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Is Canonical A Free Rider in the Linux Community?

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Some interesting statistics came out of the GUADEC conference this week, and with them, a fiery condemnation blog by former Red Hat employee Greg DeKoenigsberg. The condemned party in this case, is Canonical, the company that produces the Ubuntu Linux distribution.  DeKoenigsberg's anger comes from the GNOME Census, which includes statistics indicating that Red Hat actually contributes 16 times as much code to the GNOME desktop as Canonical does.

The pool of GNOME contributors is very diverse, but aside from volunteers and "unknown" contributors, Red Hat made the most contributions of any single organization with almost 17% of the code commits.  Volunteers and unknowns committed 40% of the code and other leading organizations included Novell (10%), and Collabora (5%).  Canonical, on the other hand, contributed only 1% of the code commits.  The news came as a shock to many of the commenters on DeKoenigsberg's blog, as well as DeKoenigsberg himself, who knew that Red Hat was contributing plenty of code, but not getting credit for it in the community.  He didn't know that Canonical's contribution was so low, and it was surprising since Ubuntu is one of the most popular distros.  

To visualize exactly which modules Canonical and Red Hat contribute to, take a peek at the GNOME maintenance map.  The only modules that Canonical works on are the default-icon-theme and the gcalc-tool.

DeKoenigsberg laid into Canonical on his blog saying, "They’ve certainly given the impression, over the last several years, of having put a lot of work into GNOME.  They’ve been very successful at positioning themselves as the Eternal Champion of the Linux Desktop, and positioning Red Hat as the boring old has-beens who long ago abandoned the Desktop fight."  One commenter agreed with DeKoenigsberg's assessment, saying that Canonical has claimed desktop advancements from GNOME as new features in Ubuntu.  

DeKoenigsberg also says Canonical hasn't been contributing to Linux on the kernel level either, and one commenter suggested that Canonical is keeping all of their engineering focused on internal projects and contributing very little of their innovation back to the community that is building their core platform.  Here's another quote from DeKoenigsberg:

"Canonical is a marketing organization masquerading as an engineering organization…  If anyone at Canonical even bothers to respond to this analysis (which I doubt they will), I’m sure it’ll be the same old song-and-dance about how everyone collaborates, and everyone competes, and everyone wins, and the strength of the open source model, and not a fair comparison because Red Hat is so much bigger, and distro wars are bad, and can’t we all be friends, and yadda yadda yadda."

It's true that Canonical is much smaller than Red Hat (a billion dollar organization), and its been struggling to make a profit.  Some commenters argued that Ubuntu doesn't have the resources to contribute at the level that Red Hat does.  Others countered that argument by saying that Canonical shouldn't market the Linux desktop in Ubuntu as something they make.  Just because they're small doesn't give them a ticket to ride (nearly) free on the rest of the community's back.  DeKoenigsberg was especially angry when Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth suggested that Red Hat should change their release schedules to make it easier for them to "ride the gravy train," all while accusing Red Hat of being a proprietary software company

While DeKoenigsberg makes several good points, the fact that he was a former Red Hat employee and obviously feels taken advantage of by Canonical means that his bias leaves anything he argues, except maybe the stats, up for debate.  

Some commenters praised the marketing success of Canonical, saying that Ubuntu's success is good for the growth of the Linux community as a whole.  Another says that the stats are skewed because Canonical's commits aren't being accepted as much.  He suggests that Canonical should fork GNOME because its code is not fitting the "terribly designed" GNOME shell direction.  

At least one thing's for sure (if the stats are accurate), users who enjoy the current GNOME desktop should be thanking Red Hat a lot more than Canonical.  

Do you disagree with DeKoenigsberg's harsh assessment of Canonical?  Are you disappointed with Canonical?


Mark Haniford replied on Thu, 2010/07/29 - 11:18pm

Leave it to the "linux community" to isolate and fragment itself even further. But if you look at the entire "Gnome" desktop ecosystem, then I would like to know how Novell stacks up to RedHat.

