Leaving out Linux

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 24, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

I've often criticized Canonical and Ubuntu. In fact, I've criticized them often enough that some people are convinced that I have a grudge against them. But there's one point on which I'll defend them: their decision to minimize the use of the word "Linux" on their website and in other public communications.

This policy is not new, but it is periodically rediscovered by various members of the free and open source software (FOSS) community. It rarely fails to provoke outrage. Is Ubuntu pretending it isn't dependent on Debian and several dozen other upstream projects? The rediscovers ask. Is Canonical trying to claim credit for all the work of others that goes into Ubuntu?

These actions amount to a re-writing of history. They would be questionable under any circumstance, but in FOSS they are doubly or triply so. One of the perqs of writing code that everyone can use -- sometimes the only perq -- has always been the ability to receive credit for the work done. From this perspective, avoiding the L word seems a gross violation of one of the unspoken tenets that binds FOSS contributors together, an usurpation of the basic expectations for community behavior.

From there, the discussion generally spirals downwards, as people note Canonical's increasing preference for in-house skunkworks rather than community development, and mention the company's infrequent contributions to the Linux kernel. Before long, Canonical and Ubuntu look high-handed and exploitive, and FOSS' mistrust of business -- never far away, even today -- is back in full paranoia-mode.

Brand focus
I sympathize with these reactions, and to some degree share them. Over the years, I've not only absorbed FOSS standards, but, as a recovering academic I still consider acknowledging your sources a basic requirement. If nothing else, such acknowledgments seem only polite (although I do notice that some of those who are also most outraged at the omission of "Linux" see nothing wrong with omitting "GNU" from the name).

All the same, I consider the decision not to emphasize Linux a sensible one. My reason has nothing to do with any baggage that Linux carries. To most people, Linux means nothing, and carries no liability.
True, some computer users might associate Linux with software that is too geeky for average users, or that suffers from a lack of graphical interfaces. But such mis-perceptions are easy enough to counter. Ubuntu's former slogan, "Linux for Human Beings" shows one of the more obvious ways to get around such assumptions: you acknowledge the perception, then try to create a new one.

Most likely, the reason that Linux isn't emphasized is far simpler: Canonical isn't selling Linux. It's selling Ubuntu.

In other words, Canonical is not particularly interested in promoting Linux. That might be seen as an appropriate or even a generous gesture, but it's not what Canonical has to do if it's ever going to become profitable. It needs to promote Ubuntu, as aggressively as it can, and mentioning any other name -- Linux or otherwise -- will only confuse the issue.

Even more to the point, promoting Linux would mean that Canonical is promoting Red Hat, SUSE, and every other potential competitor as much as itself. From this perspective, the decision is only common sense.

After all, why should Canonical give competitors a free ride in its advertising?

Of course, this isn't the only possible approach. Both Red Hat and SUSE mention Linux prominently -- but they are targeted at IT experts, for whom Linux's reputation for reliability and stabilty is a selling point. Moreover, being a good FOSS citizen is part of Red Hat's moral appeal.

However, Canonical is taking a much simpler approach to its branding. And why not? A simple message can create a powerful brand, as Google proved when it marketed its version of Linux as Android. From a marketing or corporate perspective, the choice is easily understandable.

Companies acting like companies
I can see a rationale behind Canonical's marketing because I was once faced with a similar choice (although for a much less successful product). Years ago, I remember long discussions at Progeny Linux Systems about what to name its distribution. We weren't adverse to acknowledging Linux as a whole, but, like Canonical, we also wanted to focus on our name and product. In the end, we opted for Progeny Debian, a name that acknowledged our roots but so specifically that the name aided our efforts at branding instead of diluting it, and referenced only a non-commercial project.

In the same way, Canonical could find a gracious way to acknowledge Ubuntu's origins if it really wanted to. But it is not obliged to do so, or to listen to criticism -- no, not even mine. Canonical is is only acting as most other companies would in its position, and singling it out for doing so is unreasonable, even in response to expectations that it created years ago. While we should encourage companies to do the proper thing, we have neither right nor reason to expect them to.


  • It's software freedom that matters.

    Like you, I'm not too fussed by Ubuntu's lack of prominent references to "Linux" on their website.

    Of course (as you also mention) there's a kind of morose delectation over the pained expressions of those who are attacking Ubuntu for not prominently mentioning Linux when they themselves never mention the GNU operating system.

    I'm more concerned that Ubuntu now seem to be demoting their explanations of free software, the free software movement and the development of GNU/Linux. Their well hidden "About" page (see the small print at the bottom of their pages) still mentions Debian and if you happen to click the right bit of the wording then may stumble upon a reasonably good page describing free software.

    However, it has gone from an easily discoverable page to one that basically no-one will ever see. It seems to me that it's only there so that Canonical can say, look, we still have this page! Even if they don't and it's quietly forgotten.

    My major concern is less the website but more towards Ubuntu/Canonical's distancing of themselves from free software philosophy and practice. The pushing of proprietary software through their "software shop" or whatever they call it, their continued promotion of non-free modules in the kernel etc etc. Their seeming blunders (testing the waters to see what they can get away with?) with Amazon integration with the desktop. Sorry, that was deliberate, not some little faux pas.

    For months they had the logos of non-free software (things that can be accomplished with free software) on their home page along with the promise that "Ubuntu can run your favourite software". Mark Shuttleworth even had screenshots of Unity with these programmes clearly visible as installed programmes. I found that pretty outragious.

    There should be no real issue with Canonical wanting to make some money from its activities, it's what it does to go about that which is the ussue. Dropping the principles of free software, which they *still* claim to espouse on that "About" page, is a step too far. There are other companies that achieve profitability without doing what Canonical are increasingly doing with Ubuntu.

    If Canonical cannot make itself profitable whilst sticking to free software principles (maybe Red Hat and Suse aleady have the market sown up, maybe their stategy is wrong, maybe they don't have the skills) then I'd rather see Ubuntu turned over to a community rather than more damage being done by Canonical dragging Ubuntu behind it even further into bed with proprietary software.

    Bruce, how about a review, or some thoughts in your blog about Trisquel, a fully free software derivative of Ubuntu which has also added some interesting stuff of its own. Personally I don't use Trisquel. I have a less common setup on my desktop and I don't get on very well with the way that Ubuntu and its derivative do things technically. For that reason I use Debian with the Linux-Libre kernel and without the non-free repositories.

    However, for the majority of users Trisquel I think is an excellent and increasingly popular choice.
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