Note to the impatient: this is a long post and it only gets to free software ecosystem dynamics towards the end. The short version is that we need to empower software companies to participate in the GNU/Linux ecosystem, and not fear them. Rather than undermining their power, we need to balance it through competition.

Church schools in apartheid South Africa needed to find creative ways to teach pupils about the wrongs of that system. They couldn’t actively foment revolt, but they could teach alternative approaches to governance. That’s how, as a kid in South Africa, I spent a lot of time studying the foundations of the United States, a system of governance defined by underdogs who wanted to defend not just against the abuses of the current power, but abuses of power in general.

My favourite insight in that regard comes from James Madison in the Federalist Papers, where he describes the need to understand and harness human nature as a force: to pit ambition against ambition, as it is often described. The relevant text is worth a read if you don’t have time for the whole letter:

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

When we debate our goals, principles and practices in the FLOSS community, we devote a great deal of energy to “how things should be”, and to the fact that “men are not angels”. I think the approach of James Madison is highly relevant to those discussions.

The conservation of power

Just as energy, momentum, charge and other physical properties of a system are conserved, so in a sense is power. If your goal is to reduce the power of one agency in government, the most effective strategy is to strengthen the position of another. We know that absolute monarchies are bad: they represent unbalanced power.

Within a system, power will tend to consolidate. We have antitrust agencies specifically to monitor the consolidation of economic power and to do something about it. We setup independent branches of government to ensure that some kinds of power simply cannot be consolidated.

Undermining power in one section of an ecosystem inevitably strengthens the others.

Since we humans tend to think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, and since power takes a little while to get properly abused, you can often see societies oscillate in the allocation of power. When things seem a little out of control, we give more power to the police and other securocrats. Then, when they become a little thuggish, we squeeze their power through regulation and oversight, and civil liberties gain in power, until the pendulum swings again.

The necessity of concentrated power

Any power can be abused. I had a very wise headmaster at that same school who used to say that the only power worth having was power that was worth abusing. This was not a call to the abuse of power, you understand, merely a reflection on the fact that power comes with the real responsibility of restraint.

So, if power can be abused, why do we tolerate it at all? Why not dissolve authority down to the individual? Because the absence of power leads to chaos, which ironically is an easy place to establish despotic authority. Power isn’t seized – it’s given. We give people power over us. And in a state of chaos, all it takes is a few people to gain some power and they have a big advantage over everyone else. That’s why early leaders in new ecosystems tend to become unbeatable very quickly.

Also, power clears the path for action. In a world with no power, little gets done at all. We are better off with large companies that have the power to organise themselves around a goal than trying to achieve the same goal with a collection of individuals; try making a Boeing from an equivalent group of artisans, and you’ll see what I mean. Artisans form guilds and companies to increase their reach and impact. Individual volunteers join professional institutions to get more effective: consider the impact of handing out food yourself, versus helping sustain a network of soup kitchens, even in the purely non-profit world. Having some clout on your side is nothing to sniff at, even if you have purely philanthropic goals.

Power and innovation

If you have all the power already, there’s no spur to innovate. So kingdoms stagnate, eventually.

But power makes space for good things, too. It’s the powerful (and rich) who fund the arts in most societies. Innovation needs breathing space; companies with economic power can incubate new ideas to the point where they become productive.

Too much competition can thus limit innovation: look how difficult it has been for the Windows-based PC manufacturers, who live in a brutally competitive world and have little margin, to innovate. They are trapped between a highly efficient parts supply ecosystem, which feeds them all the same stuff at the same price, and a consumer market that requires them all to provide PC’s which run the same stuff the same way. As a result, they have little power, little margin, little innovation.

The trick is not to fear power itself, but instead, to shape, balance and channel it. You don’t want to aim for the absence of power, you want the Goldilocks effect of having “just enough”. And that was James Madison’s genius.

Verticals, competition and the balance of power

Of course, competition between rivals is the balance of power in business. We resent monopolies because they are either abusing their power, or stagnating.

In economics, we talk about “verticals” as the set of supply dependencies needed for a particular good. So, to make an aircraft, you need various things like engines and alloys, and those suppliers all feed the same pool of aircraft manufacturers.

In order to have a healthy ecosystem, you need a balance of power both between suppliers at the same level of the stack, and vertically, between the providers of parts and providers of the finished product. That’s because innovation needs both competition AND margin to stimulate and nurture it.

In the PC case, the low margins in the PC sector helped reinforce the Windows monopoly. Not only was there no competition for Microsoft, there was no ability for a supplier further down the chain to innovate around them. The only player in that ecosystem that had the margin to innovate was Microsoft, and since they faced no competition, there was little stimulus to embrace their own R&D, no matter how much they spent on it.

Power in the FLOSS ecosystem: upstreams and distributions

So, where do we stand in the free software and open source ecosystem?

The lines between upstreams and distributions aren’t perfectly clear, of course. Simplistic versions of that picture are often used to prove points, but in fact, all the distributions are also in some sense upstreams, and even derivative distributions end up being leaders of those they derive from in some pieces or markets. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth looking at the balance of power between upstream projects and distributions, as it is today and as it could be.

Also, I think it’s worth looking at related parties, companies and institutions which work a lot with FLOSS but have orthogonal interests.

If one uses margin, or profit, as an indicator of power, it’s clear that the distributions today are in a far stronger position than most individual projects or upstreams. The vast majority of software-related revenue in the FLOSS ecosystem goes to distributions.

Within that segment, Red Hat claims 80% market share of paid Linux, a number that is probably accurate. Novell, the de facto #2, is in the midst of some transition, but indicators are that it continues to weaken. Oracle’s entry into the RHEL market has had at best marginal impact on RHEL economics (the substantial price rises in RHEL 6 are a fairly clear signal of the degree to which Red Hat believes it faces real competition). The existence of “unpaid RHEL” in the form of CentOS, as well as OEL, essentially strengthens the position of RHEL itself. Ubuntu and Debian have large combined levels of adoption, but low revenue.

So clearly, there is work to do just to balance power in the distribution market. And it will take work – historically, platforms tend to monopolies, and in the absence of a definitive countervailing force that establishes strength outside the RHEL gravity well, that’s what we’ll have. But that’s not the most interesting piece. What’s more interesting is the dynamic between distributions and upstreams.

Today, most upstreams are weak. They have little institutional strength. It’s generally difficult to negotiate and do business with an upstream. In many cases, that’s by design – the teams behind a project are simply not interested, or they are explicitly non-profit, as in the case of the FSF, which makes them good leaders of specific values, but difficult to engage with commercially.

As a result, those who need to do business with open source go to distributions, even in cases where they really want to be focused on a particular component. This greatly amplifies the power of the distributions: they essentially are the commercial vehicles for ALL of open source. The weakness of individual upstreams turns into greater strength for distributions.

You can imagine that distributions like it that way, and it would be surprising to see a distribution, or company that backs a distribution, arguing for stronger upstreams. But that’s exactly the position I take: FLOSS needs stronger upstreams, and as a consequence, weaker distributions.

