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Business Logic vs. Free Software Idealism - page 3

Building Friction?

  • May 27, 2008
  • By Bruce Byfield

Mark Shuttleworth first raised the idea of major distributions and projects syncing their releases in a keynote at the 2007 Akademy, the summit meeting for the KDE desktop. Last week, he repeated the suggestion, adding that he would be willing to change Ubuntu's long-term releases if a majority of other distributions would agree to coordinate releases and also standardize "on a combination of kernel, compiler, toolchain, GNOME/KDE, X and OpenOffice versions." He returned to the idea in more detail a few days later.

Shuttleworth's suggestions are far removed in tone and intent from Negroponte's repudiations of free software. All the same, they suggest an emphasis on business that, while understandable in light of his efforts to commercialize Ubuntu, have little relevance to the average free software project.

If you are selling software (or services built around it), timely releases make sense. They allow for a regular product cycle, and create a sense among users that you are reliable. However, in the free software world, where "release early, release often" is a slogan, official releases are unimportant, especially when the standard desktops all include an update notifier. True, many distributions have moved to regular release cycles, but these are still flexible, and nobody is much concerned of the releases slip a few weeks or so.

By contrast, keeping to a regular release cycle causes no end of trouble in the commercial world. Frequently, they mean skimping on quality assurance, or shipping products with incomplete or missing features. A good example is the recent release of Fedora 9, which replaced the graphical software updater with one that was missing the ability to install multiple packages.

Admittedly, Shuttleworth seems to assume that such problems are unlikely to arise, since he praises the Ubuntu community's ability to combine timeliness with quality. The trouble is, if you value timeliness over quality--which is what keeping to a regular cycle implies--then a conflict between the two goals is sooner or later going to happen. Instead of falling into the same dilemma as commercial companies, most free software projects are better off continuing a tradition of excellence. Many projects already cooperate with each other, but acting like a pseudo-company is another matter altogether.

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