Lessons Learned from Canonical, Banshee, and GNOME

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 17, 2011

With the brouhaha begun by Canonical's changing of the Banshee affiliate code dying down there are some important lessons to be learned by all sides involved. One of the most important is that protracted in-fighting causes long term harm in the area of good will and public appearances. While Canonical was painted the villain by the community at large, GNOME, who was already battling negativity from controversial moves in its new GNOME 3 Shell, didn't come out of it unscathed. In essence, there were no winners here.

The latest round of fighting seemed to begin when news came out that Ubuntu had changed the affiliate code in the Banshee audio application to direct funds from a revenue sharing agreement with Amazon Music Store from The GNOME Foundation to Canonical, which under the GPL Ubuntu has the right to do. But many within the Open Source community saw this as unneighborly and provocative. After all, Canonical is seen as a wealthy company while GNOME is a Open Source project struggling to raise enough capital to stay afloat. GNOME played a large part in Ubuntu's rise to Linux distribution dominance and yet they've been given the boot lately. In fact, bad blood between the two organizations go way back.

While the true beginnings of the animosity would be difficult to pin down, an educated hypothesis could peg public awareness to Dave Neary's report on outside contributions to the GNOME project, in which Ubuntu faired poorly. Although other notable companies such as Mandriva and Mozilla contributed less, Canonical took a large brunt of the fire because of their reliance upon GNOME for Ubuntu's system interface. Ubuntu developers said their contribution were not welcomed nor accepted. Flame wars ensued and it could be interpreted that Canonical lost that round. Shortly afterwards, Canonical announced that Ubuntu would ship with their own in-house developed Unity interface instead of the GNOME Shell starting with 11.04. This was a major blow to the GNOME project because before Ubuntu, GNOME occupied a solid second place in desktop preference polls and analysis of downloads. With the rise of Ubuntu came the rise of GNOME to the number one position. Canonical's Unity announcement could be seen as the decisive winning shot of the war, although publicly it was seen as a neutral decision not aimed at GNOME personally but rather reflected the new mobile and embedded direction envisioned by Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth. There was a low-level sidebar concerning GNOME's rejection of newly popular Ubuntu Indicator Applets, but it contributed little to the overall impression. The war was over, or so casual observers thought.

But Canonical had one more bomb in its arsenal to fire, which rekindled the old flames. It seems more opinions were expressed on Ubuntu's decision to change the Banshee revenue sharing affiliate code than any other debate before. This time Ubuntu definitely lost the public reputation battle. While many tried to defend Canonical's actions, it just didn't work out very well. Canonical looked petty and selfish. After all, the revenue from the Amazon Music Store only amounted to approximately 3000 USD yearly. Did Canonical really need that money as much as The GNOME Foundation? Ultimately, that wasn't even the point. Ubuntu doesn't work and play well with others. At least that's the public perception.

Added all up, it appears as though Ubuntu used GNOME to get what it wanted and then quit calling once they got it. Whether that's an accurate assessment or not, there are some valuable lessons other community projects, members, and users can take away from all this.

1. Public opinions and impressions, whether accurate or not, are important to a company's future growth. Although the monies raised from this affiliate code change will be minimal, the goodwill of Canonical has suffered. But few think it matters greatly to Canonical as they have bigger fish to fry than non-paying community users and non-paid community contributors. Community users and vocal bloggers propelled Ubuntu to number one and gave Canonical the clout to secure other financially profitable avenues. But just as goodwill propelled Ubuntu, so can it take it down. 11.04 with Unity will be a test of Ubuntu user loyalty and Banshee will play a role in overall tone in upcoming reviews. Public impressions are important.

2. Choose your fights carefully especially in a world where user loyalty is fierce and opponents are often backed by bigger players than yourself. Red Hat is a major contributor to GNOME both financially and technically. Red Hat is a company that's made a success of watching their bottom line and are not likely to "let a good crisis go to waste." Taking on GNOME is akin to taking on Red Hat. Bigger companies than Canonical have fallen prey to Red Hat clout and expertise.

3. Being a good neighbor pays dividends. Canonical has been battling the reputation of not contributing to upstream projects for quite a while. It isn't just GNOME. The Linux kernel and several other projects have reported very little code originating from the Ubuntu project. Again, Red Hat is a large contributor to many and most loyalty will go to them and if Red Hat ever needs a hand or special consideration, they have but to ask because they are seen as a good neighbor. Canonical may need a favor sometime and requests could fall on deaf ears.

4. Being legally right is rarely synonymous to morally right. Just because the GPL allows Ubuntu to change what code it likes and redistribute, should it if it hurts someone else? Again, this goes back to public image and whether or not users and developers will be supportive of such a move. Is it relevant or correct to ask who needs the money more? Who is more entitled to it? Should Ubuntu, who add nothing to the Banshee project, circumvent Banshee developers' wishes?

5. Running roughshod over smaller Open Source projects just may harm wider corporate image. Does Canonical want to portray itself to the wider commercial world as a trustworthy partner or one that will cut throats as desired? Will the meager earnings from Banshee equal or surpass the earnings from one lost commercial contract with a hardware manufacturer?

6. Don't make a mountain out of a molehill. Since the amount of revenue is so small to either The GNOME Foundation or Canonical, should Banshee developers have said anything about it at all? Were they the ones that looked petty? Every public move and consequence must be calculated before acting. This is why corporate CEOs get paid the big bucks. Sometimes one has to know when not to speak.

It bears repeating that Ubuntu and Canonical have done nothing technically wrong. There's nothing in the GPL that demands they ship code changes upstream, they merely have to make it publicly available. Ubuntu hasn't been accused of not providing their source code. In addition, the GPL gives Ubuntu every right to change as much or as little as they wish to Open Source code, including any affiliate codes. They also have every right to use GNOME for their interface or not. They have the right to give away CDs or not. So, Ubuntu hasn't broken any rules. But have they lived up the high standard of community members that Debian, Red Hat, or Novell have set? Well, you'll have to answer that one for yourselves.