Kudos to the Shadowman

Wednesday, May 24th, 2006

There was a bit of grumbling about Red Hat at Debconf this year (along with plenty of grumbling about Ubuntu too). While I agree that the Red Hat Network legalese effectively makes RHEL a proprietary product, I think it’s important to give credit to Red Hat for the role they have played and continue to play in bringing Linux, GNU and the free software stack to the wider world.

Red Hat was, and remains, essential to the free software and linux ecosystem.

Most of the world’s computer users have never seen or touched a Linux environment directly. Yes, of course we all use it in the form of Google or Akamai or a WiFi base station that we installed ourselves last weekend… but in terms of actually staring at the keyboard and typing into a Linux console or X-Term, adoption is still very much in the low-single-digits. Which means that less than 1-in-20 people who consider themselves IT people have hands-on experience with free software. For most of those people, Red Hat “speaks their language”. Which means that they are far more likely to get their first taste of free software via Red Hat than they are, say, compiling their personal kernels from scratch.

And we all win, when Red Hat has a win.

Every Red Hat server installed at UBS is a win for Free Software.

Every Fedora Core 5 installation at a school is a win for Linus Torvalds, for me, for Ubuntu, for Debian and even for Richard Stallman.

Every time Red Hat gets a mention on CNBC or that stupid Cramer show that really should have died with the dot com bomb, it’s a win for Free Software.


Because people learn by taking single steps. They learn by tasting new ideas little by little and not getting burned. They learn that “Linux” works, is reliable, is predictable, and that not running Microsoft Office is potentially a feature because it also means that it does not run all those pesky macro viruses.

And they learn that “normal”, which they used to define as “Windows”, is just part of the full universe of options they have at their disposal.

That of course inevitably touches their curiousity bone… and who knows where they might actually end up – in Gentoo, in Ubuntu, in Debian, perhaps even in OpenSolaris-land. It doesn’t matter – it’s all GNU goodness. Even if they stick with Red Hat.
In the free software community, we are as likely to turn viciously on one another as we are to stand united. And that’s a big weakness for us, as a community. It’s too easy to get free software advocates, who agree on 99% of things, to shred one another over the remaining 1%. That just makes us a confusing place for new users – and a disturbing place for more corporate adopters. It makes it easy for proprietary software companies to divide and conquer the free software world. We divide spontaneously.

Instead, we should strongly affirm the things in which we all agree.

  • Software CAN be Free (using Richard’s terminology) and therefor we believe it will ALL END UP FREE. And we’re committed to reinventing everything we need until the free software stack is a genuinely complete computing universe. We’re already pretty far along.
  • Free software is not just cheaper. It’s BETTER. It’s produced using a better process attracting better talent and it evolves faster, resulting in better innovation. All of that adds up to great value.

If we keep reminding ourselves that we agree on all of that, then our disagreements come into perspective. Instead of criticism for Red Hat, I think it would be more constructive to remind ourselves of the things that Red Hat does for the free software community first – and then perhaps to talk about why we prefer another system, for whatever personal reasons.

Just off the top of my head, here are a couple of things for which all of us free software advocates have Red Hat to thank:

  • When the EU was voting on software patents, it was the surprising sight of Red Hat and SUN jointly appealing for clearer thinking that tipped the scales in favour of the defeat of the motion.
  • Red Hat has in many ways been the public vehicle of IBM’s major Linux initiative. Without Red Hat, much of that work would have had less “punch”, because Red Hat was able to encapsulate it into a platform that could be presented to traditional IT people. We’ve all benefitted from that punch.
  • Red Hat was a leading proponent of GNOME, and to date has put far more active resources into the GNOME desktop even than Ubuntu. I do intent to match that as soon as Ubuntu stands on its own two feet, but until that time, hats off (har) to Red Hat.
  • The NSA and Red Hat teamed up to make SE Linux feasible. Even though that hasn’t yet become widely adopted, it still was a crucial step in getting the Fed’s to treat Linux seriously in the data center – and that’s in turn brought a rush of hardware vendors and ISV’s on board.

There’s a danger in something we love to hate. It’s that we can forget to love it.

7 Responses to “Kudos to the Shadowman”

  1. brian habbe | … the world of b !!! » No better way to cheer for free software Says:

    […] Just read this entry from Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical and have to say kudos too. It’s refreshing to see people of influence out there waving the flag of getting things done for the common good. Sometimes finding the positive in competition is challenging unless you’re willing to accept it, learn from it and adapt. […]

  2. craig Says:

    In case anyone was wondering what “spirit of Ubuntu” really meant – here you have it!

