Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

Very briefly – had an excellent show at Mobile Asia Expo. Very valuable feedback from carrier partners on our progress with Ubuntu’s mobile experience and ecosystem. And just heard that a US operator has joined our advisory group – alongside recent additions from Indonesia and Australia. So that means we have partners who cover parts of Asia, most of Europe, North  and South America. I’d like to get a perspective from Japan and Africa in the mix, then I think we can close the CAG as we’d rather have fewer, deeper conversations.

Nevertheless, those of you in the US will be very happy to know you are now represented in the Carrier Advisory Group!

Misplaced criticism

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

Jonathan says that Canonical is not taking care of the Ubuntu community.

Consider for a minute, Jonathan, the difference between our actions.

Canonical, as one stakeholder in the Ubuntu community, is spending a large amount of energy to evaluate how its actions might impact on all the other stakeholders, and offering to do chunks of work in support of those other stakeholder needs.

You, as one stakeholder in the Ubuntu community, are inviting people to contribute less to the broader project, and more to one stakeholder.

Hmm. Just because you may not get what you want is no basis for divisive leadership.

Yes, you should figure out what’s important to Kubuntu, and yes, you should motivate folks to help you achieve those goals. But it’s simply wrong to suggest that Canonical isn’t hugely accommodating to the needs of others, or that it’s not possible to contribute or participate in the parts of Ubuntu which Canonical has a particularly strong interest in. Witness the fantastic work being done on both the system and the apps to bring Ubuntu to the phone and tablet. That may not be your cup of tea, but it’s tremendously motivating and exciting and energetic.

Not convinced by rolling releases

Thursday, March 7th, 2013

The ‘rolling release’ meme has been a popular one for years in Ubuntu. It’s one of the top requests from members of our user community. And it’s popular with Canonical team members too (who, largely, come from the community and share its values).

The problem for me is straightforward: a rolling release isn’t actually a release at all. It offers little certainty for those who need certainty. And we essentially accommodate the need for daily crack with our development releases, which have become highly usable (for developers) because of the strong commitment the Canonical and community teams made to daily quality throughout the release cycle.

So I haven’t personally given any air time to the topic of rolling releases over the years.

This year, the topic bubbled up again, and given the level of interest I supported that the core Canonical engineering team do a deep assessment of what it would actually mean, in hard pro’s and con’s, and how we might implement it, so that a straw man proposal (‘one you can poke holes in’) could be presented. Rick put forward that proposal last week. It should be clear that Rick is a strong and sincere proponent of the idea, hence the passion with which the case is made, but he is not the sole decision maker.

It’s nonsense to portray Rick’s position as a final position for Ubuntu. The TB have not weighed in,  the CC (who were briefed that the assessment was being made and that a straw man would be proposed) are still considering their perspective, and I’m not convinced either. So, for those inclined to melodrama, you may want to calm down and join the conversation.

Some unexpected findings

In the course of Rick’s team’s assessment, several interesting and (to me) unexpected findings emerged.

First, there’s real confusion around interim releases. Between 12.04 LTS and 14.04 LTS there will be three interim releases on our current approach, and lots of people will find that confusing. Should ISVs target quantal AND raring AND ssssss? In practice, we have lots of data to say they can’t and won’t. PPAs are often inconsistent between interim releases. That suggests that having an ‘edge’ release (for which PPAs would over time build up a rich source of extra software) and LTS releases may be easier on that segment of the community.

Second, we have proven the LTS point release mechanism, which brings new hardware support and new software to the LTS releases. The cloud archive, for example, brings the latest OpenStack release to 12.04 LTS, and is by far the most popular way to deploy OpenStack. Point releases have brought fresh kernels, fresh OpenStack, and fresh Unity to 12.04 LTS, and there is no reason why we could not broaden that commitment. It’s worth discussing whether that doesn’t become a better mechanism to meet the needs of people who care about a stable release.

Third, the daily quality story really has been impressive. The amazing work of a sizable quality team has transformed the widespread expectations of participants and contributors in Ubuntu – raring is really useful, every day, with little risk of unproductive hours when things go wonky. That’s grown the number of *developers* running raring, and boosted Ubuntu in other ways as a result. I’m not convinced it’s good enough for end-users, but it’s worth digging in to see how it could get there.

Some unrealistic expectations

In the commentary I’ve seen during the course of the discussion, some of the expectations expressed by stakeholders strike me as unrealistic.

Ben Collins’ perspective, which addresses the need of a PowerPC OEM, is an example. Ben is a friend and former colleague, I’d like to be supportive, but the real cost of supporting an architecture is way outside the scope of Ubuntu’s non-commercial commitments. IBM and Canonical discussed bringing Ubuntu to the PowerPC architecture some years ago and chose not to; the gap is not something Canonical will close alone. I’m delighted if Ubuntu is useful for Ben, and pretty certain it will remain the best platform for his work regardless, but we should not spend millions of dollars on that rather than cloud computing or mobile, which have a much broader impact on both society and our commercial prospects.