Stronger upstreams will result in more innovation in FLOSS than stronger distributions. Essentially, like Microsoft, a distribution receives cash for the whole platform and allocates it to specific areas of R&D. That means the number of good ideas that receive funding in our ecosystem, today, is dependent on the insights of a very few companies. Just as Microsoft invested a lot in R&D and yet seemed to fall behind, upstream innovation will be strangled if it’s totally dependent on cash flow via distributions.

It’s not just innovation that suffers because we don’t have more power, or economic leverage, in the hands of upstreams. It’s also the myriad of things beyond code itself. When you have a company behind a project, they tend to take care of a lot more than just the code: QA, documentation, testing, promotion. It’s easy, as a developer, to undervalue those things, or to see them as competing for resources with the “real work” of code. But that competition is necessary, and they make a great contribution to the dynamism of the final product.

Consider the upstream projects which have been very successful over the long term. Qt and MySQL, for example, both had companies behind them that maintained strong leverage over the product. That leverage was often unpopular, but the result was products available to all of us under a free license that continued to grow in stature, quality and capability despite the ups and downs of the broader market, and without being too dependent on the roving spotlight of “coolness”, which tends to move quickly from project to project.

There are of course successful upstream projects which do not have such companies. The best example is probably the Linux kernel itself. However, those projects fall into a rather unusual category: they are critical to some large number of companies that make money in non-software ways, and those companies are thus forced to engage with the project and contribute. In the case of the kernel, hardware companies directly and indirectly underwrite the vast majority of the boring but critical work that, in other projects, would be covered by the sponsoring institution. And despite that, there are many gaps in the kernel. You don’t have to dig very hard to find comments from key participants bemoaning the lack of testing and documentation. Nevertheless, it gets by quite well under the circumstances.

But most ecosystems will have very few projects that are at such a confluence. Most upstream projects are the work of a few people, the “coolness” spotlight shines on them briefly if at all. They need either long term generosity from core contributors, or an institution to house and care for them, if they want to go the distance. The former rarely works for more than a few years.

Projects which depend on indirect interests, such as those sponsored by hardware companies, have another problem. Their sponsoring institutions are generally not passionate about software. They don’t really need or want to produce GREAT software. And if you look at the projects which get a lot of such contributions, that becomes very obvious. Compare and contrast the quality of apps from companies which deeply care about software from those which come from hardware companies, and you see what I mean.

We FLOSS folk like to tell ourselves that the Windows hegemony was purely a result of the manipulations of its sponsor, and the FLOSS as we do it today is capable of doing much more if it only had a fair chance. I don’t think, having watched the success of iOS and Android as new ecosystems, that we can justify that position any longer. I think we have to be willing to think hard about what we are willing to change if we want to have the chance of building an ecosystem as strong, but around GNU/Linux. Since that’s my goal, I’m thinking very hard about that, and creatively. I think it’s possible, but not without challenging some sacred cows and figuring out what values we want to preserve and which we can remould.

Power is worth having in your ecosystem, despite its occasional abuse

There’s no doubt that power created will be abused. That’s true of a lot of important rights and powers. For example, we know that free speech is often abused, but we nevertheless value it highly in many societies that are also big contributors to FLOSS. You probably know the expression, “I disagree with what you are saying entirely, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Similarly, in our ecosystem, power will be abused. But it’s still worth helping institutions acquire it, even those we dislike or distrust, or those we compete with. At Canonical, we’ve directly and indirectly helped lots of institutions that you could describe that way – Oracle, Novell, Red Hat, Intel and many others. The kneejerk reaction is usually “no way”, but upon deeper thought, we figured that it is better to have an ecosystem of stronger players, considering the scale of the battle with the non-FLOSS world.

I often find people saying “I would help an institution if I thought I could trust it”. And I think that’s a red herring, because just as power will be abused, trust will be abused too. If you believe that this is a battle of ecosystems and platforms, you want to have as many powerful competitors in your ecosystem as possible, even though you probably cannot trust any of them in the very long term. It’s the competition between them that really creates long term stability, to come back to the thinking of James Madison. It’s pitting ambition against ambition, not finding angels, which makes that ecosystem a winner. If you care about databases, don’t try to weaken MySQL, because you need it strong when you need it. Rather figure out how to strengthen PostGRES alongside it.

How Canonical fits in

Canonical is in an interesting position with regard to all of this. As a distribution, we could stay silent on the issue, and reasonably expect to grow in power over time, on the same basis that Red Hat has. And there are many voices in Canonical that say exactly that: don’t rock the boat, essentially.

However, perhaps unlike other Linux distributions, Canonical very much wants to see end users running free software, and not just IT professionals. That raises the bar dramatically in terms of the quality of the individual pieces. It means that it’s not good enough for us to work in an ecosystem which produces prototype or rough cut products, which we then aggregate and polish at the distribution level. Unlike those who have gone before, we don’t want to be the sole guarantor of quality in our ecosystem, because that will not scale.

For that reason, looking at the longer term, it’s very important to me that we figure out how to give more power to upstreams, so that they in turn can invest in producing components or works which have the completeness and quality that end-users expect. I enjoy working with strong commercial institutions in the open source ecosystem – while they always represent some competitive tension, they also represent the opportunity to help our ecosystem scale and out-compete the proprietary world. So I’d like to find ways to strengthen the companies that have products under free software, and encourage more that have proprietary projects to make them available under free licenses, even if that’s not the only way they publish them.

If you’ve read this far, you probably have a good idea where I’m going with this. But I have a few more steps before actually getting there. More soon.

Till then, I’m interested in how people think we can empower upstream projects to be stronger institutionally.

There are a couple of things that are obvious and yet don’t work. For example, lots of upstreams think they should form a non-profit institution to house their work. The track record of those is poor: they get setup, and they fail as soon as they have to file their annual paperwork, leaving folks like the SFLC to clean up the mess. Not cool. At the end of the day, such new institutions add paperwork without adding funding or other sources of energy. They don’t broaden out the project the same way a company writing documentation and selling services usually does. On the other hand, non-profits like the FSF which have critical mass are very important, though, which is why on occasion we’ve been happy to contribute to them in various ways.

Also, I’m interested in how we can reshape our attitudes to power. Today, the tenor of discussion in most FLOSS debates is simplistic: we fear power, and we attempt to squash it always, celebrating the individual. But that misses the point that we are merely strengthening the power elsewhere; in distributions, in other ecosystems. We need a richer language for describing “the Goldilocks power” balance, and how we can move beyond FUD.

So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?

I’ll summarise interesting comments and threads in the next post.

143 Responses to “On balancing economic power in the FLOSS ecosystem”

  1. Graham Lucking Says:

    Hi Mark

    At the bottom of your blog you asked this question: “So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?”

    Did anybody in all these posts answer you question? A few did. A lot of responders used the opportunity to attack you, your company and the distribution that it funds. If this is typical of people involved in Linux development than I can understand if the idealistic Mark Shuttleworth that funded and allowed free distribution of the Ubuntu is now a somewhat frustrated Mark Shuttleworth.

    Of those that gave an answer to your question, they seemed to be saying carry on as before. I think that you were looking for something other than that.

    May I direct your attention to the second paragraph in Eduard Grebe’s post on June 7th. He seems to have it spot on. When you have device/gadget makers selling products by the ton (or is that tonne) and paying for the privilege of using an open source operating system and applications then you have a means of funding all those involved in the OS and applications. Even if the method is absent.