  3. Kokey:~# Says:

    Honor a quien honor merece…

    En días pasados leí en el Blog de Mark Shuttleworth un artículo que tiene cosas por demás ciertas. Desde 1998 estoy utilizando Linux y aún así no me siento experto, sí he adquirido algo de experiencia y conocimientos, pero lo mejor que me ha……

  4. Mike S Says:

    Aweso9me. See http://www.stallman.org/articles/yellow-hat.html for a good laugh

  5. Shaun Lloyd Says:

    Hi Mark,
    I think you under estimate the impact of ubuntu in relation to the distribution of choice for the sector of individuals that you mention, i am in that group and xubuntu is the most usable distro in the market today – after all for the group that you mention installation is the only doggy stage, because it either installs or it doesn’t and for the first time he has no hope of even getting dmesg | tail let alone solve the problem.

    I’m a bit at odds with proprietary drivers and the like but i can certainly appreciate that if by giving us “software developers” their source and thus their competition this would result in that company loosing profit and therefor R&D and therefor eventually no longer exist, i don’t believe this is what would happen but in most certainly could. “thus lm at odds”

    “When the EU was voting on software patents, it was the surprising sight of Red Hat and SUN jointly appealing for clearer thinking that tipped the scales in favour of the defeat of the motion.”

    Im a skeptic most of the time – this could just as well be because with software patents it would be harder to steal future gnu stuff.

    I do applaud your opinions/efforts and respect in many ways i wish i could stand with you 100% but i have to stand qouted as “RHEL and anything with the TRADEMARK Linux has the potential to be for all intensive purposes closed. imo RHEL will continue to patch software with binary drivers and programs, but “free” software is the opposite to this.

    It sounds way to much like you are prepared to do a deal with the devil cause at least it gets them out of the hands of the wolf and then maybe with the angles. But if that is true then where do people who accept binary software to be installed on their system and allow it to be called “free” – were do we stand in rms’ gnu dream ?

    Thanks again for all your efforts and im sure a heap of money in the ubuntu project, i would humberly and most respectfully request that you stear the ubuntu community aware from binary software and that your could negotiate with amd and nvidia and the like until they give us the software we need/want/will accept.

    Best Regards,
    Shaun Lloyd

  6. Joey Stanford » Deconstructing Computing Dissimilitude and Dependency with Ubuntu Says:

    […] Several years ago, Brian Behlendorf started espousing a plan that would help make Free Software more prevalent. He proposed that we start using Free Software to replace all of the layers in the OSI model, starting at the Layer 1 (the base) and working upwards. He believed that if we were able to develop a Free alternative to any proprietary material that adoption would increase due to lack of encumbrances and speed to develop in an Open world. Today, many of the programs in the computing realm, from compilers to Internet infrastructure, have already been replace by their Free counterparts with open standards. Here one can begin to see how, after having the “universal bond of sharing”, we might enable it so it “connects to all humanity”. This fact was not lost on Mark Shuttleworth, the primary sponsor and founder of Ubuntu GNU/Linux. Mark has openly stated that “We’re committed to reinventing everything we need until the free software stack [e.g. the OSI model] is a genuinely complete computing universe.” […]

  7. J.B. Nicholson-Owens Says:

    I support your efforts for software freedom and I thank you when your organizations distribute free software. But at the same time I have to question some things when they don’t jibe with what I’m reading.

    “it’s all GNU goodness”

    So, when do we get to the point where it’s okay to see major GNU/Linux distributions giving GNU credit right alongside Linux, not just giving all the credit to Linux (and thus raising the interest in one man who doesn’t agree with software freedom)? If it’s GNU we’re using, why can’t we all give credit where credit is due for GNU as a principal contributor?

    “Software CAN be Free (using Richard’s terminology) and therefor we believe it will ALL END UP FREE. And we’re committed to reinventing everything we need until the free software stack is a genuinely complete computing universe. We’re already pretty far along.”

    Ubuntu just celebrated making it easy to install a proprietary web browser with a couple of clicks while also telling people “Ubuntu will always be free, and will not have restrictive licenses associated with it.”. That’s what I see in the press release. Ubuntu’s philosophy includes “people should have the freedom to customise and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.”. What you say here and how Ubuntu behaves are confusing at best. Clearly it would have been more in line with software freedom to let non-free software distributors set up their own repos under their own aegis while Ubuntu promotes and distributes exclusively free software.

    I hope Ubuntu’s developers can help gNewSense find and remove non-free software in the Linux kernel so that Ubuntu GNU/Linux users can get a more free operating system by default. From what I understand on gNewSense’s mailing list, not everything gets caught with CONFIG_PREVENT_FIRMWARE_BUILD=y (assuming Ubuntu GNU/Linux includes kernels built with that).