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How Canonical Stays on the Light Side

A Recipe for Staying True to One's Values

  • July 24, 2007
  • By Brian Proffitt

The story thus far for Canonical:

Young successful South African entrepreneur wants to give back to the technology that helped make him successful in the first place. He and a team of developers build a Linux distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux. He also starts a commercial company, the aforementioned Canonical, to help support and build an infrastructure around the distribution, known to the world as Ubuntu. Ubuntu grows in popularity, and becomes one of the premier desktop-oriented distros.

Most of us have heard this story before. Young cosmonaut makes it big in the rough and tumble world of the penguin. But now, in the midst of Canonical's first big event, the question becomes: where do Canonical--and Ubuntu--go from here?

The key, according to Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, is to try very hard to keep to the company's core values. And having a back up plan in case the best-laid plans go awry.

For Shuttleworth, that plan is to maintain a separation between the commercial entity of Canonical and the Ubuntu community.

"We could have come out early on with just Ubuntu and given it a commercial angle later," Shuttleworth explained in an interview at Ubuntu Live. "But it was very clear to me that if we were going to be successful, it would be a better integrity--effectively--to state up front that we were going to have a commercial ecosystem and an independent community."

"That cost us some, in that we lost some people who would not be involved in anything with any kind of commercial overtones," he added.

So what are those core values? For Shuttleworth, it's keeping an eye on enabling the customer as much as possible. In fact, that concept of enablement is pushed out beyond actual Ubuntu users and developers. This was the motivation behind this week's release of the Personal Package Archives, a toolset that allows developers, whether they work on Ubuntu or not, to build and publish packages of their code, documentation, artwork, themes and other contributions to free software.

According to information from Canonical, individuals and teams can each have a PPA, allowing groups to collaborate on sets of packages, and solo developers to publish their own versions of popular free software. Developers upload packages to a PPA and have it built for multiple architectures against the current version of Ubuntu. Each user gets up to one gigabyte of Personal Package Archive space, which works as a standard Ubuntu software package repository. These free PPAs are available only for free (as in freedom) software packages.

Here, Shuttleworth said, is a big way that Canonical hopes to enable developers of all stripes to easily roll their own packages and more quickly distribute the software they are writing.

By focusing on enabling users, and keeping the commercial interests of Canonical separate from the interests of the community, Shuttleworth hopes to avoid the fate of another company who once upon a time was very interested in user enpowerment.

"I think what ultimately went wrong... was the desire people have to win supersedes all else. As soon as you get that, then you get a sort of pathological level of behavior where people's actions and the decisions that they are making ensures they will continue to win," Shuttleworth said.

That company? Microsoft.

Clearly Shuttleworth does not to walk the same path as Ubuntu and Canonical become more successful with the passing days, and his company reflects the vigilance to avoid such a fate.

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