Some unwarranted melodrama

The sky is not falling in.

Really.

Ubuntu is a group of people who get together with common purpose. How we achieve that purpose is up to us, and everyone has a say in what they can and will contribute. Canonical’s contribution is massive. It’s simply nonsense to say that Canonical gets ‘what it wants’ more than anybody else. Hell, half the time *I* don’t get exactly what I want. It just doesn’t work that way: lots of people work hard to the best of their abilities, the result is Ubuntu.

The combination of Canonical and community is what makes that amazing. There are lots of pure community distro’s. And wow, they are full of politics, spite, frustration, venality and disappointment. Why? Because people are people, and work is hard, and collaboration is even harder. That’s nothing to do with Canonical, and everything to do with life. In fact, in most of the pure-community projects I’ve watched and participated in, the biggest meme is ‘if only we had someone that could do the heavy lifting’. Ubuntu has that in Canonical – and the combination of our joint efforts has become the most popular platform for Linux fans.

If you’ve done what you want for Ubuntu, then move on. That’s normal – there’s no need to poison the well behind you just because you want to try something else.

It’s also the case that we’ve shifted gear to leadership rather than integration.

When we started, we said we wanted to deliver the best of open source on a cadence. It was up to KDE, GNOME, XFCE to define what that was going to look like, we would just integrate and deliver (a hard problem in itself). By 2009 I was convinced that none of the existing free software communities could create an experience that could challenge the existing proprietary leaders, and so, if we were serious about the dream of a free software norm, we would have to lead.

The result is Unity, which is an experience that could become widely adopted across phones, tablets, PCs and other devices. Of course, that is a disruptive change, and has caused some members of existing communities to resent our work. I respect that others may prefer different experiences, so we remain willing to do a large (but not unlimited) amount of work to enable KDE, GNOME, and other DEs to thrive inside the broader Ubuntu umbrella. We also take steps to accommodate developers who want to support both Unity and another DE. But if we want to get beyond being a platform for hobbyists, we need to accelerate the work on Unity to keep up with Android, Chrome, Windows and Apple. And that’s more important than taking care of the needs of those who don’t share our goal of a free software norm.

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Everyone that I care about in open source has a shared dream: they want free software to become the norm, not the exception. And Ubuntu is the only way I can see for that to happen, which is why I spend all my time on it, and why so many other people spend huge amounts of time on it too.

I simply have zero interest in the crowd who wants to be different. Leet. ‘Linux is supposed to be hard so it’s exclusive’ is just the dumbest thing that a smart person could say. People being people, there are of course smart people who hold that view.

What I’m really interested in is this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a free and open platform that is THE LEADER across both consumer and enterprise computing.

With Ubuntu (and Unity) we have that. It’s amazing. Think about it – unlike years gone by, a free software platform is actually winning awards for innovative leadership in the categories that count: mobile, cloud. Investing your time and energy here might have a truly profound impact on the world. That’s worth digging into. Just roll your eyeballs at the 1337 crowd, roll up your sleeves, find something interesting to improve, and join in. To the extent that you can master a piece, you will get what you want. If you think the grand vision should follow your whims, you won’t.

If we work hard, and work together, Ubuntu will become a widespread platform for phones, tablets and PCs. You’ll have the satisfaction of designing, building and fixing tools that are used every day by millions of people. That’s meaningful. And it’s worth looking hard at our practices to ask the question: how best to achieve that goal? Of those practices, interim releases are just as subject to evaluation and revision as any other.

Going faster

So, rolling releases are not real releases.

But cadence is good, releases are good discipline even if they are hard. In LEAN software engineering, we have an interesting maxim: when something is hard, DO IT MORE OFTEN. Because that way you concentrate your efforts on the hard problem, master it, automate and make it easy. That’s the philosophy that underpins agile development, devops, juju and loads of other goodness.

In the web-lead world, software is moving faster than ever before. Is six months fast enough?

So I think it IS worth asking the question: can we go even faster? Can we make even MORE releases in a year? And can we automate that process to make it bulletproof for end-users?

That’s where I think we should steer the conversation on rolling releases:

  • Can we make the update process from point to point really bulletproof? Upgrading today is possible, but to keep the system clean over multiple successive upgrades requires an uncommonly high level of skill with APT.
  • Can we strengthen the definition of point releases in the LTS so that interim releases are obviously less relevant?
  • Can we do a reasonable amount of release management on, say, MONTHLY releases that they are actual releases rather than just snapshots?