    Up until now the makers of products have seen open source as a means of reducing their costs. And open source supports have just been thankful/grateful that open source was getting somewhere. But it was not going anywhere was it? How much money was any one in open source development receiving for this free (as in not paying a penny for it) software?

    I think that I am echoing your own aims of having a quality OS with quality applications that hardware product makers will pay to install on their products. You could of course pay your own employees to do this. Then you could make all the deals you can. And maybe your company will reap the financial gain. But I do not think that is your purpose.

    I like Unity by the way.


  2. Mal Says:

    “So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?”

    Not certain anyone has “the” answer.

    Stepping back a little….

    Desmond Tutu further explained Ubuntu in 2008 (Source wikipedia)

    One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.

    We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.

    Somehow I feel we need to advance this philosophy, which IMO has been beautifully elucidated above.

    Ubuntu (and its derivatives) has reached all corners of the globe.

    A story to digress a little…
    An OEM copy of Windows 7 ( is $199.99 I know there are places you can pay more/less in the USA, I am simply using Microsoft’s own store as a baseline.
    In Laos (as in many countries) – (source ) the minimum wage is $67.00 per month. Three months wages to buy the OS. Then you must configure and load software to make it usable. Mostly “freeware” will do this for you.

    Computers are often donated to the third world and DO reach many homes. I have cycled from Vientiane to Cambodia (and well beyond) and can attest to this. Software Piracy is of course rife, however, even a pirate copy can consume two days pay.
    Ubuntu can be had by sending an email. Of course it has most of what one needs to work and play “out of the box”

    Would it be possible to carefully craft a statement asking those from the more wealthy nations to donate to a fund, that will ensure quality free software for all the worlds people. NO COMPULSION just a simple “do it if you feel you should” I understand the dynamics would be mind-boggling.

    I feel strongly that for our fellow humans to enter the information age, we need to pursue “mind-boggling” solutions.

    Can we really do it without money entering the equation somewhere?

  3. srinivas v Says:

    @ Mark,
    “Empower software companies”. Yes you do understand that they are powerless with the copyleft software available right in front of them, but they dont want to take it. So u are going to “empower” them so that they know “ways” to use the hardwork of freedom coders. And, who is afraid of them, Well, u are. Its obvious.

    There are no monarchies in the freedom software world. The author, the user, the contributor, the maintainer everybody is a monarch. They live in a free world and enjoy their freedom.

    There is order in chaos. U just have to look for it. Take any freedom software project as an example(why not urs).

    Freedom software and freedom in general is a passion. It has to be experienced to understand it. Free urself from appeasing big organizations and start helping all the government schools in the world to start using GNU/* . U will see the freedom in the eyes of the children.

    I dont know how this word “fear” has gotten into you. What are u fearing?. That u may not get back ur ROI, That ur project may fail, That u neglected the corporate sector and concentrated on the desktop market, That u may not be able to sell boxed ubuntu GNU/Linux on a store shelf. I dont know.

    The FLOSS eco-system is driven by ideologies. Ideologies are theoritical perfections which people/organizations should thrive to achieve. The freedom ecosystem is not run by POWER.

    Did u send this post to all the CEO/CTO/C** of all the companies whom u fear and have asked u to represent them.

    Thank ur lucky stars that GNU/HURD did not take off. You would not have found an ally from the free software foundation like linus.

    Freedom software has stood the test of time and will continue. There is no “fear” and no necessity of “power” only passion.

  4. Petr Šigut Says:

    I believe that Gimp is really strong software and I am thinking day and night how to make it profitable… I am not developer.

    Many graphic artists, photographers… are using it everyday and earn enough money for life. If every of them would pay for Gimp, the developers would be millionaires.

    But I know we can do better than just selling software, it is old model in this case.

    1. Addons: Gimp has great possibilities of extension. Paid brushes, now you have to hunt them on web, I can imagine buying them through software center/gimp. Not only brushes – plugins, photo filters… everything people can do using Gimp, because if they will be earning money through it, they will help improve Gimp itself.

    2. Bundling/Branding Gimp with hardware – with cameras etc. – vendor can brand Gimp, easily add plugins, … they can do it for free with GPL, but we can help them.

    3. Micro payments. I am not big fan of them, but if we would have nice web-page like Mozilla does for Firefox extension, I believe we can earn some money.

    4. Gimp “business” is run by developers – they do their work extremely well, but maybe they are even not interested in thinking about how to make money through their work…

    5. Ubuntu One cloud integration, I thing there are possibility improve graphic workflow with this service – sharing images, etc.

    6. I do not believe we will find some universal approach to turn every free software into money. We have to work hard and uniquely on every of them.

    7. Is there anybody interested in creating “Gimp foundation”?:)

  5. Shuttleworth: The power distribution in the FLOSS ecosystem Says:

    […] blog post from Mark Shuttleworth is extremely extensive. In the real world, he writes, many organizations compete for power. Without […]

  6. Andre Says:

    “So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?”

    Very simple, first of all we need to embrace state funding of information infrastructure, see PyPy.

    We also have to institutionalise projects quickly. We gathered a lot of experience in Germany how to set up non-profits.

    And we have to provide windows builds because this leads to a larger user base and Windows is a more static runtime environment destination and features mature debuggers. You also need nightly builds. That makes software then rock-solid and rock-solidity results in an AAA rating.

    Often it’s all or nothing.

  7. René Peinl Says:

    I think there are several drawbacks of open source development projects. First of all, it is more attractive to work on your own project on the greenfield, than contributing to existing projects. The result of that is, that we have e.g. a hundred OSS CMS systems and nearly as many wikis but most of them do nothing better than the alternatives. What we would need instead is a single digit number of high quality CMS systems that are supported by large communities of developers.

    Then in many OSS projects it is amazingly hard to contribute. I tried myself to contribute to OpenOffice a few years ago but gave up after several emails and weeks of struggles with the main developers. Developers should invest more time in lowering the entry barrier for potential contributors by providing tutorials and documentation instead of writing the 96th feature.

    Finally, I agree with Mark, that power is a key factor in OSS projects. I have the feeling, that many projects struggle with getting a common sense on the next steps and therefore, important decisions are delayed or not taken at all due to dissent in the developer community. Sometimes it is important to have a leader that gives directions and has the ability to convince has followers. Those charismatic leaders like Steve Jobs or (maybe) Linus Torwalds are missing in many projects. Although I don’t think dictatorship is good and desirable, we all have to admit that sometimes it is far much efficient than democracy, as China demonstrates so obviously in the last years.

  8. Hartmut Noack Says:

    > So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s,

    Just become a Sponsor for projects, that have the nucleus of a pro-software-project allready. The plan, the organisation, responsible people, disciplin, communication.

    Did someone mention Ardour yet?

    Paul Davis is a pro and his team is pro-class also. And Ardour is at the level of some other big players already — all it needs is money. And not much of it compared to the spendings, commercial companies use to allow their dev-teams to prey upon.

    There are other projects, that could become pro-grade also in little time if they make a commitment to become professional software-makers, get a little help to build an organisation and, most of all a reason to make such a commitment: money that is.

    best regards

  9. LinuxLife Blog - News: Shuttleworth: Die Machtverteilung im FLOSS-Ökosystem Says:

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  10. Volker Birk Says:

    What’s missing? In short: financing. Nothing else.

