Mark Shuttleworth on free and “non-free” Linux distros

Mark Shuttleworth writes in this blog post on a topic I get really emotional about:

We have to work together to keep free software freely available. It will be a failure if the world moves from paying for shrink-wrapped Windows to paying for shrink-wrapped Linux.

Go to any Linux event in India and you will find the sales force of Red Hat spending oodles of time pushing their “enterprise” Linux (nothing wrong with this) and trashing their free offering - Fedora (this is bad). Go to any Open source forums, and you will see holier-than-thou RH employees/fans talking about how Red Hat is committed to Fedora, and that they don’t see it as beta/alpha software.

I am a bit miffed about this because of the years I spent focusing on Red Hat Linux, to be suddenly left in the lurch when Red Hat decided to go “enterprise”. Right now their whole business model is based on differentiating their enterprise products from all other Linux distros.

Is there anything legally wrong in all this? Of course not. Is there anything ethically wrong? Depends on who you are talking to. If you ask me, yes. You cannot take something which is provided to you with the intent of public good, and then build upon it and criticize the source for not being good enough. Not too different from some other companies, we bitch about.

Am I bad mouthing an entity which helped me make money? Yes, RH has helped me a lot in my career and I am grateful for that. Have I lost respect for RH? Yes, but only for their recent marketing pitches. I still have a tremendous respect of RH for their past and current support to FOSS - far more than any OSS commercial entity. They have done far more than Ubuntu - my current distro. But I am sure in the long run, Ubuntu will gain some ground there. I have a lost of appreciation for several of Red Hat’s policies - like their patent promise.

After being burnt by Red Hat, it is the Ubuntu philosophy which keeps me with Ubuntu.

Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.

There is only one Ubuntu - not one for enterprise and one for “users/hobbyists”, etc. That inspires faith in the distro. On the other hand Red Hat claims that Fedora is for:

Developer or highly technical enthusiast using Linux in non-critical computing environments

Contrast it with Ubuntu. The release notes of a recent version of this free distro states:

Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support) will be supported with security updates for 5 years on the server and 3 years on the desktop after its release, and professional technical support is available from many companies around the world.

Can Canonical turn into Red Hat sometime into the future due to business compulsions? The risk is always there, but a major differentiating factor is that Red Hat never made a promise of “keeping it free for ever”. But Canonical/Ubuntu did. No matter how Canonical tries to twist things around, they will lose the support of the entire community the instant they show such intentions. Based on Mark’s very public commitments I have faith in him that he will not turn coat.

One particular abstract of Mark’s blog was his admission that he is aware that some recent “non-free” aspect of Ubuntu dilute the software freedom philosophy.

With Ubuntu, our vision is to make the very best of free software freely available, globally. To the extent we make short-term compromises, for drivers or firmware along the way, we see those as bugs, and ones that will be closed over time.

But when even the venerable FSF can make a short term compromise (LGPL), I believe it is ok to let Ubuntu have its way for now,and then hold it to its promises to the community in the time to come.

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