
According to Max Spevack, there is no
concern about Fedora funding being cut; this exercise is, instead, about getting that
funding increased. But the evident level of concern belies that claim
somewhat. Even if there is no discussion of cutting Fedora funding now, it
seems like a subject which could come up in the future. Red Hat is
becoming just another company in many ways, and it will make the calculations that
companies need to make to survive. It would not take too many bad quarters
for Red Hat to start looking very hard at the money spent on Fedora;
managers under pressure to improve their numbers can be very short-sighted
at times. So it makes sense for the Fedora project to be concerned about its
ongoing relationship with Red Hat.
It almost seems that something must have happened to reinforce this idea in
the minds of the Fedora leadership. If so, they aren't talking about it.
But they have decided that it is important to get some sort of mechanism
into FC6 which would give them at least rudimentary statistics. Waiting
another cycle for FC7, it seems is not an option. Given the short time
available to put anything into FC6, the Fedora folks settled quickly
on something which would be easy to implement: a tracking image.
There are obvious problems with the tracking image idea, starting with the
privacy concerns. Not everybody wants to be tracked in this way. People
with this sort of concern may also not be much comforted by the Fedora privacy
policy page, which leads off with this text:
THIS IS A DRAFT. It may not represent the final document, and
should not be used for anything other than informational purposes.
Beyond that, it has been pointed out that this technique only yields IP
addresses, which will only be correlated with the number of actual
installations in a very rough manner. But that information, it seems, is
much better than nothing.
There are alternatives. One idea which has been discussed is a brief user
survey which shows up at the end of the installation process. Users could
then provide some information - or, crucially, choose not to. Nobody seems
to think that such a mechanism could be added to FC6 at this late date,
however; though it could show up in FC7.
The Fedora folks could also take advantage of the fact that a new Fedora
installation already phones home. It is all for the best of purposes: the
yum-updatesd daemon, which runs by default, goes to the central
Fedora server to download the lists of repository mirrors. The project has
not been using the tracks that this activity leaves - but they could. Greg
describes it as "an absolute no-brainer":
The rich irony here, of course, is that rather than tell users
we're tracking them, we will instead be able to track them
invisibly through the normal operation of their systems. But I'm
perfectly happy either way, so.
This approach is not perfect either. It fails on systems which are offline,
while every system running Firefox has a high probability of being
connected. It also cannot distinguish systems which are likely to be
"desktop" systems - information which is apparently of interest. But it's
there now and, as Greg points out, it doesn't seem to set off alarms the
way a tracking image would. Hopefully Fedora will share the conclusions it
draws from this data - and make good use of it to convince Red Hat
management of the project's importance.
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