It is always strange to see the savage infighting that sometimes happens in the free and open source world – sometimes, like red in front of a bull, the net suddenly lights their flame-throwers and decides to roast someone. Today’s target is Canonical, makers of the Ubuntu distribution, accused of being leeches and “stealing” from the open source communities, giving little or nothing back, and profiting from that. The issue emerged from the publication of the Gnome census, where it emerged that Canonical As Sam Varghese writes, “Canonical derives the base for Ubuntu from the Debian project. It takes liberally from many free and open source software projects to produce a distribution. While this distribution is available for free download, Canonical is also basing a business on it, and developing ways and means of making money off Ubuntu.” (which is, probably, a crime). He wrote something similar before, and Greg DeKoenigsberg has an even more vitriolic argument in his post “Red Hat, 16%. Canonical, 1%”, that happily buries under the ground Canonical, Ubuntu and most Ubuntu fanboys.
Well, you’re all wrong.
Not because the percentages are wrong (but nearly useless, as Canonical is relatively recent and RedHat is not, because Gnome is only one of the projects and there are many others, etc.) but because they measure too little. I already wrote in the past about the enormous effort that goes to non-code contributions, and that no-one measures (as for OpenOffice, there are more contributors in non-code parts than in code); there is also a substantial effort in creating a product out of contributions. And Ubuntu certainly invested in product engineering, marketing, even engineering (less than Red Hat? So what? Large IT consulting companies are getting paid millions for open source-based systems, and I never saw a contribution at all). When Matt Asay claims that bringing Ubuntu to million of people is a contribution, he is claiming an absolute truth; every time Canonical manages to bring a press release out it is making a huge contribution. Maybe less code than others, but this is not a beauty contest – this is a cooperative effort for building a better future, not a race to see who is the nicest or worked harder. It is true that Canonical (I hope) profits from OSS: well, it is one of the most important thing for OSS, as it demonstrates that OSS is sustainable, that people can live off OSS services and products, all the while improving our world. I repeat: maybe someone at Red Hat is not happy of the visibility of Canonical, given all the contributions they do? I am sorry – and I am quite happy to show at all my talks that Red Hat is an incredibly good and well-managed company, that has open sourced all the proprietary products it acquired – and invests an incredible amount of effort in engineering in the open. I like them a lot (no, I don’t work for them, and never did use one of their services), but I like Canonical as well, because they are investing heavily in the desktop market, a market that is not the focus of Red Hat any more and that I believe is quite important.
This is not a contest. We should be happy for every, small, large, strange or different contributions that we receive. Should it be more? Maybe. But don’t overlook all those things that are being done, some of them outside of pure code. Because, as I wrote in the past, there is much more than code in an OSS project.