Daily quality has made the Ubuntu development release perfectly usable for developers. That’s a huge accomplishment. Now let’s think carefully about the promises we’re making end-users, and see if it isn’t time to innovate again, just as we innovated when we created Ubuntu on a six month cadence.

Inclusive membership

Wednesday, August 10th, 2011

We have a strong preference for inclusivity in the way we structure the Ubuntu community. We recognise a very diverse range of contributions, and we go to some lengths to recognise leaders in many areas so that we can delegate the evaluation process to those who know best.

For example, we have governance structures for different social forums (IRC, the Forums) and for various technical fields (development, translation). We quite pointedly see development and packaging as one facet of a multi-faceted project, and I think Ubuntu is much stronger for that approach.

Jonathan Carter raised a very interesting question recently, which was how we recognise those who’s best contribution to Ubuntu (and it may well be intended very much as a contribution to Ubuntu) is by working in other projects. His specific question was “upstream” but as we discussed it amongst members of the CC it threw up all sorts of gaps in our membership process, such as recognising those who make collaboration between Debian and Ubuntu easier, and those who work in derivatives like Mint, and do so in a way that makes it easy for Ubuntu to benefit from their work.

The issue was brought to the fore because several contributors to Unity and Launchpad had applied for membership. We had previously seen scattered upstream-based applications for membership, but the fact that there were a few of these and that they were Canonical employees turned it into something which needed wider consideration.

For obvious reasons, I don’t think a Canonical project should be special cased. Ubuntu is a shared effort between Canonical and community contributors, and Canonical already has effective representation. But I think the question is much more interesting when it’s asked as a general proposition: if someone feels they want to help other Ubuntu users by doing work in a *different* project, why should we not recognise that? And if we’re going to try to do so, how do we do it well? Specifically, how do we
avoid diluting the cohesive nature of the membership of Ubuntu, who are polled for confidence in appointments to the Community Council, if we say we will consider membership applications from any of the thousands of projects that feed into the platform? How on earth do we even start to evaluate “substantial and sustained” contributions? It’s a very interesting problem.

Matthew East blogged to say that there are some codebases that are closer to Ubuntu than others. That’s probably true, but it’s also been a point of pride that we encourage groups like the LXDE community to express their experience as official remixes, from Kubuntu to Xubuntu and Lubuntu and beyond. I agree with Matthew that, in order to be an unambiguous target for developers, we need to be firm about a narrow set of API’s and installation requirements. That means a project like Unity becomes an “obvious” way to contribute to Ubuntu, though of course other distributions are likely to use Unity and there may be people who contribute there specifically for them.

But more importantly, I think we should start to find ways in which someone could participate in ANY project upstream (or downstream) and still gain membership in Ubuntu if that is valuable to them, or aligned with their values.

For example: someone who correlates upstream bugs with Ubuntu bugs in Launchpad, is doing work that improves Ubuntu for everyone. Someone who fixes issues in an upstream stable release in order to facilitate an SRU, is doing the same. Ensuring that an upstream is going to work with the next kernel/toolchain/X/GL version set has a similar benefit. There are any number of ways in which someone who uses Ubuntu, shares the values of the project and wants to help but is closer to an upstream can express
themselves. And we should recognise them all.

I’m not at all certain how we would do so perfectly in practice, because the diversity of projects out there is so great, and the diversity of ways they track their contributors is so great. But I think we should try. We could create a team that reviews such applications and makes a best effort to assess them, erring on the side of caution. Who’s up for the challenge?

Prompted in part by the critique of Canonical’s code contributions to the kernel and core GNOME infrastructure, I’ve been pondering whether or not I feel good about what I do every day, and how I do it. It’s important for me to feel that what I do is of service to others and makes the world a better place for it having been done. And in my case, that it’s a contribution commensurate with the good fortune I’ve had in life.

Two notes defined for me what I feel I contribute, in this last month. One was a thank-you from New Zealand, from someone who is watching Ubuntu 10.04 make a real difference in their family’s life. For them it seems like a small miracle of human generosity that this entire, integrated, working environment exists and is cared for by thousands of people. The other was a support contract for tens of thousands of desktops running Ubuntu 10.04 in a company. Between those two, we have the twin pillars of the Ubuntu Project and Canonical: to bring all the extraordinary generosity of the free software community to the world at large, as a gift, free of charge, unencumbered and uncrippled, and to do so sustainably.

The first story, from New Zealand, is about someone who is teaching their children to use computers from a young age, and who has observed how much more they get done with Ubuntu than with Windows, and how much more affordable it is to bring computing to all the kids in their community with Ubuntu. For them, the fact that Ubuntu brings them this whole world of free software in one neat package is extraordinary, a breakthrough, and something for which they are very grateful.

