Criticisms of the Ubuntu distribution and Canonical, its corporate
sponsor, are not hard to come by. Depending on who is speaking, Ubuntu and
Canonical are guilty of profiting from the free software community without
giving back to it, forking important projects or distributions,
legitimizing the use of binary-only system components, and more. Of all of
these gripes, it is the "contributing to the community" complaint which is
heard most. If one believes these complaints, Ubuntu is a parasitic
operation which does not understand how the community works and which is
harmful to the community as a whole.
Your editor would like to submit that these charges are overblown. Ubuntu
is far from perfect, and it could certainly give back more than it does,
but Ubuntu does not deserve the level of opprobrium it is receiving from
certain parts of our community.
It is interesting to note that there appears to be a special place for
distributors among those who would criticize. Red Hat, it has been said,
drives things toward its own profit and has, in the past, pushed far too
much bleeding-edge software on its long-suffering users. Fedora is accused
of remaining insufficiently open, excessively bleeding-edge, and refusing
to make the watching of flash videos just work. Novell/SUSE has done a
deal with the devil. Debian, we are told, is simultaneously too chaotic
and too bureaucratic, and it can never get a release out on time. Some
charge that Gentoo's community is dysfunctional, and that, in any case, it's
made up of people with too much time on their hands. And Ubuntu stands
accused of taking the
work of others while failing to give back to or even credit the community
from which draws its software.
It is not surprising that distributors are specially blessed with this sort
of criticism. Most free software users never deal directly with the
upstream projects which create the software they use. Instead, they get it
all from a single middleman - the distributor. So the distributor has a
great deal of influence over what kind of experience those users
have; the distributor is also the obvious guilty party when things seem to
go wrong. Lots of people have opinions about their distributor, but they
know little about the projects that actually develop their software.
That said, much of the criticism of Ubuntu is coming from the developer
community, which does have a more detailed view of the full
ecosystem. It is worth thinking about why that might be. While Ubuntu's
contributions may not be as high as one might like, they are most certainly
not zero. There are Ubuntu developers who are Debian developers, X.org
developers, GNOME developers, and so on. If this page is to
be believed, Ubuntu developers are also contributing to the HURD. The page
does not say why, sorry.
The developers who castigate Ubuntu are uniformly silent about the number
of kernel patches coming from the Mandriva camp. They have nothing to say
about how much Xandros gives back to Debian. Nobody totals up
contributions from Gentoo. There are no complaints about Slackware's
presence in the community. Arch Linux developers do not hear that they are
not doing enough. There are no high-profile articles on how rPath is
taking advantage of free software developers. Yet Ubuntu's contributions
most likely exceed those from all of the distributions named here, with the
possible (but far from certain) exception of Gentoo. Ubuntu, it would
seem, is being held to a higher standard than many of its peers.
One reason for Ubuntu's special treatment must certainly be its nature as
the cool kid who showed up out of nowhere. Sudden success can breed a
certain amount of animosity, especially when much of that success is
perceived to be built on the work of others. It is a rare distribution
list which has not seen the occasional "I'm tired of your distribution, I'm
moving to Ubuntu now" message; that kind of stuff gets old after a while.
And when something gets old and irritating, it's tempting to respond in a
But the real reason must be elsewhere: Ubuntu has overtly set itself up to be
held to a higher standard. It has been positioned as a strongly
community-oriented distribution with the mission of saving the world for
free software. Debian-derived distributions which make less noise about
community - Xandros, say - receive less grief for their lack of
participation in the community. Nobody expects anything from them, so
nobody complains. But people do expect something different from
Ubuntu; it's supposed to be a part of our community. So when it seems that
Ubuntu is not contributing patches upstream or that it's maintaining
forks of important software components, and when tools like Launchpad remain
proprietary, it feels like a promise has not been kept.
There is no doubt that Ubuntu could do better than it has. But we should
not lose track of what Ubuntu has done. Ubuntu has created a
distribution which appeals to a whole new class of Linux users. The fact
that much of this work was done elsewhere notwithstanding, Ubuntu has shown
that a Linux system can wear a friendlier, easier-to-use face. In the
process, it has made Debian suitable for a larger class of users.
Ubuntu has shown that a Debian-based distribution can make regular, stable
releases and still ship contemporary software.
Ubuntu has lived up to
its promises of support, including providing top-quality security
support. And all of this is happening in a
way that, we are told, should become commercially self-sustaining at some
On top of all this, Ubuntu employs a number of developers who work within
the community. Yes, it would be a good thing if there were more of these
developers. It would also be good if more fixes and enhancements escaped
Ubuntu's repositories and made it back upstream. Ongoing encouragement at
all levels should help to make this happen. But, as we encourage Ubuntu to
live up to its ambitious goals of being a full member of our community, we
should not lose our perspective. We are, beyond doubt, richer as a result
of Ubuntu's existence.
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