One of the things I love about human nature is that it can be so unpredictable at times. It is this essence of the human condition that generates untold surprise and pleasure, tender moments that define us in so many ways. Unfortunately, the very same condition causes clued-up people to write essays of total unparalleled nonsense. I know I am a bit late to the party, but I felt compelled to write a few words.
Adam Williamson, community wrangler at Mandriva, a friend of mine, and someone who I have shared an over-sized coffee with, has posted a vitriol filled rant entitled Why I donâ€™t like Canonical. In his diatribe he claims that “what Mr. Shuttleworth did with Canonical and Ubuntu was divebomb the distribution pool“, going on to assert that “Ubuntu is fundamentally in a position of deeply unfair competition within the Linux distribution market“. He goes on to claim that we ‘orrible people at Canonical have been “patently unfair” in producing Ubuntu and believes that Mark has used his millions to shake up the distribution economy unfairly. He says that Canonical is “not remotely self-supporting and does not plan to be self-supporting in any reasonable timeframe“.
Lets take a look each of these delicious nuggets of nonsense and break them apart.
Lets first of all focus on Adam’s belief that we have “divebomb[ed] the distribution pool” and that we have been “destructive to the ecosystem of Linux vendors“. I am not entirely sure how exactly the impact of Ubuntu has been destructive to distributions. Red Hat is profitable, Novell is so too. Linux has been growing extensively as an Operating System and moving into more and more markets. Netbooks are shipping a range of Linux distributions. Oh, and according to Adam himself, Mandriva “is currently not profitable, but its losses have been reducing steadily for a while, and we are projected to hit break-even reasonably soon, if all continues according to plan“. Strange, if Ubuntu was so destructive, surely Mandriva would be making more losses instead of fewer? Of course, Adam may be referring to the impact of Ubuntu on entirely free distributions with no commercial backer such as Gentoo and Debian, but in his article he builds a metaphor around a wood carving economy and a rich man. I don’t think Adam will be losing sleep about Gentoo and Debian tonight.
With his focus clearly on Canonical as the poisoned challis, he asserts that “Canonical doesnâ€™t have a business plan, it has a collection of vague aspirations and a distinct tendency to throw money all over the place and hope it sticks somewhere (viz. Ubuntu Server)“. He goes on to refer the “pile of flimflam that is Canonicalâ€™s services page” and encourages us to “compare it to a real company’s“. That real company he refers to, rather interestingly, is not Mandriva, but Red Hat. Oh and just for good measure he says that we can be compared to Microsoft for such a flagrant abundance of problem solving, George Washington style-ee.
Friends, I can assure you that our business team does not have “vague aspirations“. Quite the opposite – they are a pretty determined bunch with a nose for where we can monetise Ubuntu, and they live and breath the goal of getting Canonical profitable with a passion; they are not exactly sat around playing Frozen Bubble and twiddling their thumbs. But importantly, a very significant focus in what we do is to deliver Free Software to people. We are all (business team included) incredibly passionate about Free Software. We believe that Free Software is positive for IT, positive for technology, positive for culture and positive for business. Even though Adam criticises us for ShipIt and sending out millions of free CDs, the reason why we do that is to get Free Software in people’s hands easier, and I would argue that that significant investment has been worthwhile. How is this a bad thing?
There is no reason why Canonical can’t have a strong commitment to Free Software and build a profitable business around Ubuntu to not only help further the development of Ubuntu and Free Software, but to bring it to new and exciting markets, such as laptops, netbooks and more. To do this, our senior management team have invested extensively in business operations across the company, touching every aspect of what we are working on. And this has reaped rewards including deals with Dell, netbooks, custom engineering, ISV and OEM relations
Sure, when Canonical started out life it was a heavily engineering based company, but this is no different to every other tech startup. It usually starts out with a bunch of geeks in a garage, except in our case it was a bunch of geeks in Mark’s kitchen. When the early incarnation of Ubuntu was ready, Canonical expanded and diversified, adding products, business units, training, administration, HR, and more. This is not any different to any other company. If Mark really had no interest in making money, why would he build Canonical as a business? Why not just register a charity? It just doesn’t make sense.
Adam’s assertion that we “throw money all over the place and hope it sticks somewhere” is also naive. We have a desktop product (Ubuntu Desktop), a server product (Ubuntu Server), a mobile/embedded product (Ubuntu Mobile), a netbook product (Ubuntu Netbook Remix), a development portal (Launchpad), and a systems management product (Landscape). We also invest in the bazaar project and various other Free Software projects. None of these to me seems particularly unusual. Every Linux distributor has a desktop, server, mobile and netbook products, and with Adam’s angst based around the Linux distribution world, I fail to see how we are throwing money at the problem – I see us producing products that compete.
But this is the crux of the issue. Adam’s carping seems to be founded in the norms of a free market. The Linux distribution space is one with a theatre of characters, and each of these different characters has notable and less-notable points, us included. I can understand how people may disagree with our decisions, but I fail to see how investing a lot of money in Free Software is a bad thing. Mark has invested heavily in Ubuntu because he believes in Free Software and believes it is important in technology, and he believes that he can build a business around it. I am not expecting you to believe him or even believe me, but I fail to see how this investment is a bad thing. Whats more, its not just us – the same goes for Red Hat, Novell, Intel, Collabora and others. Many of those companies invest hugely – Red Hat do excellent work in many areas of the stack, Novell hire people like Miguel and Bockover to work on Free Software, Intel do extensive driver and stack work, Collabora work on multimedia technology. I didn’t see Adam complaining when IBM invested $1bn in Linux back in 2001. Adam goes on suggest that Mark has been somewhat selfish about investing millions of dollars of his personal wealth in Free Software; “I think, if heâ€™d been willing to be more selfless, he could have had a more positive impact with a plan which worked together with the existing ecosystem instead of just blowing it out of the water and saying ‘itâ€™s my way or the highway’“. Astonishing. Not because Mark is my friend and the founder of Canonical, but I find that perspective astonishing when applied to anyone who has invested so much time or money into Free Software and to accuse them of being selfish.
Personally I am intensely excited about the market around Free Software. I am excited that Canonical shows such promise and that there is healthy competition with Red Hat, Novell, Mandriva and Xandros. I am also excited about the ecosystem of smaller development companies – companies like Collabora, Opened Hand, KDAB, BitRock, ThinkOpen, Imendio, Songbird, Fluendo, and hundreds more across the world, all managing to make a buck with Free Software in new and different ways.
And you know what the best thing is? When we all stand shoulder to shoulder against Microsoft, whatever the flavor of Free Software desktop, thats a pretty big army…