It’s a story that I hope to see replicated a hundred million times. And it’s a story which brings credit and satisfaction not just to me, and not just to the people who make Ubuntu the focus of their love and energy, but to all of those who participate in free software at large. Ubuntu doesn’t deserve all the credit, it’s part of a big and complex ecosystem, but without it that delivery of free software just wouldn’t have the same reach and values.

We all understand that the body of free software needs many organs, many cells, each of which has their own priorities and interests. The body can only exist thanks to all of them. We are one small part of the whole, it’s a privilege for us to take up the responsibilities that we do as a distribution. We have the responsibility of choosing a starting point for those who will begin their free software journey with Ubuntu, and we work hard to make sure that all of those pieces fit well together.

Ubuntu, and the possibilities it creates, could not have come about without the extraordinary Linux community, which wouldn’t exist without the GNU community, and couldn’t have risen to prominence without the efforts of companies like IBM and Red Hat. And it would be a very different story if it weren’t for the Mozilla folks and Netscape before them, and GNOME and KDE, and Debian, and Google and everyone else who have exercised that stack in so many different ways, making it better along the way. There are tens of thousands of people who are not in any way shape or form associated with Ubuntu, who make this story real. Many of them have been working at it for more than a decade – it takes a long time to make an overnight success :) while Ubuntu has only been on the scene six years. So Ubuntu cannot be credited solely for the delight of its users.

Nevertheless, the Ubuntu Project does bring something unique, special and important to free software: a total commitment to everyday users and use cases, the idea that free software should be “for everyone” both economically and in ease of use, and a willingness to chase down the problems that stand between here and there. I feel that commitment is a gift back to the people who built every one of those packages. If we can bring free software to ten times the audience, we have amplified the value of your generosity by a factor of ten, we have made every hour spent fixing an issue or making something amazing, ten times as valuable. I’m very proud to be spending the time and energy on Ubuntu that I do. Yes, I could do many other things, but I can’t think of another course which would have the same impact on the world.

I recognize that not everybody will feel the same way. Bringing their work to ten times the audience without contributing features might just feel like leeching, or increasing the flow of bug reports 10x. I suppose you could say that no matter how generous we are to downstream users, if upstream is only measuring code, then any generosity other than code won’t be registered. I don’t really know what to do about that – I didn’t found Ubuntu as a vehicle for getting lots of code written, that didn’t seem to me to be what the world needed. It needed a vehicle for getting it out there, that cares about delivering the code we already have in a state of high quality and reliability. Most of the pieces of the desktop were in place – and code was flowing in – it just wasn’t being delivered in a way that would take it beyond the server, or to the general public.

The second email I can’t quote from, but it was essentially a contract for services from Canonical to help a company move more than 20,000 desktops from Windows to Ubuntu. There have been several engagements recently of a similar scale, the pace is accelerating as confidence in Ubuntu grows. While Linux has long proven itself a fine desktop for the inspired and self-motivated developer, there is a gap between that and the needs of large-scale organisations. There isn’t another company that I’m aware of which is definitively committed to the free software desktop, and so I’m very proud that Canonical is playing that role in the free software ecosystem. It would be sad for me if all the effort the free software community puts into desktop applications didn’t have a conduit to those users.

There’s nothing proprietary or secret that goes into the desktops that Canonical supports inside large organisations. The true wonder for me is that the story from New Zealand, and the corporate story, both involve exactly the same code. That to me is the true promise of free software; when I have participated in open source projects myself, I’ve always been delighted that my work might serve my needs but then also be of use to as many other people as possible.

Ubuntu is a small part of that huge ecosystem, but I feel proud that we have stepped up to tackle these challenges.

Canonical takes a different approach to the other companies that work in Linux, not as an implicit criticism of the others, but simply because that’s the set of values we hold. Open source is strengthened by the fact that there are so many different companies pursuing so many different, important goals.

In recent weeks it’s been suggested that Canonical’s efforts are self-directed and not of benefit to the broader open source community. That’s a stinging criticism because most of us feel completely the opposite, we’re motivated to do as much as we can to further the cause of free software to the benefit both of end-users and the community that makes it, and we’re convinced that building Ubuntu and working for Canonical are the best ways to achieve that end. It’s prompted a lot of discussion and consideration for each of us and for Canonical as a whole. And this post is a product of that consideration: a statement for myself of what I feel I contribute, and why I feel proud of the effort I put in every day.

What do we do for free software? And what do I do myself?

For a start, we deliver it. We reduce the friction and inertia that prevent people trying free software and deciding for themselves if they like it enough to immerse themselves in it. Hundreds of today’s free software developers, translators, designers, advocates got the opportunity to be part of our movement because it was easy for them to dip their toe in the water. And that’s not easy work. Consider the effort over many years to produce a simple installer for Linux like http://www.techdrivein.com/2010/08/massive-changes-coming-to-ubuntu-1010.html which is the culmination of huge amounts of work from many groups, but which simply would not have happened without Canonical and Ubuntu.

