I believe it is. The first statement in the Ubuntu Philosophy reads:
Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.
Ubuntu is most of all a community. All of the software, artwork and documentation in Ubuntu has been created, tested, used and discussed openly by people around the world participating in the Open Source community made possible by the Internet. Anyone who uses Ubuntu is part of this global community, and we invite you to help shape Ubuntu to better meet your needs. To make it yours!
Anyone can help shape and improve Ubuntu…
While I am a programmer, I have yet to try my hand at contributing code/coding to the Ubuntu project. It seems to me that while open source can always benefit from more developers, the free software ecosystem is already chock-full of quality software written by some of the best coders in the world.
Free and open source software is not held back by a lack of coding prowess. If anything, many pieces of proprietary software have a long way to go before they can compete with the technical accomplishments of their open source counterparts.
What I think most FOSS projects lack are things far more difficult to fix than rooms full of talented coders. Many FOSS projects lack strong leadership. They lack vision. They lack designers. They lack pragmatists. They lack true communities.
These aspects – while more nebulous than raw coding talent – are what truly prevent free and open source software from directly competing with proprietary software. If I examine the most successful FOSS projects (Apache, Firefox, WordPress, Wikipedia, MySQL), I see a collection of projects that may not be the most technically advanced, but that represent an excellent mix of design, leadership, vision, pragmatism, and community.
Which – not coincidentally – are the same reasons I use, advocate, promote, and attempt to improve Ubuntu.
Mark Shuttleworth is a complex man with many fans and at least several less-than-fans (frenemies?). But love or hate the man, it is difficult to argue with his leadership techniques. In five short years he has turned Ubuntu from a pipe dream into the most popular desktop Linux distro on the planet (a distro even Penguin Pete is willing to try). As a server, Ubuntu has attracted clients as large as Wikipedia – the 6th most-visited site on the internet.
A project as ambitious as building an entire OS cannot succeed without strong leadership (think Steve Jobs), and no other desktop Linux has a man like Shuttleworth at the helm.
Vision and Design
Vision is a difficult thing to quantify. For one, I believe vision is about more than just “wanting to make the awesomest thing ever.” Almost every FOSS project has that goal. (Otherwise, why would they exist at all?) But vision isn’t just about having a goal – it’s about having a firm framework in place to make such a goal possible/probable.
In 2008, Shuttleworth stated a two-year goal for desktop Linux surpassing Apple in usability. To quote from the linked article:
“The great task in front of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something that is stable and robust and not so pretty, into something that is art,” Shuttleworth said to applause from the audience. “Can we not only emulate, but can we blow right past Apple?”
However, he made no mention of whether Apple intends to simply sit idly by while desktop Linux catches up to and surpasses the user experience that Apple has become so well-known for.
“I see this [need] for free software—beautiful, elegant software. We have to invest in making this desktop beautiful and useful,” Shuttleworth said of Linux.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know I have many concerns about Ubuntu’s current user experience. But things like the 100 papercuts project and this commentary from Ivanka Majic, the leader of Canonical’s design team, give me hope:
Serdar Yegulalp (of InformationWeek): UIs in open source apps, Linux especially, are a common source of complaints from the uninitiated. What can be done about that?
Ivanka: “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Being able to spend the last 7 months working with our own in-house developers, getting the language right (if I change an icon, is that a “bugfix”?), feeding into the process at the right time, figuring out the release schedules, all those things. Right now, there’s not much to see — there’s a kind of shallow level of change from a visual perspective, but that’s because we’re just getting started. Nobody can do everything in six months but we can make it a little better. I think a brand-new design team can’t possibly have gone ‘ta-da!’ and handed you a brand new super shiny Ubuntu. But I think Ubuntu does get better with every release. Karmic has a kind of smoothness to it that Jaunty didn’t have. You can already tell the difference. And I’ve got massive hopes for Lucid…”
Other (read: almost all) Linux distros have prettier default themes than Ubuntu, but user experience is about more than just looks. If 2010 passes and Ubuntu remains ugly and partially usable perhaps I’ll reevaluate my loyalty – but until then, I’m excited to see what Shuttleworth’s hand-picked team provides.
(And for those unhappy with Ubuntu’s usability: are you aware of any other distro that employs a corporate-funded design team of fourteen people from different disciplines (visual/graphics designers, interaction designers, and more)…?)
The free software world is chock full of idealism. What most large-scale FOSS projects lack is not idealism, but a solid dose of pragmatism.
