Is it Fair to Criticize Canonical and Ubuntu for Going Commercial?

by Ostatic Staff - Feb. 23, 2011

Of the various Linux distros that I use, I still favor Ubuntu over all others. It presents me with fewer usability and compatibility problems than other distros do, I'm used to it, it couldn't be easier to try, or to add and remove applications, I run into zero security problems with it, and more. However, although Ubuntu has long been a darling of the Linux community it, and Canonical, are increasingly criticized for supposedly bowing to commercial interests. Are these criticisms fair?

Open source offerings in general, of course, are increasingly catering to commercial interests. Companies ranging from Red Hat to Drupal to Acquia to Jaspersoft and Canonical itself have shown that very viable businesses can be built around open source offerings.  Does Canonical deserve to be criticized for becoming more commercially minded with Ubuntu?

Bruce Byfield tackles Ubuntu criticism in a recent column. He focuses especially on the charge that Canonical has gone commercial, and writes of Mark Shuttleworth's desire to make Ubuntu more usable:

"Shuttleworth used a keynote at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention in July 2008 to urge a different approach to cooperation, challenging the community to rival and surpass Apple in usability within the next two years. Given Ubuntu's emphasis on usability and Shuttleworth's own interest in interface design, this challenge was not unexpected. It fit, too, into the growing interest in usability at the time. However, the FOSS community saw no reason to focus on usability under Shuttleworth's leadership, or within his schedule."

Having used Ubuntu since well before 2008, I can definitely confirm that it has become more usable in recent years, and that is a very good thing for the OS. Byfield takes note of Canonical's increasing reliance on developing in-house, with usability in mind. It's there that some of the friction with the open source community is produced. As Canonical has gone forward with moves such as replacing Xorg, which provides the graphical interface, with what Byfield cites as "the mostly unproven Wayland," it is viewed as increasingly autocratic in the eyes of the FOSS community.

All of this, though, is to be expected in the case of an operating system that is maturing. Good decisions and bad decisions are found in the life cycle of all operating systems. Just look at the debacle Microsoft had with Windows Vista, and it's among the best-funded software companies in the world. Canonical cannot please all masters as it marches forward with the Linux OS that comes to mind for many people first when you say the word Linux. 

"We will probably never know all the reasons why Ubuntu/ Canonical changed from the embodiment of FOSS hopes to more of a business enterprise," writes Byfield. That's true, but in adopting a more commercial stance, Canonical is hardly alone among FOSS-focused communities and companies, and Ubuntu remains a toweringly good operating system.