There are thousands of people who are content to build free software for themselves, and that’s no crime. But the willingness to shape it into something that others will find, explore and delight in needs to be celebrated too. And that’s a value which is celebrated very highly in the Ubuntu community: if you read planet.ubuntu.com you’ll see a celebration of *people using free software*. As a community we are deeply satisfied to see people *using* it to solve problems in their lives. That’s more satisfying to us than stories about how we made it faster or added a feature. Of course we do bits of both, but this is a community that measures impact in the world rather than impact on the code. They are very generous with their time and expertise, with that as the reward. I’m proud of the fact that Ubuntu attracts people who are generous in their contributions: they feel their contributions are worth more if they are remixed by others, not less. So we celebrate Kubuntu and Xubuntu and Puppy and Linux Mint. They don’t ride on our coattails, they stand on our shoulders, just as we stand on the shoulders of giants. And that’s a good thing. Our work is more meaningful and more valuable because their work reaches users that ours alone could not.

What else?

We fix it, too. Consider the https://wiki.ubuntu.com/PaperCut Papercuts project, born of the recognition that all the incredible technology and effort that goes into making something as complex as the Linux kernel is somehow diminished if the average user gets an incomprehensible result when they do something that should Just Work. Hundreds of Papercuts have been fixed, across many different applications, benefiting not just Ubuntu but also every other distribution that ships those applications. If you think that’s easy, consider the effort involved to triage and consider each of thousands of suggestions, coordinating a fix and the sharing of it. The tireless efforts of a large team have made an enormous difference. Consider this: saving millions of users one hour a week is a treasury of energy saved to do better things with free software. While the Canonical Design team played a leading role in setting up the Papercuts project, the real stars are people like http://www.omgubuntu.co.uk/2010/06/maverick-papercut-hunting-season-opens.html Vish and Sense who rally the broader papercuts team to make a difference. Every fix makes a difference, on the desktop http://ubuntuserver.wordpress.com/2010/01/20/ubuntu-server-papercuts-project/ and the server.

At a more personal level, a key thing I put energy into is leadership, governance and community structure. When we started Ubuntu, I spent a lot of time looking at different communities that existed at the time, and how they managed the inevitable tensions and differences of opinion that arise when you have lots of sharp people collaborating. We conceived the idea of a code of conduct that would ensure that our passions for the technology or the work never overwhelmed the primary goal of bringing diverse people together to collaborate on a common platform. I’m delighted that the idea has spread to other projects: we don’t want to hoard ideas or designs or concepts, that would be contrary to our very purpose.

We setup a simple structure: a technical board and a community council. That approach is now common in many other projects too. As Ubuntu has grown, so that governance has evolved, there are now multiple leadership teams for groups like Kubuntu and the Forums and IRC, who provide counsel and guidance for teams of LoCo’s and moderators and ops and developers, who in turn strive for technical perfection and social agility as part of an enormous global community. That’s amazing. When people start participating in Ubuntu they are usually motivated as much by the desire to be part of a wonderful community as they are to fix a specific problem or ease a specific burden. Over time, some of those folks find that they have a gift for helping others be more productive, resolving differences of opinion, doing the work to organise a group so that much more can be achieved than any one individual could hope to do. Ubuntu’s governance structures create opportunities for those folks to shine: they provide the backbone and structure which makes this community able to scale and stay productive and happy.

A project like Ubuntu needs constant care in order to defend its values. When you are tiny and you put up a flag saying “this is what we care about” you tend to attract only people who care about those things. When the project grows into something potent and visible, though, you tend to attract EVERYONE, because people want to be where the action is. And then the values can easily be watered down. So I continue to put energy into working with the Ubuntu community council, and the Canonical community team, both of which are profoundly insightful and hard-working which makes that part of my work a real pleasure. The Ubuntu community council take their responsibility as custodian of the projects community values very seriously indeed. The CC is largely composed of people who are not affiliated with Canonical, but who nevertheless believe that the Ubuntu project is important to free software as a whole. And the awesome Jono Bacon, the delightful Daniel Holbach, and unflappable Jorge Castro are professionals who understand how to make communities productive and happy places to work.

Something as big as the Ubuntu community cannot be to the credit of me or any other individual, but I’m proud of the role I’ve played, and motivated to continue to play a role as needed.

In more recent years I’ve come to focus more on championing the role of design in free software. I believe that open source produces the best quality software over time, but I think we need a lot more cogent conversations about the experiences we want to create for our users, whether it’s on the desktop, the netbook or the server. So I’ve put a lot of my leadership energy into encouraging various communities – both Ubuntu and upstream – to be welcoming of those who see software through the eyes of the new user rather than the experienced hacker. This is a sea change in the values of open source, and is not something I can hope to achieve alone, but I’m nevertheless proud to be a champion of that approach and glad that it’s steadily becoming accepted.

