It’s time

So, I’ve been around the Ubuntu community for a while. I installed 4.10 (Warty Warthog) as soon as it came out, I was fighting to keep my Debian installation usable at the time. I instantly fell in love and dove into the community, I wanted to do whatever I could to make the project succeed. It was exactly what I was looking for. At the time, Canonical was also shipping CDs to anyone who wanted them, which gave the project a much more professional feel to it.
And, the focus Mark set for the project turned out to be the right one, it very quickly converted thousands of open source enthusiasts to it and a solid, technically capable community started to be built around it. Soon enough, with the focus laser-sharp on making Ubuntu as usable as possible, non-technical folks started to show up, people who were Windows users but were tired of it and looking for something better. These people gave our project an awesome foundation for support (once they figured out how to make certain things work, they’d immediately help the next person who came along with this problem). Translations grew, since it was a great way for a non-technical person to help. documentation grew, advocacy grew, communication, marketing, you name it, it was growing.
As things moved forward, there were some tough decisions to be made. I remember when Compiz came around, it was very immature and almost guaranteed it would break your system, just have a quick read through the Slashdot comments! You could very easily replace the word “compiz” for “unity” when it was first introduced and you’d have most of the same comments that went on when that first happened.
But, it was the right choice. The hard and unpopular choice. We, the community at large, mostly wanted a stable system. Mark, Canonical, were pushing to mature the technology so be able to build awesome things on top of it. It was the same story for Pulseaudio, the same for binary drivers, we’ve been here before, over and over.Change is very hard, and a lot of it feels wasteful. Nobody wants to waste their free time, you want to make it count.

As for where we stand today, I first want to be clear that my initial reaction to the flood of changes being proposed upset me as well. A lot. I laid low for a while so I could clear my head and understand what was going on before reacting. When the Rolling Releases proposal came out, I read the email on ubuntu-devel (which, btw, is where I read about it, there was no internal Canonical “announcement”) and I was frustrated with how it was being presented. It felt like Canonical imposing whatever they wanted, bulldozing over the community. How could Rick do something like that? He’s a smart and well-intentioned person, this isn’t the smart thing to do. I started writing up an angry email to the Community Council, and as I did, I stopped to re-read the original email to rant with specific references. When I did, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The email was clearly stated as a proposal, open to discussion with quite of bit of work done beforehand, ending the email with:

“Such a change needs to be discussed in the Ubuntu community. Therefore, I asked my team to put together a strawman proposal for how such moving to a monthly cadence with rolling release might work.”

Go ahead, read it yourself. As a long-time member, my gut feeling is that in the past this would of been presented to the Technical Board first to be discussed, and then a wider conversation would be had. But the reverse makes more sense to me actually, have a wider conversation first, then bring it to the Technical Board.
So, now I deleted my email and started all over again. I explained how I was feeling rather than rant about things that apparently didn’t happen as I imagined them, and just admitted that I no longer knew where we were as a project and needed to talk it out a bit.
So we did. We talked, vented, ranted, looked at the positive side of things, the negative, remembered the past, imagined the future.

The way I see things now is that the project has changed. But this was the path all along, it should of been more obvious. First we won the Linux distro user base, gained support, a community, a clearer focus on what less technical people wanted and it felt great. People were moving to Ubuntu left and right, first on the desktop, then the server migrations came along with it. But that was not the goal. The goal was (and I quote from bug #1) “Our work is driven by a belief that software should be free and accessible to all.”. The “all” part of that is the key. That’s why we made the desktop slow and buggy for a while to introduce compiz, even though it didn’t really fill any need for technical users. Same with Unity, same with Pulseaudio, same with the Ubuntu font, same with shipping free CDs to anywhere in the world.
So as we progressed in our goal, technical users felt a bit more and more distant from what was changing, because they were no longer the primary user. It makes the “scratch your own itch” part of free software a bit harder. In exchange, I started to meet taxi drivers who were Ubuntu users, musicians, graphic designers, writers. I’d see Ubuntu out in the while in the strangest places.

