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.