There were designers working in free software before we made this push. I hope they feel that Canonical’s emphasis on the design-lead approach has made their lives easier, and the community at large more appreciative of their efforts and receptive to their ideas. But still, if you *really* care about design in free software, the Canonical design team is the place to be.

I do some design work myself, and have participated most heavily in the detailed design of Unity, the interface for Ubuntu Netbook Edition 10.10. That’s an evolution of the older UNR interface; most importantly, it’s a statement that Linux desktops don’t need to be stuck in the 90′s, we can and will attempt to build new and efficient ways of working with computers. I’ve been delighted with the speed at which some of Unity’s facilities have been adopted by hundreds of projects, their goal is to make using Linux easier and classier for everyone, so that pace of adoption is a measure of the speed at which we are reducing the friction for new users discovering a better way to use their PC’s.

Design without implementation would leave us open to accusations of wanting others to do our work for us, so I’m proud also to lead a wonderful team that is doing the implementation of some of those key components. Things like dbusmenu have proven useful for bringing consistency to the interfaces of both GNOME and KDE applications running under Unity, and I very much hope they are adopted by other projects that need exactly the facilities they provide. I’d credit that engineering team with their focus on quality and testability and their desire to provide developers with clean API’s and good guidance on how best to use them. If you’ve used the full set of Indicators in 10.10 then you know how this quiet, persistent work that has engaged many different projects has transformed the panel into something crisp and efficient. Utouch is coming up for its first release, and will continue to evolve, so that Ubuntu and GNOME and KDE can have an easy road to multi-touch gesture interface goodness.

Beyond my own personal time, I also support various projects through funding. Putting money into free software needs to meet a key test: could that money achieve a better outcome for more people if it were directed elsewhere? There are lots of ways to help people: $100,000 can put a lot of people through school, clothed and fed. So I really need to be confident that the money is having a real, measurable impact on people’s lives. The thank you notes I get every week for Ubuntu help sustain that confidence. More importantly, my own observation of the catalytic effect that Ubuntu has had on the broader open source ecosystem, in terms of new developers attracted, new platforms created, new businesses launched and new participants acknowledged, make me certain that the funding I provide is having a meaningful consequence.

When Ubuntu was conceived, the Linux ecosystem was in a sense fully formed. We had a kernel. We had GNOME and KDE. We had X and libc and GCC and all the other familiar tools. Sure they had bugs and they had shortcomings and they had roadmaps to address them. But there was something missing: sometimes it got articulated as “marketing”, sometimes as “end-user focus”. I remember thinking “that’s what I could bring”. So Ubuntu, and Canonical, have quite explicitly NOT put effort into things which are obviously working quite well, instead, we’ve tried to focus on new ideas and new tools and new components. I see that as an invigorating contribution to the broader open source ecosystem, and I hear from many people that they perceive it the same way. Those who say “but Canonical doesn’t do X” may be right, but that misses all the things we do, which weren’t on the map beforehand. Of course, there’s little that we do exclusively, and little that we do that others couldn’t if they made that their mission, but I think the passion of the Ubuntu community, and the enthusiasm of its users, reflects the fact that there is something definitively new and distinctive about the project. That’s something to celebrate, something to be proud of, and something to motivate us to continue.

Free software is bigger than any one project. It’s bigger than the Linux kernel, it’s bigger than GNU, it’s bigger than GNOME and KDE, it’s bigger than Ubuntu and Fedora and Debian. Each of those projects plays a role, but it is the whole which is really changing the world. So when we start to argue with one another from the perspective of any one slice of free software, we run the risk of missing the bigger picture. That’s a bit like an auto-immune disease, where the body starts to attack itself. By definition, someone else who is working hard all day long to bring free software to a wider audience is on the same side as me, compared to 99% of the rest of the world, if I want to think in terms of sides. I admire and respect everyone who puts energy into advancing the cause of free software, even if occasionally I might differ on the detail of how it can be done.

My new focus at Canonical

Thursday, December 17th, 2009

From March next year, I’ll focus my Canonical energy on product design, partnerships and customers. Those are the areas that I enjoy most and also the areas where I can best shape the impact we have on open source and the technology market. I’m able to do this because Jane Silber, who has been COO at Canonical virtually from the beginning, will take on the job of CEO.

Since Jane joined the company, she and I have shared the load of coordinating between the leaders of all the key teams that make up Canonical. We’ve been through various permutations as new initiatives needed different kinds of attention; Jane currently leads the Ubuntu One effort, for example.

