PCs (and now also phones and tablets) have caused a revolution in information technology. But the PC market is still in its infancy when we compare it e. g. with the invention of the telephone and book printing. Who still knows all the leading car manufacturers of the late 19th and very early 20th century? Most are gone. The same might happen with software companies. It required more than 30 years until the car industry got really revolutionized (by Henry Ford’s mass production). I believe that we are now witnesses of a similarly important shift in the IT industry. Open source related business models will widely replace the old fashioned, proprietary business models (e. g. represented by Microsoft and Apple).
A Global Transformation
There is no doubt, IT technologies have a huge impact on the economy, the politics and and our life-style. Only the invention of book-printing caused a comparable radical shift in our civilization. The desperate moves of autocratic political leaders (Erdogan, Putin) to suppress the impact of the Internet on the political information/education process of web-surfers represents the last resort of a backwards directed perception of the world. Luckily this is a dying species and won’t prevent the further transformation how we humans will create, exchange and consume information and how we will organize our work and private life. Basically we are all blessed being part of this thrilling revolutionary process which hasn’t ended yet – it just has started to show its full potential.
Google and the Real Existing Socialism/Communism
The Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti coined this quote:
“What you are the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world.”
The failure of the real existing socialism/communism was probably not that the idea of socialism or communism was fundamentally wrong, the way how this idea was applied/realized by the polical elite was wrong. The birth defect of socialism/communism is that humans have no “built-in” control to always operate coming from integrity and ethic values. If the political caste in the socialist/communist countries would have had integrity in mind (realizing that transformation doesn’t exist outside yourself) and would not have abused the political concepts of socialism/communism to form intolerant ideologies and suppressive systems the course of history would have been different.
In this context Google’s slogan “Don’t be evil” plays an important role. A company like Google uses open source technologies built by thousands of contributing developers to create an information technology empire with access to information which often even your life-partner might not be aware of (that it exists). Having access to such information requires that a company (like Google) develops an ethical codex how to respect/protect your privacy (data) and operates its business inside the boundaries of this ethical codex. That is especially important considering that Google is standing on the shoulders of open source technologies and that the manpower and heart-blood which developers put into these technologies are not meant to get abused for scenarios which will remind us to the approach of many socialist/communist systems where a basically constructive concept got abused to create suppression and destruction.
The Imperative for Canonical
The same imperative applies to Canonical, the sponsoring company behind Ubuntu. A significant portion of Ubuntu is build by community members. These community members do not want to see their work getting abused for a business model which doesn’t correlate with the – somehow diffuse – values and expectations in the open source community. The uproar after the introduction of the Amazon shopping lens in Ubuntu is a good example of about what I am speaking here.
It is clear that Canonical requires to find and/or develop a business model which allows the company to break-even. In captalism profitability is essential. Without profitability no long-term liquidity exists and without liquidity every party ends one day – doesn’t matter how amazing this party is. It is obvious that Canonical did not always find the best balance between its interest to monetize on the popularity of Ubuntu and the sometimes different or diverging interests in the Ubuntu supporting open source community. But recent decisions of Canonical are signalling that Canonical honors the concerns of the Ubuntu community and is acting in a more sensible way than it happened sometimes in the past.
Ubuntu Is the Best Shot We Have
The Ubuntu community and Canonical have achieved a great success already. But the process of evolution in the IT world has just started. We all have no idea how IT will look alike in hundred years and how much our human civilization and our life will be influenced by this process. And probably we will still see more revolutions – who knows? For most of us the massive, quick market adoption of modern mobile devices (after the launch of the iPhone) was a sort of revolution which has clearly the potential to wipe away the market supremacy of companies like Microsoft in the same way how the PC (and Microsoft) did it more than 30 years ago with IBM.
Now I am coming to the point: It is obvious that the corporate culture and business model of companies like Microsoft (and to a similar extend also of Apple) represents an obstacle to embrace change, openess and freedom. A company like Microsoft is not able to create a vision which is inspiring developers and users. Microsoft has become the new IBM, dull and boring – but even worse, being unable to innovate. Nokia’s adoption of Android speaks a clear language. These are signs of a dramatic shift in the IT landscape where Linux based operating systems and applications are taking over the world. The PC did not replace IBM’s mainframes. During the next years the Linux eco-system will also not replace the Windows desktop and related Windows applications in the business world. But in the consumer world Microsoft and in an increasing manner also Apple will face a stiff competition coming from the Linux based eco-systems. Emerging markets will get absorbed nearly completely by open sourced based solutions. In a couple of years the majority of computer users will use a Linux operated device.
