Mark Shuttleworth and the secrecy of Ubuntu

In the last days, there was some fuzz about Mark Shuttleworth’s post about some news in Ubuntu. Well, to be more precise, the post was about some secrets regarding the development of some applications. In my opinion, it summarizes some of what this distribution has become, and I would like to talk a little bit about it here.

My goal is not say bad things about Ubuntu (though I won’t promise that, because the post is intended as a critic), nor about Mr. Shuttleworth, whom I don’t know personally and have nothing against. My purpose is to discuss what we can learn from this surprising movement (at least for me) from a distribution (and a company, of course), and what mistakes they are doing by keeping some things for their own until they decide to unveil, as Mark said in his post.

Canonical and Ubuntu are both drifting away from the free software (or even from the open source) movement, and they are doing this by adopting some ugly tactics like the one mentioned above. Free software is a win-win game only if you respect its first rule: freedom. This word has infinite meanings, but for FLOSS there are 4 basic rules (or freedoms) that should be obeyed:

  1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  2. The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  4. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

I won’t be polemical and say that Ubuntu is not obeying some of these rules (though I could…). But it should be obvious that, by developing something in secrecy, you are not respecting one’s freedom to decide which way they think the software should behave (or not behave). In a true free software community everyone can have a voice (though sometimes people refuse to hear it, but that’s another problem which I’ll probably talk about in another post); everyone can help making a decision, or can try to influence some bad design choice (in his/her opinion). To summarize, they can participate.

As much as I don’t like the way Ubuntu hardly gives something back to the communities (if you compare to what they take from them), at least their development model (or at least what I know from it) so far was open. Every company has its sensible topics that need to be discussed internally. Even Red Hat, the company I work for (and now maybe you think this post is totally biased…), does. But you should keep it to the really minimum, and really discuss things in the open whenever you can. And you should never do software development like the not-so-old-but-still-obscure days: locked in your room, without external contact and feedback, trying to guess what your users want, and still holding the freedom flag sometimes. Sorry, but this is non-sense.