Ideology in the Free Software Community

When Canonical introduced the first Unity desktop releases to the public a storm of protest was raised by some of Ubuntu’s Gnome users. The Gnome 2 based desktop was not developed over night. Many years of hard work and financial support were required to lead Gnome to its maturity and popularity. I personally would have wished that instead of flocking over to Mint the Gnome users would have given Canonical an equivalent amount of time to establish an appropriate level of maturity and to digest the philosophy behind the Unity desktop. At the current stage of development (12.04/12.10) most Unity reviews are quiet positive.

There are basically several perspectives how Unity can be seen. First, there is the Canonical perspective. Canonical wants to see Ubuntu becoming a serious competitor for Mac OS X and Windows. Seen from this perspective the huge amount of different Linux desktops is counterproductive. The approach of Unity is to create a standardized and scalabale user interface:

Unfortunately the launch of Unity has caused the opposite of unifying the Linux desktop user base. New Linux desktop flavors are currently mushrooming at every corner what is diminishing the relevance of Linux for mainstream desktop users and hardware OEMs to pre-install Linux (like Windows). As a reason for rejecting Unity many Ubuntu users were claiming to have usability problems with Unity. Interestingly I couldn’t find any video on YouTube which could present some serious facts why the usability of Unity should be worse than with the Gnome 2 based desktop.

And then there is the category of complainers which is taking a position like religious fanatics:

It is clear that such a perspective based on weird ideology is not constructive at all but it is reflecting the sometimes dogmatic approach which is wide-spread especially in the Linux community. Being a member of a community does NOT mean that I can speak for this community and/or see my judgment as representative. But too many people seem to see this different and are positioning themselves like being representative voices of a community.

When Canonical introduced in 12.10 the shopping lens (with sending desktop search data to Amazon) we got the next case where a strident outcry roared through the Linux community. The term “spyware” was circulating through blogs and news articles, primarily triggered by a statement of Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation. Although I dislike to see an OS cluttered with such functionality I have to protest against the term “spyware”. First of all such criticism is mostly articulated by persons who have the skills to disable the shopping lens. That means those people aren’t really affected by the so called “problem”. The same people believe having the right to speak not only for themselves but probably for the whole community. That is arrogance in its purest form. The amount of information which I want to disclose to 3rd parties (e. g. Amazon) is defined by myself. Seen from my subjective perspective I have zero problems if my search data are sent to Amazon & Co. So the definition of espionage (from Richard Stallman) can’t get applied to me while using the Ubuntu shopping lens. Then there is the argument that there might be users who aren’t aware of that fact and may dislike it (if they would know). That is an argument. But if the slashers would really have an interest to educate other Ubuntu users (while always assuming that those are less skilled or educated) then the message would be pragmatic (instructions how to protect the privacy) instead of spreading FUD. The next video is such a pragmatic example:

I am an experienced PC user and a strong supporter of free software. I do not need to see Richard Stallman telling me which Linux distro I shall use or not use. I respect and support all activities pointing a finger to inappropriate issues in the open source software world. But the conclusion what users have to do is always a personal decision and even a person with a well-deserved reputation like Stallman should not appoint himself as judge. Doing this is arrogance although the motives behind that might be honorable. I do not accuse Richard Stallman being paranoid with privacy issues and so I do not want to get told which distro I shall not support or not use. It is all about the freedom of making our own decisions.

Calling for an Ubuntu boycott must be seen as an ideology driven attempt which is not helpful to create more freedom for software users around the globe. So if the alternative in the mainstream market is Ubuntu vs. Mac OS X or Windows than Ubuntu is clearly a solution which increases the freedom of users. Breaking into the mainstream market requires to play the game how users and hardware OEMs like to see it. Most users are taking the mobile phone surveillance into account for having the flexibility to stay always in contact with their social environment. Saying “no” to a mobile phone (like Richard Stallman) is just an ideological statement which might not make any positive difference. The guys at Canonical know that with such statements you won’t get any market share. So the choice is here adhering to a pure ideology or working hard to find a balance between the ideals of free software and the mechanisms of capitalism.

Without the Ubuntu community the Ubuntu OS would be irrelevant. I see Canonical in the obligation to show a higher level of sensibility how to “treat” the free software community, especially considering that Ubuntu is standing on the shoulders of Debian. Jono Bacon’s reply to Richard Stallman’s call for a Ubuntu boycott is a “no-go”. A community manager should have a better instinct and style how to deal with such issues although the next day an apology was posted. Such missteps are undermining the trust and support of the Linux community. Being confronted with “ideology” is no justification to shoot back.

I disagree with Richard Stallman that an opt-out feature won’t be helpful to resolve the conflict. In the opposite to some people in the community I do not think that Ubuntu users are stupid. If a user can make an educated decision this has to be respected (in a free country). Factually both, Richard Stallman nor Canonical have done the Linux community a favor with this whole story. Since Richard Stallman won’t change his position Canonical has to learn from this incident and develop a higher level of sensibility how to apply critical changes to Ubuntu and improve at the same time their communication with the Linux community.

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