Take Fedora, for example. I think Fedora is a fine distro, especially for users who want a cutting-edge desktop Linux experience. But have you ever seen Fedora’s forbidden item list? This is a list full of ideology, not practicality. Fedora will never become THE desktop Linux distro because proprietary drivers, like them or not, are an unavoidable necessity for at least 5+ more years (maybe longer for certain hardware vendors). OGV is a great format, but recommending it instead of DVDs is not practical for anyone.
Please do not mistake my commentary as a slam against ideological individuals or distros. I think the free and open source world benefits greatly from its strong ideological background, and I hope it never loses support from ideological purists. But in order to compete with Windows and OSX, any potential mainstream Linux desktop must sacrifice certain ideologies for the sake of practicality. If it doesn’t, it will be forever doomed to obscure usage among tech-savvy individuals only (which may be what many ideologists want, but that’s another matter entirely).
Ubuntu does an admirable job of walking the fine line between ideology and pragmatism. It ships only a handful of questionable packages by default, and for heavily-used but patent-encumbered software (mp3, DVDs, etc.) it provides easy installation with full disclosure of the risks involved. I have mixed feelings about Mono and Moonlight, but if they can someday get me Netflix Instant Watch on Linux I’m all for supporting them.
Ubuntu has also extended its hand to commercial developers via the forthcoming Software Center. This could be the best thing desktop Linux has done to attract developers. I have no idea how well the Software Center will perform in this regard, but its creation is absolutely an excellent usability move with a great deal of potential.
What other desktop Linux distros actively strive to engage commercial developers?
I’ve discussed the Ubuntu community at length elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again. I am not aware of another desktop Linux community that offers a breadth of information comparable to Ubuntu’s. Extensive documentation, a huge wiki, paid support options, lively forums, IRC, mailing lists, LoCo teams, books, fan sites galore…
Need I go on?
Ubuntu has rallied an impressive combination of professionals, developers, and casual users to its cause. With so much at stake, I worry that if the Ubuntu project can’t provide a viable competitor to Windows and OSX, will any other desktop Linux ever have a chance?
I am deeply concerned with the stagnation that has consumed proprietary desktop OSes over the last ten years. Hardware power has grown in leaps and bounds, but how well have mainstream operating systems evolved to utilize such power? Viruses and overall security remain a rampant problem, general OS usability is no better than it was 10 years ago, and even the visual presentation of OSes has made only minimal progress toward something truly artistic and not just “functional.”
I believe that a competitive desktop Linux distro could change this. If all software developers wrote and designed software for OSes they could actively contribute to, we could see massive improvements across all forms of software in a remarkably short period of time. If all hardware drivers and software formats were standardized and open sourced, how much more time could be spent improving hardware and software instead of just getting it to work at all? If consumers weren’t forced to pay hundreds of dollars for an OS that was mediocre at best, they could instead spend those hundreds of dollars on software – potentially leading to more jobs for software developers, not less.
Look at the improvements that have come about because of a simple standardization like USB. Love or hate the spec itself, does anyone really want to go back to the days of competing serial/parallel/PS2/SCSI/etc. interfaces? Would the internet be what it is without open standards and open source software?
A functional, reliable, usability-focused desktop Linux distro has the potential to redefine desktop computing (which – despite the hype behind cloud computing – will still be around for many years, particularly in developing nations). Proprietary OSes have had 20 years to give us a better desktop experience, and have they succeeded?
I use Ubuntu because it provides me a better desktop experience than Windows. I promote Ubuntu because I know it can provide others with a better desktop experience. I advocate Ubuntu not just because free and open source software can save people money, but because FOSS represents an excellent long-term investment in improving the human condition via technology. I attempt to improve Ubuntu because without honest criticism, it cannot meet any of its stated goals.
I apologize if this post comes across as melodramatic or hammy. I don’t mean for it to be anything but sincere.
Ubuntu is an excellent distro and I will continue to praise it when it excels. Conversely, I (and many others) will criticize it when it falls short. (For the record, I much prefer the former.)
And to any developers that I have implicitly insulted via my critiques: I apologize. I mean no disrespect. Your work is absolutely appreciated.
But please – take my criticism for what it’s worth, and use it to improve your project. If I unfairly characterize something, please correct me.
Because at the end of the day we’re all working toward the same goal: a better desktop computing experience. I’ll do it my way. You’ll do it your way. And hopefully, the end product will represent the combined best of all our efforts.