We use Ubuntu in our household and I think it's one of the best things ever to happen to the Linux ecosystem. Mark S deserves a big thank-you for investing real money and paid staff time into moving the focus over to software *users* rather than just developers, geeks and servers.
But ... I worry that Ubuntu isn't really an ongoing viable business model. If I contribute to Ubuntu, it's nice to know that it's going somewhere long-term. If its sustainability is dependent on its rich and philanthropic owner being able to make a small fortune out of a large one, rather than pay its own way as a going concern, then I do wonder.
For the benefit I get from it, I would be more than happy to pay for version updates on a Magnatune sort of basis (you may pay either the suggested amount, or more or less down to zero depending on your circumstances and inclination), and in return get funded development of better opensource video drivers, Wayland, reliable suspend/resume, LibreOffice import/export filter improvements, Active Directory functionality, top-notch documentation and other things of lasting value that need that final 20% uphill push.
There are many obstacles to this of course:
1) Interpretation of the GPL. The GPL allows to charge for "support" and "the cost of physically transferring a copy". It does not forbid donations. IIRC RMS/FSF used to get by, pre-internet, from doing tapes of GNU software at $150 a pop. The Ubuntu web presence infrastructure must cost a bomb to keep running, and an allocation of the overhead cost to a suggested download charge would IMO be both reasonable and within the spirit of the GPL.
2) Ubuntu's front-page promise to "always remain free". This would need a substantial re-spin to "libre" rather than "gratis".
3) The appropriate separation of Canonical and Ubuntu so that payments were not seen as donations to a millionaire.
4) Competition from Red Hat and Novell.
In conclusion, very interesting piece, thanks LWN for your efforts! If they succeed in getting a productive discussion going on business viability, every cent of travel expenses will have been incredible value. Not that we should begrudge it anyway ...