    If you’re not in Silicon Valley, then there is a bad truth: There ain’t no VC in Europe. We’re doing and some more since years. And a lack of financing is all what we’re suffering from. All we have is what we’re earning in doing projects for customers, so we can live.

    We tried doing a consumer project – and again, after already selling the first 100’000 pieces in two weeks, we were stopped by a lack of financing in 2008 again, so we couldn’t start production and had to shut down.

    We’re bursting because of having code base (we created a mobile operating system, the navigation software, a car tolling system, and much more, and everything is still here), but there is no financing. So no products.


  11. Garry Says:

    A lot of the responses to this post depress me. I switched from Windows to Ubuntu about three years ago. Only Ubuntu had anything like the polish needed to attract an average non-technical user and I still think that’s true — my last three attempts to install Fedora to try it out have failed.

    I know lots of Ubuntu users and none of us are IT professionals. My point is that, if you want FLOSS to become the dominant model of software production, you have to attract end-users like me and my friends who are, by definition, neither capable of nor available for contributing to the eco-system as anything other than a paying customer. The idea that everyone can add some code to make an application better for them and eventually we’ll all be programmers is ridiculous. There are vast numbers of people who have no interest in being programmers but just want tools that work.

    Mark has put in a lot of effort and money, neither of which he needed to do, to making this happen and, in the process, has widened the audience for several shared FLOSS projects. I therefore think the attitudes of some posters, and I’ll single out Joe Linux and Bradley Kuhn because frankly I think they deserve it, border on disgusting.

    If you don’t like the software he funds then don’t use it. If you don’t like the business practices or development methods he promotes then don’t use them. But lets be clear, the ‘rancor’ (sic) in this conversation started in the comments, not the article.

    To return to the topic at hand — I think the comments suggesting developing a strong equipment brand custom making machines running FLOSS and a unified, simple app store both have the highest chance of bringing revenue into the system. The problem with becoming an OEM is that you’re competing with Apple, and there’s about three companies on Earth with more revenue to play with than they have. That’s not easy to compete with.

    That leaves the unified Linux app store. The politics of setting that up perfectly would be impossible, so lets assume that a few major players at least sign up to it (managing packaging differences behind the scenes at the distro level). In my view this can work if the app store is the simplest way to get software and, crucially, doesn’t even offer it free. By all means, let technical users apt-get software free from the repositories but, if you want the developers to be able to feed and clothe their families from their projects alone, you need to let users who don’t mind paying for software that is convenient to install and use do so. There is ample evidence from other businesses that customers are perfectly happy to pay for things they don’t need to if it’s made easy and makes the process of getting and using the product they want quicker and easier. I would envisage distros taking a cut of this to fund marketing the distro and also developing the ‘unsexy’ tools that no-one is going to pay for.

    Last point, I’d just like to thank you, Mark, for your commitment to Ubuntu. I can honestly say my life has been better since switching from XP as my computer used to be a daily frustration. I’m really starting to like Unity, too.

  12. phonixor Says:

    i think for most FLOSS the only option is donations… then if an app becomes popular enough, they can decide to spend more time on it… (becoming more then just a hobby)
    mainly because if its a fixed price, it will just be copied and repackaged (that’s one of the great things about it!)
    if it doesn’t get enough donations to make it interesting for the developer, then one might wonder if he would have survived as a closed source… competition means death!
    its just an extra stimuli for if the love for coding on its own isn’t enough (a lot of abandoned projects out there 🙂 )

    i do think that the decisions to add payment/donations in the software center might be enough on its own, if implemented well. This model has already been proven: angry birds for example may have started on the very locked in iOS system (dunno for sure), but thanks to that, they got the resources to be independent of apple… though angry birds is not FLOSS… so its different… but still, i don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel…

    maybe make the donations go through a third party… like // (or just like the paypal donatate buttons, but then using ubuntu one cash or something…)
    cause as said before, this need to be very easy “1 clickish”

    maybe you can work together with flattr, or others to setup some kind of bounty targets so that developers can ask money before they start working on features… and implement this in the software center… (bridging the gap between user and developer)

    well that’s my inexperienced and unoriginal look on it 🙂

    the chicken/egg problem remains ubuntu’s critical mass/lack of momentum…
    ones unity reaches maturity Canonical should definitely try some direct hardware sales (through partners like OLPC, DELL, just like google did whit its G1 and nexus) (and get some serious game developer partners please :P)
    for the mean time Canonical needs to make sure that its an easy development platform… including the software tools and default api’s (support only a few not 100 (they can still be hacked by the community anyways))… i think they should remove all apps from the repo, that do not integrate well with unity… (remove the universe repo!) and improve the PPA like system so that not library apps can be put here and be kept up-to-date more directly by the developers (also add android like app limits by using app-armor if possible, to prevent malware, and integrate this in the software center)

  13. Wolf Says:

    With all due respect to Mark Shuttleworth’s achievements this blog entry demonstrates a clear lack of understanding how open source works.

    While I agree that strengthening the up-stream development is essential, one must understand the mechanics of how code gets submitted to the FLOSS community. When the blog claims that code quality is minuscule, it should be clear that code submissions are only made as long as they do not touch a companies core competence. If the company has strong patents to support code issues, then there might be a larger share (but then again, this code is threatened by patent protection).

    Up-stream development is certainly not a question of the community letting companies enter. Large companies access, align and assimilate community efforts at will. Up-stream development also happens within educational institutes like universities. While they can effort to submit freely, their stamina to enhance code is limited.

    If funding up-stream development is essential (and I agree with Mr. Shuttleworth on this), if development targets need to be defined and controlled, then free riding by large distribution vendors is counter productive. They (aka SuSE, RedHat, Ubuntu, cannot expect someone else to do the work and pay the money so that their distribution shines.

    THe blog claims that Android and iOS were developed in a few years and led to success. For one, both OS’s were built on a strong, pre-existing, foundation. The companies had a vital interest to extend their reach (Google’s Ad and services, Apples iTunes). They provided what Erlich and Aviv call widget frosting (because the primary goal was to develop an access token for their service). In fact this development is similar to the embedded Linux on my Samsung TV and home entertainment devices. So essentially I believe that the opening statement has nothing to do with the core question raised.

    Back to the main question: How can up-stream development be funded and energetically enhanced?

    Distribution vendors have to share some of their revenue to fund common up-stream development. As long as they try free riding, no serious development will take place other than that coming from existing sources in well-known quality.

    Some issues that need addressing:
    – common style guide (covering all aspects of software engineering): software needs to become as usable as set-top boxes.
    – interoperability: as long as there is proprietary software, it is the responsibility of open source to provide filters to access proprietary data stores. Adhering to standards is nice. Call on Microsoft to do the same.
    – long term roadmap: a commonly (between distribution ventors) accepted roadmap will make it easier for companies, universities and even freelance developers to provide solutions. Allot bounties like Googles summer of code to get awareness and contributions.
    – enhanced quality offensive: FLOSS code submissions are scrutinized with respect to code quality. Usability and utility are secondary thoughts. If they are added to acceptance criteria, they will be provided.
    – provide mentoring: Young people are energetic, enthusiastic and sparkling with ideas. And they work for minimal wages. However, they lack experience and foresight. I recommend mentoring and supervision when it comes to contribute solutions.

