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.

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

  1. “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.”

    Except that Ubuntu has never been true to this philosophy. Can you study proprietary drivers and other software in Ubuntu some of which are installed by default? No you cant.

    “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.”

    He is aware? That is the understatement of the year. He is by his own admission the dictator for Ubuntu and has been advocating installing proprietary and possibly GPL violating kernel modules by default and every single version of Ubuntu except for Edgy already does this by default. It will be much more visible in the next version – feisty fawn.

    Contrast this with Fedora which is entirely committed to Free software and where people outside of Red Hat have contributed and maintain thousands of packages in a volunteer fashion while Ubuntu goes about rebuilding Debian unstable.

  2. I have been with Debian for a long time now, and really like their “stable” version – for it is what it says it is – rock solid stable. Though I like Ubuntu (they pick up Debian “unstable”), it irks me when I don’t get certain things “by default” – I am not the correct end user for Ubuntu.

    And yes – the issue of “binary blobs” still persists in any linux distro out there – so we cannot be really sure that the entire OS (the world section mostly) is “totally free”, as the GNU folks define “free” to be.

    You might wish to take a look at any of the *BSDs’, where they build a “complete” OS, and are responsible for it, unlike linux, where the kernel and the userland are separate entities. My personal favorite is FreeBSD. I also like the BSD license more than the GPL, as it really gives me “freedom” to do whatever I like to do. The GPL, in contrast, talks about freedom, but forces me, or dictates my behavior for certain aspects. But that is my opinion!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s