Notes on UbuntuOne

I recently posted a couple of ‘dents onto identi.ca regarding UbuntuOne, but wanted to follow-up with some more complete thoughts.

In thinking about UbuntuOne, there are a number of factors involved; it involves the need to build a sustainable business, trademark issues, and the level of one’s own comfort with using non-free software. To me, there it also involves issues of community, and the difference between the Ubuntu project and Canonical as a corporation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but the topics do allow for at least an initial framework for talking about things. So, if you’ll humor me for a couple of moments, here are a couple of my thoughts regarding these topics.

Some Caveats

First, I’ll get a few things out of the way. Yes, I’ve used You Tube and I use Gmail. The irony of my giving UbuntuOne a hard time for being non-free while I use these services is not lost on me. As for email, I have previously looked for options outside of Gmail, and am still considering other options. With regard to YouTube, there simply isn’t anything else that remotely provides something of the scale of that service in a free software context, nor do any free software services have the opportunity to provide a scale big enough to support a similar service. I think I am realistic about these things.

Moreover, I do understand that, as it is now, UbuntuOne is just a tool to synchronize files across desktops, and that I don’t have to use it if I don’t want to. I know UbuntuOne is currently available as a, “you can have a small beer for free, and you can pay money if you want a bigger beer,” service, and I have nothing against Canonical making money. I want the company to be successful.

Finally, with regard to the trademark issue, this is not a big deal to me, either, as Canonical owns the trademark, so they can violate even their own recommended guidelines if they want. No one has said that what they are doing is breaking any kind of law. It’s kind of like them painting their house pink or something. Someone else might not think it’s the best idea, but it’s Canonical’s house. It’s their decision, and that’s fine with me.

From my points above I think it’s clear that I am willing to make certain sacrifices of my computing freedom to use certain services, I know Canonical needs to make money, and I’m not concerned with how Canonical handles their trademark business.

Jim, dude, what is your beef?

My main concerns are that, while this might seem like a small application for now, it is a non-free element that is going to become more integrated with our desktops over time. Also, while Google and Twitter and Facebook may have their own reasons for keeping apps closed, Ubuntu is not Google or Twitter or Facebook, and (to me) Ubuntu (and I would like to think Canonical) operates under a somewhat different set of principles. Let me expand on these items.

UbuntuOne is currently a small service

A primary concern is that while this is a relatively simple service for now, it is going to get much bigger, and they show no intention of ever opening it up. Per the summary of this upcoming talk, there are significant plans to build more user-friendly applications attached to this closed-source web application.

I know people can get by without UbuntuOne’s cross-desktop file synchronization for now, but they are going to build a lot of other (probably really cool) functionality into this service, and it looks as though the back end of it will all be closed. If more and more applications are built around this closed web-app, it will make it a shame to miss out on some of those cool features while using Ubuntu if I want to avoid closed applications.

Depending on the level of integration, we may then find ourselves in a spot where we are using an open OS, but a good number of our favorite tools and applications are tied in with closed web-apps. As I posted on identi.ca, "If we go from having a closed desktop, to an open desktop that is strongly linked to a closed ‘cloud,’ what have we gained?" If the web becomes “the new operating system,” how will it help us if that new operating system is closed? While shipping only the open client as part of the distro may not technically violate the principle of "We only ship Free software (with the exception of some binary blobs to make some basic hardware work)," attaching it to a closed web application (to me) violates the spirit that principle.

Ubuntu != Google

Granted, what I have described above already appears to be somewhat of a reality. It certainly is getting more common for desktop client apps to be open while attached to closed web services. So why does this matter with UbuntuOne? To me, the difference is that Ubuntu, the Ubuntu community, and (even to a certain extent) Canonical are not Google. We are not Facebook or Twitter. The folks involved in Ubuntu work hard to create Free software. The distribution we work on is based on Debian, which has built itself up using the principles of Free software, and without which our project would not exist. I know that Canonical is a for-profit company, but we still have a choice here. We can’t control what Google does with their web applications. We can’t control Twitter’s Fail Whale. But we (Canonical / Ubuntu) can control this, and, to me, the Ubuntu project is supposed to be different.

We devote a lot of time to removing non-free software from our systems. Community developers work hard, paid Canonical employees work hard, and the folks in charge at Canonical spend a lot of the company’s own money so that we can remove non-free stuff from our systems, and I am thankful for all of this. With UbuntuOne, though, we’re getting more non-free components associated with our desktops when we should be working to get less non-free components associated with our desktops. It seems counter to the mission of the Free Software community aspect to have the parent company of this distribution actually introducing more non-free elements into the software ecosystem.

What really raises flags for me this time around, and perhaps I’m a little late to the game, is that we’re actually bringing the non-free components into direct integration with the desktop. It’s not like Soyuz (one of the main back-end components of Launchpad) or the (currently non-free, but soon to be Free) Launchpad, which have been developer and software building tools, and have limited integration with the desktop . . . but this actually integrates with our desktops in a non-developer-centric manner. I guess that’s why I didn’t notice or pay as much attention to the other non-free elements provided by Canonical previously - because they weren’t tightly integrated with the Desktop.

Could Canonical still make money from UbuntuOne as Free software?

I’ve got to assume that the folks working at Canonical considered whether or not they could do this in a Free manner. I have only read that the back end is closed, and that there are no plans or roadmaps in place that point to making it Free software. I haven’t heard anything along the lines of, “Yes, we considered it, but we didn’t think it would work out because of X, Y, and Z." They are a business, and they have every right to not open up those kinds of discussions to the community, but based on the nature of their business I think it’s fair to assume some conversation along those lines occurred.

I am not a business guru, and I know that trying to make money off of an open platform in a real business world is a difficult nut to crack. That’s what we keep working toward, though, and I think that’s at least part of why so many people contribute to Ubuntu. UbuntuOne may currently have a closed back end, but with it now being released to the public, the cards are on the table. We can now talk about it. I know this is a Canonical effort, but I think there are lots of other smart people in the community, and it seems like it could be worthwhile to have a discussion about ways to monetize UbuntuOne as a Free software option. Perhaps this could be a good discussion for UDS.

I guess I should close by noting that I have written this because I do like Ubuntu, but what drew me to Ubuntu in the first place is that it is based around building Free software. I recognize that there are certain sacrifices that need to be made in areas we can’t control, but we have a choice here. Free software is what got us started, it’s what we work on, and I do not see a tremendous amount of value in fixing bug #1 if we get there by integrating ourselves with non-free networked systems.