Ubuntu: when Linux ideology meets business

Things are changing in the world of Ubuntu

Graham Morrison

Profiting from Linux doesn't involve an obvious winning formula. There are as many different business models as there are distributions, and you seldom find much overlap between those that are working.

Instead, you find something more like the world of medieval patronage. It's a place where the great distribution families fight for favour, sponsoring masked balls and conferences, while trying to attract geek heroes to work under their flags.

Yet despite this somewhat unconventional system, there's no doubt that profit drives development, progress and ambition. You only have to look as far as the kernel at the heart of the system to see the proof. There may be terabytes of projected idealism in there, but a significant proportion is more prosaically driven and developed by business.

When kernel supremo Greg Kroah-Hartman last collated contributions in 2008, he found some surprising statistics. For example, there may be over a thousand developers working on the latest versions, but a mere 10 individuals were responsible for almost 15 per cent of the code added to the kernel in the three years up to 2008. A further 20 individuals take that total to 30 per cent.

This is remarkable when you consider that version 2.6.33 of the kernel – released in February – more than doubles the number of lines of code found in the vanilla kernel from December 2003. That's 13 million lines, an assemblage that has recently been estimated to be worth over £900million by researchers at the University of Oviedo in Spain.

What's even more interesting is the list of who's paying for these contributions. Top of this chart are independent developers, accounting for almost 14 per cent of the work, and these are closely followed by a group whose company sponsors are unknown. Third in the chart is Red Hat, followed by Novell, IBM and Intel.

These four accounted for almost a third of kernel development in 2008, and there can be no doubt that each company's motivation is far from altruistic. If you had any doubts, note that Microsoft joined the party last July by contributing 20,000 lines of its own code to the kernel to help people running virtualized Linux from their Windows machines.

Even though it's more likely that this act was crafted to avoid legal action, rather than a flush of generosity, it still illustrates that the kernel has become a cut-throat gladiatorial arena in the fight for big business.

However, there's one influential distribution that is completely absent from Greg's Hall of Fame. Like the others, it's a commercial endeavour. Unlike them, it neither makes a profit nor has a clear business model. This is despite it being the number one distro.

Ubuntu, developed by Canonical, is the perfect example of what happens when Linux ideology and business meet. Canonical is a global enterprise, funded by Mark Shuttleworth's sale of Thawte for $575million in 1999. The charismatic figurehead combined coding skills with a penchant for space flight.

He selected his early Ubuntu team by taking six months' of Debian mailing-list archives with him on an ice-breaker to Antarctica, and choosing those whose comments and contributions he judged most worthy.

Despite its market share, Canonical is desperately trying to find a revenue stream from somewhere. It's a sign of the sober, business-oriented times that Shuttleworth's successor, Jane Silbur, isn't an ex-astronaut, but ex-Vice President of Command and Control Systems at General Dynamics C4 Systems.

At the enterprise-end of the business, it's chasing clouds by bundling an Amazon EC2 compatible server/client solution and selling support. At the user-end, Canonical has just launched its own online music store.

This is a service heavily tied to its own remote storage service, which is used to download and store the tracks you buy, available only in the patent-riddled and legally ambiguous MP3 format.

Mark Shuttleworth's parting blog post proclaimed he'll be concentrating on "product design, partnerships and customers", and the proof seems visible in the new release of Ubuntu.

But Mark has also signalled another change for Ubuntu users. In a recent mailing list post dealing with community criticism of recent design changes, Mark wrote, "This is not a democracy. Good feedback, good data, are welcome. But we are not voting on design decisions."

These aren't the words of a geek with his head in the stars, but of a man who has fallen to earth. And things have changed.

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