But it's pretty much a moot point anyway. We're over halfway through 2010, and desktop Linux never took off. The ROI for the linux desktop isn't good for any organization. Maybe if more collaboration had happened 15 years ago, things would have turned out differently.

Alex(JAlexoid) ... replied on Fri, 2010/07/30 - 4:35am

Why would anyone be disappointed in Canonical? Marketing and presentation are very important. They have made Linux on desktop accessible to people and usable. They don't drive the engineering part of Linux ecosystem, they drive the adoption part.

As a F+OSS supporter I can say I wouldn't be running Linux as a primary OS if it weren't for Canonical and Ubuntu.

Anthony Moore replied on Fri, 2010/07/30 - 8:23am

I don't have any problems with Canonical, but I do have problems with people attacking them. Canonical have done more for mainstream adoption of Linux than any other company. The fact that I can pop in the CD and run directly from the CD on pretty much any PC based hardware, and install seemlessly without issue makes Ubuntu the only distribution that I would recommend to friends and family who are used to Windows alone. I feel this is as much of an equal and valid contribution than contributing to the development of individual packages. Canonical fix the things that they see as needed. They are contributing. There are probably products out there that Canonical way outperform RedHat on. Another thing of note is RedHat sell their linux distribution. Canonical distribute theirs for free. Both charge for support on top of the sale of their distributions, so RedHat has way more in the way of resources to dedicate to contributing back to the products themselves!

Thai Dang Vu replied on Fri, 2010/07/30 - 4:21pm

[Anthony Moore]I don't have any problems with Canonical, but I do have problems with people attacking them.[/Anthony Moore]

I completely agree with Anthony.

Ronald Miura replied on Fri, 2010/07/30 - 4:50pm

Ubuntu is much more than Gnome! It's a distribution that works out-of-the-box, and is stable, easy to manage (install new packages and upgrades) and usable. A far better experience than any other distro I've tried in the past (and I've tried many).

And my impression was that RedHat did have abandoned the desktop fight when it focused on the enterprise distribution, and renamed the desktop version to Fedora, like "it's not RedHat anymore, go community, now this is all yours!"

John J. Franey replied on Fri, 2010/07/30 - 7:10pm

Counting change commits is a shortsighted way of measuring the contribution of an open-source participant like Ubuntu, in my mind.

Besides, this argument between DeKoenigsberg and Shuttleworth goes back three years! Sounds like some kind of techno Moby Dick morality play in the bazaar.

Piero Sartini replied on Sat, 2010/07/31 - 10:30am

Interesting stuff. Wasn't SUN an important committer as well? Also I am a bit confused about people talking about ubuntu as only distribution that works out of the box. Did you have a look at other distributions?

Joseph Spenner replied on Sun, 2010/08/01 - 12:40pm

I think the Canonical company has done a good thing, but I still feel dumbed down when I use Ubuntu.  Most of the Ubuntu users I meet don't even know what a hosts file is.  Perhaps it's not important, since neither do Windows users, and it's a good stepping stone for people to get started in Linux.

I prefer openSuse, and even Slackware (which is NOT a simple 'out of the box' solution, but it's really nice, fast, with no mysterious deamons trying to "do things for you" all the time).


Sura Sos replied on Tue, 2010/08/03 - 2:01pm

You need to pay RedHat to use it. You can use Ubuntu distro for free, stable, and extremely easy to maintain.

Mitch Pronschinske replied on Tue, 2010/08/03 - 10:36pm in response to: Sura Sos

Red Hat also makes a free distro called Fedora.  It's been widely acclaimed as a solid distro.

Tire Works replied on Thu, 2011/08/04 - 9:47am

Unified collaboration platforms is anyday better than another flamewars. Its the intrensic motivation of the developers which keeps Linux kernel shine, rather than companies taking charge. -Tire Works

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