    There are plenty of other things that need addressing. But I think, if we start on the issues stated above, it will lead to an overall improvement.

    Hope this helps
    (All statements above are supported by academic research)

  14. Ahmed Says:

    Hi Mark:)
    It is true that you want to replace Firefox by “Chromium”?
    Specify please do you replace Firefox by open “Chromium” or proprietary “Google Chrome”?

  15. Garry Says:

    My first comment seems to have disappeared so apologies if this ends up becoming a double post. My idea is below and I include the caveat that, since this is a blog reply, I have not reserached this thoroughly.

    See if the big players (Ubuntu, Fedora, SUSE, Debian) would sign up to creating a common app-store for *all* OSs, which could handle packaging differences behind the scenes rather than asking the user to get technical (by, for example, including a signature on the user’s connection idendifying whether they need a deb, rpm, dmg or exe).

    The conditions of the app-store I propose would be:
    * NO software was free as in beer (explanation to follow);
    * all software must work properly without the need for visiting forums or performing workarounds to be placed on the store;
    * revenue from apps sold is split 75-25 developer-distro;
    * the store itself must be simple, attractive and easy to navigate.
    * the distros agree to make the store application the simplest and most prominent means of installing new software.

    While no free (beer) software would be available on the store, one would still be able to install if through apt-get or similar on the same terms as now. Windows and OS X users using the store would just have to pay. The concept I’m aiming for here is one that economists call a hurdle discount.

    For those who don’t know the term, users who aren’t price sensitive (usually because they have plenty of money) pay a small price to get their software through a fast, convenient interface that also implies some quality testing and they are therefore happy. Since Windows and OS X users have already chosen the proprietary world it’s safe to assume they fall into this category. Users who are price sensitive, either through lack of money, frugality, or an ideological commitment, put in a small extra effort to get their software free. Essentially, those who aren’t price sensitive subsidise those who are. This is a well-established business practice and could be worth trying, if any polirical resistance could be overcome.

  16. Kim Leyendecker Says:


    >So, what do you think we could do to create more Mozilla’s, more MySQL’s, more Qt’s and more OpenStacks?

    We need Collaboration, not a *pointless* discussion about balance and power… We neeed to bundle our forces, and not to talk about community-members like “Thy got to much forces on their side, and we got to less….”)

    Really, talk about collaboration or just shut the hell up.

    Sorry for the rant, but I´m kinda sick of such topics. Not the community is the enemy, even Microsoft isn´t. The real enemy is the voice in our mind which says, that we shouldn´t work together and fight against linux-projects and companies, even if you actually should work togeher with them.

    just my $0.02

    kdl (

  17. Kosta Kontos Says:

    Hi Mark

    Firstly, thanks for taking the time to explain the balance of economic power in FLOSS ecosystems. I particularly enjoyed your insight on how margins (between vertical markets) and competition (between horizontal markets) influence innovation.

    Now, as for your question, I’d like to propose an idea: offer a “I’m a FLOSS supporter” version of Ubuntu.

    To download this unique version of Ubuntu from your “Download Ubuntu” website, I have to pay for it. Payment could be a minimum of $10, but anything over and above that would also acceptable. This can be handled through a simple credit-card / paypal payment process on the Ubuntu Download page. In exchange, I would get this unique “I’m a FLOSS supporter” version of Ubuntu, along with a unique key.

    Then, once I’ve downloaded this unique version of Ubuntu and installed it, I have the ability to “cast my vote” for which FLOSS project I want my money (whatever I paid earlier) to go towards. Or, alternatively, I can opt to have my money be evenly distributed amongst all the FLOSS packages included in this version of Ubuntu.

    Regardless of how I cast my vote, I have to use my unique key to do so, and can only cast a vote once for this key. Thus it would be useful if the system that allows me to cast my vote (whether it’s a built-in package in my Ubuntu install or a restricted-access section on your website) provides me with all the useful information I would want to know before casting my vote, such as brief overviews of the FLOSS projects I have the ability to vote for as well as statistics on past votes. You could even recommend which FLOSS projects are looking hot and could use more funds, etc.

    Of course, if I’m a user that is not all that clued up on FLOSS (ie: my grandmother), or I’m simply not interested in downloading this unique version and voting / funding FLOSS (ie: it’s the 10th time I’m downloading Ubuntu this month), I can still download the original Ubuntu installation for free, which is exactly the same except it does not grant me the right to cast a vote (and thus help fund FLOSS).

    Looking forward to your follow-up blog post.

    Cheers from Cape Town,

  18. Kosta Kontos Says:

    (This is a follow-up from my previous comment)

    Ok so having slept on the matter, I think the notion of having a separate / unique “I’m a FLOSS supporter” version of Ubuntu is an unnecessary overhead. An online FLOSS-funding portal on – with the funding statistics and other useful information I described previously – would suffice.

    Then it’s also worth considering that the average Joe won’t feel any urge to donate. Our best bet may just be to find a way to incentivise commerical entities who use Ubuntu to make small contributions on this portal. Perhaps such donations could be construed as tax-deductible? I wonder if there is room for this argument given that the receiving FLOSS projects are indeed owned and maintained by non-profit organisations?

    Assuming this is possible, our governments (and their respective revenue-collection authorities) might still be weary about granting such tax incentives if the receiving FLOSS projects’ companies aren’t in the same country. So, for example, we’d have to find a way to allow companies in South Africa to donate to FLOSS-nonprofits also registered in South Africa.

    But this doesn’t sound to “balanced”… as funds would vary wildly from one country to the next, probably slanting towards the more developed nations of this world (I’m guessing). That’s ok I guess. Developed nations have the resources (knowledge workers with spare time and money) to run and fund FLOSS projects. Developing nations can benefit from this. It could end up being a form of global re-distribution of wealth.

    But all of that is just an idea; a hazy one at best.

    What seems to stick out for me is that yes – FLOSS revenues are funnelled through the Distributor. This is just the way it works. We – the users – are all customers of the Distributor, and the Distributor is the customer of the individual FLOSS projects. So while we – the users – have the capacity to fund the Distributor directly, it’s up to the Distributor to see that these funds are passed on to the FLOSS projects they depend on.

    Thus, while having an online funding portal for individual FLOSS projects is one way to help the end-user directly fund FLOSS projects, perhaps a simpler way is to simply sell Ubuntu for a fee. This would allow you (Canonical) to to fund the FLOSS projects Ubuntu depends on. And of course, you’d have to be completely transparent about who you choose to fund and why.

    I imagine there will be plenty of concern with this model. For example, you would have a lot of people moaning that the software should be free (as in gratis). Well for them you could have an Ubuntu “skeleton” release, which they can download for free but that has no FLOSS packages pre-installed. They can then use synapactic package manager to download whatever FLOSS packages they want, without having to pay a cent.

    But if people want the traditional version of Ubuntu – that comes pre-packaged with at least 1 FLOSS package for each core function – then they should be prepared to pay a fee. Again, you could charge a minimum of $10… and leave it up to the end-user to decide if they want to contribute more.