And now, the world has changed. It no longer seems like the way to make computing available as free software to everyone can be accomplished with just a great desktop. Mobile phones and tablets is where most of people’s time seems to be shifting to. It’s a multi-device world and it’s here to stay. If we want to fix bug #1, we now need to change tactics and tackle the full story. There seems to be a window of opportunity for us as a project right now, I don’t think we’ll get many more of these. It feels like a now-or-never kind of moment, and I can’t imagine having invested most of my energy in the last 8 years fading away into a niche market. That’s not what I set out to help do.
It’s going to be a bumpy ride for a while, we need to move fast, and speed is not one of the easiest things to do when you need to find consensus across many different people, timezones, interests, goals, agendas and languages. I don’t see what other choice we have than to rise up to the challenge and find a way to make it work.

Speaking purely from a personal point of view, I think Canonical will need to push harder for changes in processes, tools, libraries and focuses. I also happen to think Canonical has done poorly at presenting and driving these changes. Not due to a lack of trying to do the right thing, it’s just really hard to do. Stress, pressure, deadlines, partners, confidentiality agreements, private negotiations, business deals to ship Ubuntu on millions of devices, it all sets you up to rush and get things done as quickly as possible. That’s how the market works. But when you’re not immersed in all of that, from the outside, it just looks slightly evil and a bit like bullying.
I think Canonical can and will do better, it has to, I feel the survival of the company partially depends on it.

One thing to remember though, is that free software is very much like evolution, survival of the fittest. This means trying out many different things, and the best ones overall survive and thrive. Competition is essential. The fact that Canonical is putting out there more free software projects is the best thing that can happen to the movement, no matter how many times you yell out that you know for a fact that if that same effort was spent on an existing project it would all be better. If that were true, there would be one Linux distro, period.
As long as it’s free software, and Canonical is shoveling code into it, that’s what counts at the end of the day. Working, maintained code. Don’t forget that. If Canonical is wrong about, let’s say, that investing in Mir is a better bet than investing in Wayland, ultimately, it’s Canonical’s money. If it’s done in a way that developers are drawn to help, it’ll be cheaper and happen faster. It’s a win-win. The fact that they are betting on free software no matter what is what counts.

So I think it’s time. In many ways this feels like the last big battle. We fought and won a lot to get here, it’s now time to win or loose the war.

11 responses to “It’s time”

  1. During the time that I was involved in Ubuntu, I felt like some of the changes were actually *hurting* the “all.” “What do you mean you’re going to make it so Ubuntu won’t run on thirdhand computers? How is THAT going to do anything about the digital divide?” Compiz on everything? The attempt to ditch support for some models of Pentium III CPUs in 12.04 (thankfully held off to a non-LTS release after outcry)? The constantly growing memory requirements?

    And even though I’m gone, that’s still the reaction I have to “let’s require a DVD drive or a computer new enough for USB boot!” and “let’s target toys for the well-off, like tablets!” The laptop I’m typing on could not boot from USB thumb drive using the kernel/syslinux (something!) in any Ubuntu release prior to 12.10. It’s only 6.5 years old! With Microsoft dropping XP, it’d be really great if Ubuntu could keep those c. 2002 machines going, but I fear they’ll just go to a landfill or be “recycled” (which is to say, sent to a landfill in China, where they’ll poison the groundwater, because that is what normally happens when electronics are “recycled”).

    Meanwhile, Ubuntu’s accessibility could be described pretty accurately with a 4-letter word that starts with “S” when I left a year and a half ago. From what I’ve heard, there’s been no forward progress on that front. (It actually sounds like things have backslid, since the only accessible-ish version of Unity, the 2D one, is being eliminated.)


  2. Forrest Leeson Avatar
    Forrest Leeson

    Compiz? Pulseaudio? Unity? I use Ubuntu but I use none of these things. Compiz isn’t suited to my graphics chip, Pulseaudio complicates MIDI, Unity ignores Fitts’s Law. Happily I am not obliged to use them; were that the case I’d find a different distro.