I’ve become very passionate about design and quality, and want to spend more time figuring out how we harness the collaborative process to build better, more insightful products. I can’t think of a more interesting challenge, and luckily I couldn’t think of a better person to take over my formal management and leadership responsibilities at Canonical than Jane. We’ve worked together long enough, and closely enough, that I can be confident of continuity in the pieces I most care about and also excited about the ways in which I think Jane will raise the bar for the senior team. As a former VP at General Dynamics, Jane has more experience of large customers and large organisational leadership, which I see as essential for Canonical over the next five years. We are being welcomed as a partner and supplier to ever-larger businesses, and I want to make sure we are a robust answer to their needs.

Many folks in the community will know Jane from Ubuntu Developer Summits, and of course she’s well established as a leader at Canonical. In order to focus on the new role, we’ll be hiring for a COO and a new lead for Ubuntu One (both positions will be advertised publicly as well as within Canonical). There’s no rush, so we plan to coordinate things carefully and I expect I’ll be focused on my new role by March.

The term “credit crunch” is very misleading for the current crisis. It suggests that the problem is merely one of confidence, that calm will return if liquidity is introduced to the system.

My view, though, is that the real issue is one of solvency. This is the systemic bankruptcy of 2008.

Mortgages are just the beginning.
At real rates of interest, with real expectations of a reasonable rate of return, many of the deals which have been done since 2003 just do not make economic sense. Thus far, the spotlight has been on one piece of that problem – bad mortgage loans – but I think we’ll see the problem areas expanding rapidly to include a lot of the private equity deals which were done on the basis of free money between 2003-2007. I remember a fatuous statement by some private equity genius that “everybody’s rushing to do the first $100bn deal”. Well, the chickens are coming home to roost. Expect a steady flood of announcements of setbacks, restructurings and bankruptcies as companies that were bought with borrowed money turn out to be unable to service their debt.

Lower interest rates will ease the symptoms only.
Dramatic easing of interest rates will help to slow down the pace at which we have to deal with the bankruptcies, but they won’t change the cold reality of the situation, and they run the very real risk of making things worse by encouraging another round of speculation based on free money. We are once again in a situation where the US discount rate is effectively a negative real rate of interest, as a gift to the banks, but staying there for any length of time puts us back into a state of addiction.

Interventions must target bank equity and leverage, not liquidity.
The latest move from the UK to buy equity stakes is the best response yet, I think. It dramatically improves the capitalisation of those institutions, it keeps the upside of that move in taxpayers hands (they are taking the pain and funding the bailout, it seems right to preserve the upside for them) and it dilutes the existing shareholders who allowed their institutions to become insolvent. Personally, I’d be inclined to do more than dilute those shareholders.

I don’t see the current $700bn deal making a real difference to US banks. I would expect the US to announce a deal similar to the UK deal soon, but the numbers would have to be larger. Scarily large. Much better for the US to make that move, than to wait for Asian and Middle-eastern sovereign wealth funds to step into the breach.

Depositors in regulated banks should be protected by the governments that run the regulators. Shareholders not so much. Bondholders… maybe.
I think the Irish and other countries who have guaranteed the deposits of individual users have done the right thing. Governments setup regulatory authorities, and banks advertise that they are regulated. The people who appoint those regulators need to stand by the approach they take – they should offer a guarantee that they will stand by their product, and when it fails, they will stand by the people who trusted in them. Depositors at banks in the UK really should not have to worry that the bank might fail – such a failure should at most affect the interest rate they receive, not the safety of their capital. Shareholders in those banks, however, should be very worried indeed. There’s an interesting question about bondholders and institutional depositors. By one argument they are sophisticated investors and should be responsible for their bonds. By another argument, they are the very people who can cause massive shifts in funds from bank paper to T-bills, and hence worth keeping pacified. I would lump them in with individual depositors too.

Executive compensation should be structured not fixed.
There has been a lot of discussion about limiting executive compensation. That’s just an invitation for armies of consultants and lawyers and accountants to work around whatever compensation limits are put in place. And frankly, I’m hard-pressed to understand how politicians, who constantly vote themselves bigger salaries and expense accounts, are qualified to set bank executive salaries. They effectively WERE in charge of Fannie and Freddie executive compensation, and that wasn’t a stellar success.

What I would say, however, is that financial institution earnings should only be recognised over a seven year period, and bonuses based on those earnings should be held in escrow until that seven year period is up. Imagine if we could now tap into the bonuses of investment bank employees over the past seven years in order to shore up the balance sheets of those banks. That would include the bonuses paid to Mr Fuld, Mr Greenberg, and Mr Greenspan. Anybody care to run the numbers? I think it would be material.

