Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Complaints about Ubuntu not promoting free software - a user's perspective

Having a job which involves commuting and many train delays, I am finally able to share a few of my thoughts about Ubuntu and the discussions that have taken place in the !Ubuntu group and elsewhere in the last few months.

DISCLAIMER: (1) Right now I use Ubuntu for about 95%,of my computer needs, the last 5% are reserved mostly to photo and video editing on MacOS X. I you feel that this disqualifies me to talk about Ubuntu and the Ubuntu community, than you should probably not read this and go somewhere else.
(2) I have used Linux in various distros (including, Fedora, Suse, Mandriva, Debian and Ubuntu) but not as exclusive operating system for years before.
(3) I have not contributed any code to open source projects. In fact other than some donations, some support of new users and bug reports I have contributed nothing at all. :-(
(4) When I say "free software" this includes stuff like X11 or Apache.

So I should not talk about this stuff, because I am merely a user? In fact, I talk because I am just a user.

Let me briefly summarize some of the complains about Ubuntu

• Ubuntu is not promoting free software anymore, because Canonical asked on official forums, if users want Skype, iTunes or Photoshop support in Ubuntu.
• Ubuntu is not promoting free software anymore, because Lucid Live-CD does not include Gimp in favor of the mono based f-spot.
• Ubuntu is not promoting free software anymore, because Lucid includes a Music Store (which additionally does not sell .ogg titles).
• Ubuntu is not promoting free software anymore, because the only implementation of the Ubuntu One protocol aka the Ubuntu One server is proprietary.
• Ubuntu is not promoting free software anymore, because the window buttons are on the left side in Ubuntu and 10.10 sees a global menubar for netbooks.

I care for these complains because I feel that Ubuntu is treated unfair in a sense, I shall explain now: The most extreme position I have seen in the discussion was that free software is all about getting rid of proprietary software and "installing the GPL in people's minds". In this way Ubuntu is doomed for mainstream, because most people want to use their computer and not be installed something in their mind, nor do they care if their software is proprietary as long as it is reasonably priced (in the best case free as in beer, but many people will pay, if the software really works). If you cut these people of their beloved Skype, for example, they will just go somewhere else.

In my opinion the main problem in any such discussions is that there is this ideal world of free software only computer systems in which everybody is free and equal. It is a good thing to aim for this ideal, but it is not realistic in the near future.The Ubuntu project is trying to implement their vision in their way as good as possible, but for today's users and today's needs. Do they look a little bit too much in the Apple direction (Music Store vs. iTunes, Ubuntu One vs. Mobile Me, f-spot vs. iPhoto, UI design)? I suppose so, but I do not fail to see that these four changes can be beneficial for many users. Furthermore, Ubuntu has to be a successful product that earns money for Canonical and it would be dishonest not to respect this. I fail to see how that is in contradiction to promoting free software at all. Has the Ubuntu One Server to be closed source? Maybe not, but right now I fail to see how this hurts the openness of the rest of Ubuntu. The Ubuntu projects do not violate the GPL or other free licenses, it does not ship any non-free software in the standard distribution and non-free drivers are clearly marked. On the contrary Ubuntu commits a fair part to upstream projects and promotes free software by providing a great free operating system.

Any advise to change to X, Y or Z because Ubuntu is not about free software is just stupid. Even worse are those "if you use Ubuntu, than you are supporting non-free software"-claims. Is free software movement suddenly about threatening others? If this kind of arguments continue then nobody will switch to Ubuntu or other distros from Windows and MacOS X, because people will be too annoyed to even look at free software.

So what does Ubuntu offer that attracts me as a user? Well the first thing is that stuff works (mostly), but not more or less than on other systems. Free software that is buggy on a large scale will only terrify users and make them run. (Please, I know that many think Windows is largely flawed and buggy, but most of the time it works for most people.) In fact, things have to run smoother on Ubuntu than on Windows or MacOS X: why should one take the additional effort of changing habits, if there is no gain felt.

I use Skype and even bought proprietary software to be able to do my job on Ubuntu. So called free software evangelists would say that Ubuntu does a bad job for the free software movement in putting time and effort into support of this kind of proprietary stuff, but without it Ubuntu would be useless to me and many others!

But aren't there many things to be criticized with respect to the relation to upstream projects, the new theme, stupid outstanding bugs that are not fixed for years, Mark Shuttleworth role, the status of the community etc? Yes, but they have nothing to do with the complains above.

That's all for now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

other than some donations, some support of new users and bug reports I have contributed nothing at all

That's baloney. If you've done all that, then you've contributed plenty. We aren't all programmers, and most programmers suck at new user support and donations, not to mention bug reports from a user's point of view. Don't sell your efforts short!