Ubuntu's Shuttleworth's call to arms in open source stirs up controversy

Some seemingly harmless comments on the state of the open source community were met with debate.

Mark Shuttleworth open source Linux
Credit: Sunny Ripert

Two weeks ago, at the kick-off to the Ubuntu Online Summit, Canonical founder – and space-traveler – Mark Shuttleworth presented an hour-long keynote. In many ways it was a fairly typical keynote, but Mark made one statement that really stuck in some people's craw.

"There is a reasonable prospect that if we work together as a community and we are opened, and were focused, generous, thoughtful, and our story is great, that we can, in fact, bring all the world's applications to a free software platform."

This is a delightful statement that, in general, conveys so much of the spirit of the broader Free and Open Source community. You'd be hard-pressed to find any member of any Open Source community who would disagree with the notion that we should work together in an open way.

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He then continued…

"So, I'm issuing a call to people who participate in every desktop environment...to folks who work on all desktop environments to set aside our differences, to recognize that the opportunity now is bigger than those differences, to create experiences that span phones and tablets and PCs, to bring all of our applications, none of which are on one desktop environment or another to everywhere."

Again… what Free and Open Source Software loving person could disagree with any of that?

Well, Aaron Seigo, a prominent member of the KDE world, took to Google Plus with this to say:

"The first step in making the world you want is to behave in line with that vision. Mark apparently doesn't understand that, having spent the last years creating schism after schism in the Linux desktop world, from Mir to Unity to making their own QML API from scratch and developing a mobile UX behind closed doors separate from work being done in the broader community, he is now suggesting that all the desktop projects should work together towards a common goal."

Aaron's criticism isn't coming completely out of left field here. Canonical (and, by proxy, Ubuntu) has a pretty well-established track record of "going it alone" (at least compared to many Open Source groups). There is a perception – earned or not – among a large portion of the Free and Open Source world that, if Mark Shuttleworth and Canonical aren't 100% happy with something, instead of getting involved and fixing whatever shortcomings it may have… they stop playing with everyone else and go build their own tools. The display server (Mir) and the desktop environment (Unity) being the two most prominent, and controversial, of the bunch.

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Aaron concluded with this thought:

"Disappointment does not quite start to describe my feelings about this call to arms. It's the right message, but delivered by someone who does not follow it at all."

I found this criticism interesting (even if I didn't feel quite so passionately about it myself)... so I did what any good nerd would do. I shared it out to my own G+ page with a few of my own thoughts. The resulting conversation (which included members of many projects: Ubuntu, Fedora, etc.) was generally pretty interesting. But then Mark Shuttleworth himself showed up to the conversation with this to say:

"Yes, we've invented some things ourselves, and reinvented some of things too. We've also adopted many things invented by others. [...] Generally, I'd say we have a pretty good track record of doing things cleanly and openly. More often than not, we've invented things which Red Hat or others have felt compelled to reinvent for their own reasons. So what."

He had far more to say beyond that, so I recommend reading the entire thread to get the complete picture of both the "Canonical Viewpoint" as well as the interpersonal dynamics within the Linux and Open Source world.

But, at the end of his comment, he included this line that resonated with me rather strongly:

"Live and let live, crack on and do great stuff."

I'm going to be honest. I agree, wholeheartedly, with that simple statement. But I also agree with Aaron Seigo's criticism. Canonical does, for better or worse, have a track record (or, at least, a perception of a track record) of not necessarily playing nicely with others.

Which, in turn, makes the Kumbaya-ish statement by Shuttleworth – that we should all work together – portray a pretty high level of chutzpah.

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