    This model still beats the pants off of proprietary software, imho.


  19. eerman Says:

    zelrik says: (permalink)
    June 8th, 2011 at 12:28 am

    “The problem with opensource is that as soon as it’s released, the value drops.”


    Johnsie says: (permalink)
    June 7th, 2011 at 11:35 pm

    “Unity Rocks. Thanks Mark and all the other developers”


    Some of these fews been dinkin the danky dank.

  20. Olivier Says:

    Thank you Mark for this thoughtful analysis.

    I have been the co-founder of a FLOSS non-profit organization which did not make it past its first three years. When you write “At the end of the day, such new institutions add paperwork without adding funding or other sources of energy” I can testify that this is entirely true. Non-profits bring trust from contributors — nothing else. The majority of end-users doesn’t care/notice. Certainly, to bring economic/decisional/market power, a non-profit structure must reach critical size that is way, way beyond for-profit organisations.

    The problem of money indeed translates into problems of quality and sustainability in the FLOSS world, and we are not good at admitting this. It’s a matter of culture, I think.

    I’m not able to make strong propositions but I’ll conclude on a few remarks.

    1. As long as the amount of structure and financial support for a project is small the way to go is with SFLC-like organisations. We need structures like this outside of the US (ability to receive money is hindered by border changes and “tax-deductible” status).

    2. We need to encourage for-profit activities by individuals within projects. As a freelance worker today my economical power and ability to sustain myself are far, far beyond those I enjoyed when part of the non-profit organisation. [NB: the requirement for constant transparency ends up being mostly a burden (look at The Document Foundation today for example).]
    The jump from hobby to earning one’s living with a project is huge and it needs to be climbed, experimented with, in small manageable steps.

    3. We need to recognise and encourage non-code writing activities within communities. Communicating and implementing a vision, focusing on the user as a customer, committing to cross-community standards are what will get us out of where we are now. One often cannot do that if driven solely by the love of Python or the scratching of a persistent itch. In other words we need more people like Mitchell Baker and more SABDFLs that don’t spend their time buried in code.

    I think we are making progress at 3 but that is a slow process. As for 1 and 2, working on our seemingly-chosen allergy to money would be the first step in my view.

    So yes, we have a good idea where you’re going with this =) Keep going, and please keep this discussion alive. We need to have it.

  21. Stephan Says:

    An upstream company is powerful in relation to its customers if it has many customers but few competitors. I think the same is true for upstream FOSS-projects and distributions: Too many upstream projects and very few operating systems they run on. Whatever cross platform FOSS software I can think of -Firefox, Thunderbird, VLC, LibreOffice, QT- they are far more polished than their Linux only peers. My first impression of Clementine -still young- is very good, as well.

    One reason might be that they are more likely to have the power to get some of the scarce resources available to FOSS projects despite powerful distributions. But there is another, more important reason: You learn from playing on tough markets. It is the same as with cars – all successful manufacturers have always tried to be successful in the largest market ( US equals Windows?), in the premium market (German Autobahnen – the MacOs of Cars?), and in some kind of emerging market (Linux). Thus, my recommendation in order to strengthen upstream projects is to incentivice them to go cross platform. Help them measure what they’ve done by developing cross platform FOSS-libraries and web based tools that enable upstream projects to both easily track customer satisfaction and get ideas from their customers.

  22. Barbie Says:

    ‘Here here’ Kosta from Cape Town I echo what you have to say! Don’t really know if Mark Shuttleworth allows echoes on his blog but I echo your views regardless!!

  23. Olivier Says:

    Mark, please check your akismet queue, my comment has been there for a while now :-/

  24. Mirek2 Says:

    I think the best way to get people to donate money to a project is by a) asking them to donate only when money is really needed, and b) telling them what their money will be used for. That’s one of the reasons why I really love Kickstarter, and why I think it’s so successful. It’s also the reason why the Wikimedia Foundation always gets its funding (remember the banners?). That is, people know what the funding’s for, and they also know that it’s really needed right now and that it’s not just a company that’s continually asking for money, no matter how much is donated or how much it’s needed.

    I know that the Software Center is supposed to gain donation buttons with the next release, but it’d be great if they took some ideas from Kickstarter — perhaps have a “Projects that need your help” section on the home page, perhaps tell people what their money could do, perhaps let them vote with their money on what features will be worked on with a software project, perhaps have a banner pop up from time to time when an important project is in dire need of funding… I’m just spitballing here, but I’m sure that if people were told what kind of impact their donation would have, they would be less shy of donating.

  25. zelrik Says:

    I really like Mirek2’s suggestion. It kinda matches what I had in mind.

    Despite the many improvements of Ubuntu over the past years, I feel Canonical is simply not bold enough. I am not sure where is the problem here, the software center should have been full of paid 3rd party apps by now, Ubuntu should have been pre-installed on more hardware by now. I agree things take time but come on.. Ubuntu appeared for the first time like 6 years ago ? (correct me if I am wrong). By comparison, Android is much younger and look at where they are at now. You may say, ‘Google has deep pockets’ etc but I could ask you in return: why dont you have deep pockets yet? I think the answer is that you’re simply not hungry enough. A few thoughts:

    1 – Start charging your users somehow. I am sure many like Ubuntu enough to give you money.
    2 – Stop copying/following others, teach them how to design an OS instead!
    3 – Get those proprietary 3rd party apps on your platform FFS! Not away from it that is:

  26. Shuttleworth: Distribusi Kekuasaan Di Ekosistem FLOSS « GudangLinux Says:

    […] Ubuntu, Mark Shuttleworth menulis pandangannya tentang distribusi kekuasaan di lingkungan FLOSS. Tulisan Blog yang cukup rinci dan mengundang diskusi kontroversial diantara pakar terutama dalam upaya menemukan […]

  27. lalop Says:

    You need to bundle Ubuntu into “official” systems, a la Macintosh, on which you’ve made absolutely sure it “just works”. The (usual, run-of-the-mill) end user does not give two cents about anything else; this is why Apple has been so successful.

    This would give additional exposure to Ubuntu as a human-friendly operating system, and to the notion of Linux itself, something that is still sorely needed.

    Ultimately, the strongest (and arguably only) way to get companies writing programs for Linux is to make Linux popular in the first place. I don’t think there’s much you can do about that except to make Ubuntu more popular, and hope the others follow by example. The “OS for everyone” was a great start to this, but isn’t it time to take that next step and guarantee it’s working on Ubuntu-hardware?

  28. lalop Says:

    Better yet, call it the “Canonical hardware” for Ubuntu :p

  29. Celso Says:



    “Start charging your users somehow. I am sure many like Ubuntu enough to give you money.”- Check the ubuntu website
    and check “Ubuntu is, and ALWAYS WILL BE, absolutely free. “! Your idea is going against the philosophy that ubuntu is based on. Instead Canonical should use some sort of donation system using paypal or something. But i understand your idea!

    @All ubuntu devs:
    Thanks for the help on developing ubuntu!

  30. zelrik Says:


    I don’t think that model is in contradiction with what you just stated:

    Canonical shouldn’t refuse money from their fans just because Ubuntu is Free.

