Canonical’s Place

Canonical: the main commercial force behind the Ubuntu Linux Operating System. Lately some bad blood flowed in the greater free/open source community over decisions and directions in Ubuntu; these decisions fell from the sky like bombs, in that the larger community received no communiques indicating the missions or their timing.

Mir fell out of the clear blue just recently. The project aims to replace the X Window System, one of the longest running projects and biggest workhorses of desktop UNIX systems. The age and legacy support of X mean some of its design blocks progress for free desktops and other free computing devices.

But Wayland already staked their claim to be the replacement. A lot of positive effort continues to go into Wayland and supporting it on existing Linux applications. The existing contributors wear boots with the mud of X encrusted on them. The community knows the project by name, much like the Compiz put X compositing on the tip of our tongues some years back.

This development comes as one of several incidents in which Canonical failed to work with the community, or at least clue the community into its plans. The inclusion of Ubuntu Shopping Lens, searching commercial websites directly from Ubuntu raised the question of Ubuntu’s commitment to privacy. Ubuntu One, a cloud storage service among other features, raised questions about Ubuntu’s approach to markets more generally. Other projects like Unity and Upstart (the main Ubuntu UI and a replacement initialization system, respectively) made the community feel like Ubuntu decided to go it alone on key parts of their system.

Mir’s announcement again raises questions about whether Ubuntu and Canonical want to be part of the community, or a parallel entity. They once again failed to engage with the community, and instead the community finds out about the direction Ubuntu moves after the fact. But maybe Mir will be different.

The best difference to hope for: a driver specification that allows competition. If the next generation of display server for Linux keeps its driver specification short and sweet, avoiding the possibility for the proprietary drivers to become bloated messes that do too much, they truly bless us with their presence.

For too long a performant driver meant a proprietary one. That meant ceding too much control of the system to said driver. In short, it grew into letting lobbyists write the laws. A tainted system. More importantly, it meant X entrenchment. The driver worked for X and only X. Writing a replacement for X would either require being too X-like or relying solely on free drivers (missing out on performance). The latter stands as the current state for Wayland and Mir.

But if Mir (or Wayland, or both) provides new driver models that leave us with a small driver with minimal-yet-performant capability, and the rest of the code can be open, that will place the whole system on much firmer ground. We would face a day where we could write a non-X, non-Mir, non-Wayland system and still be able to fall back on proprietary drivers for their performance. It might also encourage the (partial or complete) opening of the proprietary drivers, with far less code for lawyers to worry over.

At present the prospect remains dim. But as both newcomers continue to mature (assuming that Mir gets the resources needed from Canonical), there will inevitably be compatibility layers between them, and some convergence may occur around the driver space. It remains possible that better free software can come of this. I hope it does.

Canonical ought to lead the larger community, rather than stalk it as prey. That leadership means working with the community, contributing to it where possible, and where the community and Canonical must diverge, they should diverge only to the least possible distance. That would make Mir a fork of Wayland, or maybe Wayland plus some special extensions.

But even if it couldn’t be, the least possible distance would still require some feedback to the Wayland developers. Where and why does their model fail? And why couldn’t those details come out months ago, at least when Mir started? If valid concerns exist, give them voice. As it stands, from my reading on the situation, misunderstandings brought the concerns. That’s lamentable.

We need more companies doing Linux hands-on. Canonical deserves stewardship that grows it and the software community. Times like these allow companies like Canonical to define themselves, and I hope they will learn the lesson and move forward with the community.