I’m nervous.
The big question I’m asking is which sidelines don’t have landmines? My team and I are fortunate to have stepped out of many markets before the current flood of fear. We stepped right into a few problems, but in large part dodged the cannonballs. So far so good. But what does it mean to have cash in the bank, when banks themselves are failing? What does it mean to hold dollars, when the dollar is being debased in a way that would feel familiar to the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe? These are very dangerous times, and nobody should think otherwise.

When you present yourself on the web, you have 15 seconds to make an impression, so aspiring champions of the web 2.0 industry have converged on a good recipe for success:

  1. Make your site visually appealing,
  2. Do something different and do it very, very well,
  3. Call users to action and give them an immediate, rewarding experience.

We need the same urgency, immediacy and elegance as part of the free software desktop experience, and that’s is an area where Canonical will, I hope, make a significant contribution. We are hiring designers, user experience champions and interaction design visionaries and challenging them to lead not only Canonical’s distinctive projects but also to participate in GNOME, KDE and other upstream efforts to improve FLOSS usability.

Fortunately, we won’t be working in a vacuum. This is an idea that is already being widely explored. It’s great to see that communities like GNOME and KDE have embraced user experience as a powerful driver of evolution in their platforms. Partly because of the web-2.0 phenomenon and the iPhone, there’s a widely held desire to see FLOSS leap forward in usability and design. We want to participate and help drive that forward.

There’s also recognition for the scale of the challenge that faces us. When I laid out the goal of “delivering a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years” at OSCON, I had many questions afterwards about how on earth we could achieve that. “Everyone scratches their own itch, how can you possibly make the UI consistent?” was a common theme. And it’s true – the free software desktop is often patchy and inconsistent. But I see the lack of consistency as both a weakness (GNOME, OpenOffice and Firefox all have different UI toolkits, and it’s very difficult to make them seamless) and as a strength – people are free to innovate, and the results are world-leading. Our challenge is to get the best of both of those worlds.

I don’t have answers to all of those questions. I do, however, have a deep belief in the power of the free software process to solve seemingly intractable problems, especially in the long tail. If we articulate a comprehensive design ethic, a next-generation HIG, we can harness the wisdom of crowds to find corner cases and inconsistencies across a much broader portfolio of applications than one person or company could do alone. That’s why it’s so important to me that Canonical’s design and user experience team also participate in upstream projects across the board.

In Ubuntu we have in general considered upstream to be “our ROCK”, by which we mean that we want upstream to be happy with the way we express their ideas and their work. More than happy – we want upstream to be delighted! We focus most of our effort on integration. Our competitors turn that into “Canonical doesn’t contribute” but it’s more accurate to say we measure our contribution in the effectiveness with which we get the latest stable work of upstream, with security maintenance, to the widest possible audience for testing and love. To my mind, that’s a huge contribution.

Increasingly, though, Canonical is in a position to drive real change in the software that is part of Ubuntu. If we just showed up with pictures and prototypes and asked people to shape their projects differently, I can’t imagine that being well received! So we are also hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, Gtk, Qt, GNOME and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop experience ideas into reality. Those teams will publish their Bzr branches in Launchpad and of course submit their work upstream, and participate in upstream sprints and events. Some of the folks we have hired into those positions are familiar contributors in the FLOSS world, others will be developers with relevant technical expertise from other industries.

One strong meme we want to preserve is the idea that Ubuntu, the platform team, is still primarily focused on integration and distribution. We will keep that team and the upstream work distinct to minimise the conflict of interest inherent in choosing the patches and the changes and the applications that actually ship each six months as part of an Ubuntu release.

Of course, there’s a risk to participation, because you can’t easily participate without expressing opinions, visions, desires, goals, and those can clash with other participants. It’s hard to drive change, even when people agree that change is needed. I hope we can find ways to explore and experiment with new ideas without blocking on consensus across diverse and distributed teams. We have to play to our strengths, which include the ability to diverge for experimental purposes to see what really works before we commit everyone to a course of action. It will be a challenge, but I think it’s achievable.

All of this has me tapdancing to work in the mornings, because we’re sketching out really interesting ideas for user interaction in Launchpad and in the desktop. The team has come together very nicely, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the processes, brainstorming and prototyping. I can’t wait to see those ideas landing in production!

Nicely handled, Thawte!

Monday, June 16th, 2008

I was delighted to see Thawte’s elegant handling of the recent OpenSSL random number generator flaw in Debian, Ubuntu and other Debian derivatives. They offered a free replacement for anyone who was affected. Years ago, when Thawte was setup, we put a lot of effort into doing things in a way which made sense for users of ApacheSSL and similar, open-source based secure servers. I’ve not kept up with the changes at the company since it became part of VeriSign in 2000, but it’s great to see that the brand has been preserved, and that more importantly some of it’s key values have, too.