Google utilized Linux in a clever form (Android, Chrome OS) for breaking into the home turf of Microsoft and Apple. Android is the trojan horse of the Linux world which is paving the way for huge Linux eco-systems which will outnumber Microsoft and Apple. That is obvious and inevitable. But what this has to do with Ubuntu? Google’s business model is based on monetizing data not on creating an operating system and applications. So everything what Google is doing is more or less dictated by collecting, analyzing and utilizing data. What doesn’t fit into this pattern has no right to exist in the Google universe. But operating systems are too important for being under the control of a company with the business model of Google. Google had/has its historical role to crack Microsoft’s supremacy but that is not the end of the story. The IT world needs open source stewards who are stepping into the room which Google has opened up with Android and by defeating Microsoft (in a Blitz-Krieg). These stewards have to develop and provide a professional eco-system with a great quality of the OS and apps but with less impact to the privacy of users. If Google sticks to “don’t be evil” the success story of Google will continue. Apple’s relevance might decline soon (too much wallet garden, not enough innovation to preserve the nimbus Steve Jobs had created). In the best case scenario Microsoft will become an agile follower (by widely adopting Linux and Mac OSX for application development) and will shift into the direction of a service provider (remember IBM?). If Microsoft decides to stick solely with Windows things can get worse only. Microsoft’s decision to market its own hardware was/is an epic failure which was the best possible invitation for hardware OEM’s to embrace Linux. This room can be used by Ubuntu (and will be used).
Mark Shuttleworth (founder of Canonical) detected already years ago the unique historical chance to establish a professional but free Linux based operating system in the market. Ubuntu is much more than a Unity shell based OS on top of Gnome and the Linux kernel. Ubuntu is a universe with high quality depositories and great flavors (Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, Server etc.). It is a great achievement to convert the often rough user experience you get with Debian into the smooth user experience Ubuntu is providing since many years precisely like a clock-work. Ubuntu is perfectly positioned to fill out a major part of the room Android has opened up globally. The platform convergence concept is a game changer. Sure Microsoft and Apple are working on the same goal. But time has changed. Microsoft and Apple are like the Erdogans and Putins in the IT world (I do not mean that defamatory, neither for the politicians nor the companies). Their perspective is primarily protective – focused to preserve their (market) power. They do not realize that the world has changed or they are ignoring it. Younger generations of developers and users want nothing more than freedom and to participate (by sharing). This requires a special climate (you can’t order or dictate that). Nobody likes the restriction of the flow of information and of freedom. An open source community is offering freedom and room for sharing and other forms of participation. Development in the open source world happens under the constant influence of “natural” selection. Open source development is like evolution. That is the strength of the open source world and the reason why open source will prevail. This development model based on the evolutionary principles of mutation and selection (like try and error) is just superior (on the long run) because the ubiquitous influence (contribution and selection) of the community is a powerful corrective.
The Future of Ubuntu and Canonical
Canonical has a historical chance to evolve like Google, Apple and Microsoft had their chances in the past. But the challenge for Canonical is to balance the financial requirements of capitalism and the related (required) actions with the special nature and sensibility of the open source community. But in this challenge lies a huge chance. If Canonical succeeds (what I believe) then Canonical possesses a key for a constant transformation process of the company which might prevent that Canonical is facing the same fate like that of Microsoft and Apple. Canonical and the Ubuntu community should develop together a codex which defines the Do’s and Dont’s within the Ubuntu universe. That would unleash a lot of reserve power coming from the Ubunty community. The Ubuntu community and Canonical have the chance to establish a business and cooperation model which has the potential to transform the world – bridging open source and freedom with a moderate level of commercial success. What means “moderate”? The open source nature will prevent that Canonical will ever reach a revenue like Microsoft. And that is a good thing because resources are then distributed in a more equal way (who the fu** needs 50 billion dollar?). If the Ubuntu community, Canonical and Mark Shuttleworth can manage this evolutionary process without major failures then they will get their place in IT history like Steve Jobs. The only difference is that Steve Jobs was a creative genius but he was serving the “old values”. We – as members of the Ubuntu community – can create something what will have a global impact on the form how humans will live in the future (and not only how they are using their computer). The subversive and unpredictable power of open source is the natural enemy of control, suppression and manipulation, and a pathway to freedom and fair sharing. Open source stands for equal access to information and resources (for everybody). That has also a political impact. Despite some hiccups which we have seen in the policy and actions of Canonical during the last years I am convinced that Canonical will continue to learn and evolve and that the Ubuntu community will have a huge impact to the future of IT and even beyond.