Why Canonical's commercial interests are good for Ubuntu

Growing criticism about Canonical bowing to commercial interests miss the overall benefit to customers and users

Canonical, the Linux vendor behind Ubuntu, is facing growing criticisms about turning its back on the free and open source software (FOSS) community. Critics claim that Canonical is bowing to commercial interests. But is it truly a problem for customers or the Linux community at large? I don't think so.

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Canonical's rise and fall from grace in the eyes of FOSS users

Bruce Byfield writes about Canonical's rise and fall in the eyes of the Debian and Linux community:

Instead of being the model corporate member of the community that it first appeared, today Canonical increasingly seems concerned with its own interests rather than those of FOSS as a whole. No doubt there are sound business reasons for the change, but many interpret it as proof of hypocrisy. Added to the suspicion toward the corporate world that lingers in many parts of the FOSS community.

Byfield documents several examples of Canonical replacing packages or using internally developed packages in Ubuntu to better align with Canonical's road map and product plans.

Commercial products require planning, tracking, and adjustments

It appears much of the angst toward Canonical can be traced back to a blog post from Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth in December 2006. In a post describing challenges that Linux must overcome to win the desktop, Shuttleworth wrote:

To a certain extent, this loose coupling is beneficial. Work goes on in one part of the free software universe entirely oblivious to work elsewhere, despite the fact that both pieces of work will ultimately land up on an Ubuntu disk. Keeping everything orthogonal is very nice -- very Unix. It means that people don't have to keep too much in their heads. And that's worked well.

But sometimes I wish it were easier to keep track of changes and have a slightly clearer view of progress across that whole galaxy. For example, it would be nice at the beginning of an Ubuntu release cycle to have a really confident picture of which projects will produce stable releases during those few months when we can incorporate new upstream versions. It would be even better if, during the release cycle, we knew immediately if there was a change in what was going to be released.

As a product manager, I wholeheartedly understand Shuttleworth's desire. And this isn't just my view from a position at a commercial software vendor.

A colleague at an open source company described the delicate balance of managing the vastly different needs of users within a community versus the needs of customers. This task is further complicated because some users may become customers over time, but there are no easy ways for vendors to separate these potential buyers from perpetual users. However, because users are exposed to other users, a negative community sentiment about a vendor can thwart the transition from user to customer.

As a vendor attracts more customers, it can devote more resources to developing the product. Because vendors are profit-driven, and publicly traded vendors have a fiduciary duty to make profits, it's not surprising that vendors devote resources to features that paying customers care about. Some open source vendors may make these features only available to paying customers. However, few, if any, open source vendors have been successful at growing while ignoring their community.

In short, a successful vendor can benefit both users and customers.

Differentiating between user and customer needs

With additional details about Mac OS X Lion coming out yesterday, it's interesting to consider Shuttleworth's desire for product planning early and throughout a release cycle. It's true that Apple's development approach can't be compared directly to that of an open source project like Ubuntu. However, the resulting products compete with each other on their merits, not on the software development approach used to develop them.

Knowing that a vendor ships major versions on a reliable relese schedule or has a history of including relevant new features are important buying considerations. Customers don't have the time or money to switch between competitive products frequently. When customers select product X, they do so based on the product's current merits and future road map. Canonical seems to understand this -- as does its real-world competition.

Follow me on Twitter at SavioRodrigues. I should state: "The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies, or opinions."

This article, "Why Canonical's commercial interests are good for Ubuntu," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Savio Rodrigues' Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.


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