  31. Tumbes2000 Says:

    At the end of the day, FLOSS projects, without financial support, are nothing but hobbies. Many of them are quite good, but the project is done at the expense of the programmer, that is his time. Now the programmer might be quite committed to the project and does a great job, but the ultimately there is no financial consequence for failure. For example, I play footy is the US. Me and my teammates have spent a lot of time and money traveling to play footy and we strive to win, but not attending practice or games does not have any financial consequence on my life. I do it because I enjoy doing it and nobody is willing to pay me to do it. Now because I cannot support myself by playing footy I have to have another activity that brings in the funds CRE investment, that is my profession. I think this is evident in Ubuntu. It has succeeded so quickly because Mr. Shuttleworth’s willingness to pay programmers to work on the Ubuntu project, so it is not their hobby, but their profession.

    Ubuntu’s success, therefore, is linked to the success of Cononical, that is its ability to profit from Ubuntu. Now Ubuntu’s strength, the free support of thousands of enthusiastic programmers, makes the job of profiting from Ubuntu complicated. How can a company profit from the free work of others? Of course it would be impractical to hire everyone who wants to contribute and even if Cononical did, Ubuntu becomes proprietary in essence. I think what Cononical is doing, by providing support related services as a fee is a good avenue, but probably not sufficient at the end of the day. Probably what needs to happen is that commercial licenses are created to help generate revenue and since companies are making money from using Ubuntu it would seem logical to pay for that tool. From the increased revenue Cononical could hire additional full time programmers to add polish or maybe assume sponsorship of LibreOffice given its overall importance to the commercial market. Yet what about people wanting to contribute and the importance of a vibrant community? I think the way to encourage continued community involvement is recognition of someone’s work (Karma as its called in launchpad). Yet I would take it a step further, maybe assign a “bounty” to certain bugs or features that need to be fixed or created. So time consuming or skill-taxing contributions will actually provide the contributor with a financial reward. Think freelance photography or graphic design.

    Overall I am happy that this type of discussion, by one of the leaders in the linux community, is out there. It makes me hopefully that a linux desktop (specifically Ubuntu) would become an important player in the desktop OS marketplace soon.

  32. mlux Says:

    “Ubuntu appeared for the first time like 6 years ago ? (correct me if I am wrong). By comparison, Android is much younger and look at where they are at now.”

    look at apple. they are very long long time in the business and they were very small in comparison to microsoft and now they are a big player. if a product is very well the time will come.

  33. mark Says:


    That’s a good question. First, it’s worth recognizing that we specifically DO acknowledge that there is a group behind Banshee which can express a cogent opinion, and we want to support that group, hence the offer of a revenue share.

    Second, I think you need to start thinking of yourselves a bit more. As I said at the time, my preference is that the money we share with an upstream in a case like this go to strengthening that upstream. In the case of Banshee, the group in question seemed shy to accept that, deferring instead to the Gnome Foundation. Now, I like the Gnome Foundation, but you should IMO stand up for Banshee harder, and keep that money for yourselves, investing it in your project, to strengthen it further.

    Third, I think one of the key areas you can strengthen a project is with branding. Get the brand Banshee widely known, so that users say loudly they want *Banshee* and not whatever-Ubuntu-picks.

    Fourth, you get more power if you have an organisation that can actually use it. Appoint clear decision makers and leaders. We ended up in a mess in part because we *thought* we’d agreed things with “Banshee”, and in the end we had only agreed them with some Banshee developers and fans who were at UDS and Florida. If you were a proper organisation with designated leaders it would be easier for other groups to deal with you; to make agreements that they can expect to be upheld. It’s impossible to build a relationship with an institution that is made up of n individuals – because any agreement can be undermined by the next person. So, make a company, have a CEO who speaks for it, and let them make deals.

    Finally, you get more power if you own your stuff. You know where that leads, and it would be good for you to do it.


  34. Gabriel Burt Says:


    How would having a well-known brand help us? Users may demand “Banshee”, but Canonical is giving them Banshee, just modified to take a 3/4 revenue cut. The only legal power branding gives is via trademarks, a rightfully contentious issue in FOSS land.

    The only way I can see FOSS projects having more power is by being their own distributor, eg Firefox on Windows. With FOSS giving everyone the right to modify, it’s the distributor who decides what code users actually receive.

    I completely disagree with your characterization of our negotiations; Banshee has clearly defined leaders/maintainers (see who spoke with a single voice (not at UDS, the negotiations did not happen there, they happened in e-mails and conference calls in the months after). The mess we ended up in resulted from Canonical not speaking with one voice, offering a deal that it later revoked.


  35. Callum Says:

    @Kosta Kontos: The idea you proposed puts more power in the hands of Ubuntu / Canonical, not less. By taking cash from users and distributing it upstream, that cements Ubuntu / Canonical as the power broker in the chain. It’s an option to push cash upstream, but it definitely does not create a stronger upstream. It creates an upstream that becomes more and more dependent, and therefore, more and more supplicating to, the distribution.

    It seems like there are 3 FLOSS business models. 1) sell support, 2) sell the code for non-FLOSS use, 3) sell ads. Model 2 use is essentially making money from proprietary software, model 3 is not applicable to many cases and is particularly difficult for an upstream. I really like László Monda’s idea. However, again, it would serve to increase the power of the distribution.

    I think a better model would be to create an independent, somehow stakeholder owned, platform for cash distribution. Kevin Kelly has a very insightful article on what people will pay for in the network economy. I propose that one or more of those ideas must be at the foundation of a stronger FLOSS ecosystem.

    For example, I would be willing to put money behind the bugs or features that really affect me, as László Monda proposes. The stakeholders would be open source projects and users (individual people or businesses providing cash). If the stakeholders were able to influence the direction of the organisation, and it was truly independent, it could serve to both strengthen and diffuse power in the FLOSS ecosystem.

    A throwaway thought, if the whole FLOSS ecosystem was 10 times larger, many upstreams might reach a critical mass and be able to formalise commercial structures around their work.

  36. Kosta Kontos Says:

    Well said Tumbes2000 (

    I found your one point particularly important – namely “Ubuntu’s success is linked to the success of Canonical”

    Now you went on to share that Ubuntu’s current revenue stream (support-related services) is probably not sufficient to keep Canonical afloat going forward. However I recently read somewhere that Canonical is steadily approaching break-even. Mark – perhaps you can clarify this?

    Regardless of this, in my mind, Canonical’s financial health is a given (be it through Mark’s pocket or support-related fees). I think the main point of discussion here is how do we give more power to the upstream FLOSS providers?

    Back to Tumbes2000’s comment – the idea of using a bounty / karma to encourage the elimination of bugs / implementation of new features strikes me as pretty neat. If this was formalised and globally recognised, it could make for great decoration on one’s CV – which, apart from the actual bounty fee – ought to be sufficient incentive for hobbyist open source programmers to get the work done.


  37. Mirek2 Says:

    As the comments seem to have turned to the topic of what Canonical should do to “succeed”, I’m going to put my two cents in.