  3. @Forrest, every sensible distro uses Pulseaudio these days.


  4. If your car drives well for over a century, why changing wheels for balls to be able to park sideways? So I feel about good-old Ubuntu and now ‘Unity’ as an pseudo all-in-one concept on top of Gnome 3, a disastrous development where the UI is involved. Both became tmho like the TV as a “media center”, which never became a success. However, using the magnificent flexibility of KDE 4.10.1 it was fairly easy to create a production system for my investigative journalistic activities that is (a) stable, (b) responsive (say: fast), (c) modifiable and (d) activity oriented without mouse-clicks if desired. That ‘system’ is called Kubuntu 12.04. Maybe Canonical should give the KDE diversity a glance to see why they are prospering these days…


  5. Thomas Kluyver Avatar
    Thomas Kluyver

    Mackenzie: I think what you’re talking about is a subtly different kind of “all”. Running on old hardware is certainy one of the strengths of Linux, but I don’t think it’s ever been especially Ubuntu’s aim. Rather, Ubuntu is driving to be in a position where it’s widely available on new hardware, and well recognised as an alternative to proprietary operating systems. After all, most of the “all” have little interest in trying to install a different operating system on old computers.

    Problems like the digital divide and electronic waste are important, and I’d love to see computers replaced less often. But I don’t think that’s Ubuntu’s primary goal.


  6. Maco, the latest is that Unity written in QML is apparently coming back and Unity written in Compiz will be dropped. I have absolutely no idea why they made the exact opposite decision a year ago since the QML idea easily wins from a maintainability, stability, accessibility, and – I believe – even from a flashy effects perspective.

    With your other topic, my understanding is that modern computers are more power-efficient than computers a decade ago so it’s not necessarily better for the environment to use a Pentium III with 256MB of RAM. Ubuntu 12.04 will receive some level of security support until about 2017 which is pretty good for a 2002 (or earlier) era computer.


  7. Linux is Evolution, Evolution means Natural Selection, and survival of the fittest, the one that can adapt quickly, not the bigger, not the stronger, same rules apply to Software…


  8. Thomas:
    Look back to where Ubuntu came from: Mark was working on the Shuttleworth Foundation, which was to help drive innovation in education in African schools. There used to be quite a LOT of talk in Ubuntu about bringing computing to those who otherwise would not have it at all. Googling “ubuntu digital divide” it looks like the heyday of talking about it was 2005-2008. We had UDS sessions about the digital divide, back in the day. (Canonical even uses a 2009 case of reusing old machines in rural India as one of its “case studies” for Ubuntu: )

    Now it seems to be about bringing Ubuntu The Brand* to those who otherwise would give their money to Apple.

    *I’m now thinking of Yogurt with Spaceballs The Flamethrower.

    I heard the other day that there was a meeting going on in #ubuntu-meeting about Ubuntu TV (what part of an LCD and a coax cable needs an OS?) not working with whatever the plan is.


  9. @Thomas Kluyver, Mackenzie
    “Running on old hardware is certainy one of the strengths of Linux, but I don’t think it’s ever been especially Ubuntu’s aim.”

    I’d easily guess that maybe parent distro Debian GNU/Linux is much better suited to run on a wide range of old hardware than is Ubuntu, e.g., on those Pentium III CPUs of 6.5 years ago. Heck, even the outdated Damn Small Linux — developed years before Ubuntu became popular and also based upon Debian GNU/Linux — could keep those c. 2002 machines going quite well, thank you!


  10. “Working maintained code” you say? Like Ubuntu for Sparc, which was dropped because it wasn’t in the business model, leaving users in the dust. What a joke.


  11. Hola Martín! muy interesante lo que comentas. Canonical llegó aun punto de inflexión importante, vamos a ver en que dirección va a ir la curva. Yo creo en Canonical y creo en que el proyecto va a tener éxito. Te invito a que pases por mi blog que también escribí un tema relacionado con la situación actual. Parece que todos los blogs se estan moviendo y se ha generado una gran incertidumbre… >>

    Un saludo!


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