    One of the biggest reasons why Ubuntu hasn’t yet become a mainstream success is because the software selection is not nearly as good as that for Windows or Mac OS X. The big problem here is not that there just isn’t any open-source competitor to the commonly-used Windows and Mac apps (MS Office, Adobe CreativeSuite, …), but it’s that most of these competitors provide a sub-par user experience. For example, the feature set of the GIMP should satisfy any normal Photoshop user, yet, whenever I introduce this piece of software to anyone new to open-source, they’re always discouraged by its unwieldy user interface. And the reason why ODF adoption is so slow is because the suites that have ODF as their default format provide an inferior user experience to Microsoft Office.

    So what can Canonical do about this? I don’t think merely funding projects is enough, because most of these projects have had enough funding to improve the UX more radically and not much happened. Canonical could collaborate with the UX teams of certain projects and fund initiatives it finds interesting. I also like what elementary seems to be doing — tweaking and collaborating with projects to get their desired experience (Midori, Nautilus elementary, even Ubuntu). It’d be great if Canonical offered suggestions to UX teams of important projects, and if the developers refused to cooperate, then perhaps Canonical could create their own shell to the software (like it has done with Gnome), assuming that it had enough funds for this (and I think this is actually much more important than, say, bringing Ubuntu over to Wayland).

  38. Jon Loldrup Says:

    Dear Mark

    How can you prioritize shipping at certain dates higher than readyness? Users don’t care about arbitrary dates. They care about polish. I don’t get it.

    listen to this quote:
    “On that note, we simply must stop shipping incomplete products that aren’t ready for the end user. It is hurting our brand tremendously.”
    – Anonymous senior employee at RIM

    Jon Loldrup

  39. Gergely Máté Says:

    I still think that a timed license, a “turnaround” license could do much good work to the free software ecosystem. Imagine a license for a proprietary software which has a clause that says the software will automagically become free software at a given date, or after a given period of time elapsed, say 6 months or such. Updates, new versions could go the same way. Indie developers could make their profits and ensure the free software movement about surely getting their free stuff relatively soon. Buyers of such software would become donors to the free software world.

    In some more radical way, such a license could ensure users that the software will become free software after a given period of time or after generating a predefined revenue. So a software company could openly publish on its website the revenue generated by its software, and upon reaching a predefined goal, releasing the product as free software.

    I think that such licenses would broadly encourage free software users to put money into the free software ecosystem.

  40. Olivier Mengué Says:

    The Perl Foundation has announced 5.10 is not supported anymore and the stable release is 5.14.1. But 5.10 is still the version bundled with Ubuntu Natty.

    So what is Canonical position about following upstream advice?

  41. antrik Says:

    First of all, I’m glad to see that you are considering the question how to make the free software economy more viable, and to encourage more commercial contributions. Having been a decided free software enthusiast for a whole decade now, I totally support your position that company involvment is crucial to the success of free software, and that we need more of it for GNU/Linux to make an impact on the Desktop OS market.

    The argument you are presenting here is pretty interesting — it was quite refreshing to read. Yet I must admit that I do not entirely agree with some of your premises…

    You are rightly observing that all revenue created with GNU/Linux distributions goes to a few big players — and in fact mostly one in particular. While one might argue they they simply understand the free software market better than their competition, this would be only half the truth at best. Indeed it is quite obvious why the standard distribution market favours big players: such distributors are pretty much offering the same software to all their customers — so clearly there is a strong economy of scale.

    But is it really true that almost all the revenue generated with free software goes to these few distributors? I’m not so sure of that. While every GNU/Linux customer obviously needs some standard distribution, they also need other things. So they usually contract some kind of consultancy, to look at their requirements, and provide them with a solution — which will typically include services such as designing a software architecture; selecting appropriate components; making necessary customisations; setup; training; support. The companies providing these services are not as big, and thus also not as prominent as the distributors; but they are very successful, and growing in number and size. They don’t need to be big: they are providing individual solutions — so there is no strong economy of scale here.

    I believe that discussing the free software economy, it’s usually not helpful to single out the standard distributions as a distinct group; but rather to look at the larger group of integrators, which includes both the standard distributions and the solution providers. With that in mind, I think a much better balance of power becomes evident, than from looking at distributors only…

    Let’s continue on that theme. After pointing out the importance of a balance of power, you conclude that we need stronger upstreams (in the form of companies), to compete for revenue against integrators. However, I wonder whether this kind of competition is actually helpful? And is the dominance of the integrators really a problem? Indeed it seems to me that development driven by integrators is actually *better* for the quality of free software at large: while component owners are interested in making their components stand out as much as possible, integrators are more interested in making the *complete* offering more attractive to users — which actually means components being *less* perceptible, so they form a more consistent whole. In fact I believe this to be one of the major strenghts of the free software economy. (I touched on a related issue in one of my favourite rants: )

    This point is actually a bit moot though, as I don’t believe that development driven by integrators necessarily means weak upstreams… An integrator generally won’t provide all the services himself — this would be very inefficient. Rather, for each important component, we need a few companies focusing on this component — gathering expertise around it, and thus being able to offer relevant development and other services much more efficiently. An integrator will pass on any non-trivial requirements regarding specific components to the companies specialising in these. We already see such companies forming around major independent free software projects: be it GNOME, KDE, Linux, GCC, Drupal, PostgreSQL…

    So all in all, I think the free software economy is actually set up pretty well — we just need more of it! And honestly, I can’t think of any fundamental obstactle that would prevent that. I think the major missing piece right now is awareness: among businessmen in general; but even among free software enthusiasts, and companies already dipping their toes in free software — many simply don’t realise yet that gathering expertise, and offering services around a free software component, is a very viable and successful business model. That lack of awareness is what we need to change. Once people at large understand the possibilities, I have no doubt more companies will invest in free software development.

    Note that copyright ownership doesn’t figure anywhere in these considerations. In a business based on expertise, it’s simply not necessary. Indeed it would be detriminal to the success of the component in question, and thus any company offering expertise around it: a project with an asymmetrical copyright situation is less interesting both to developers and users. Other companies and individual developers can’t participate on an equal footing, and thus are not likely to participate at all. In such a scerario, other companies can only really compete by offering completely distinct software packages — whereas one of the major advantages of a true free software economy is the ability of companies to be competitors, while sharing the codebase! It is not only more efficient regarding the amount of useful software produced from a certain investment, but IMHO also makes for a more effective balance of power. Indeed the whole *point* of free software is users not being dependent on the developers — and for commercial custormers, the ability to switch the service company while staying with the same software is possibly the strongest manifestation of the freedom. An asymmetrical copyright situation effectively negates what I believe to be our strongest selling point.

    This is a crucial aspect, which I fear you have somewhat neglected in your considerations: in the end, the strongest motivation for companies to participate in free software, is being able to offer a convincing selling point for the customers, which can really drive demand in the long run. “Open Core” and other proprietary relicensing models based on asymmetrical copyright are mostly a sham — and smart customers are able to see through it. Let’s not bet the commercial success of free software on them.

  42. orangape Says:

    Could you please have a look at the following brainstorm-idea ?

    i think it would be great to find a way for users to pay for “soon-to-be” GPL-code.

  43. Ryan Sharp Says:

    “We need to” this, “We need to” that….

    It’s getting a bit tired now Mark. People don’t “need” to do anything unless it suits them. The weak minded people you drag into your little cabal aren’t going to be of much value to you in the long run.