Ubuntu vs. Red Hat: Who really contributes the most to Linux

Last week, Greg DeKoenigsberg, a former Red Hat developer on the Fedora community Linux project and now CTO of The Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), ignited a firestorm by showing that, when it comes to code, Red Hat does far more for open-source projects like GNOME than Canonical, Ubuntu's parent company, has ever done. To quote DeKoenigsberg: "Canonical is a marketing organization masquerading as an engineering organization."

That went over in Linux circles about as well as you would expect it to.

Canonical founder Mark Shuttleworth responded with a blog about how tribalism, which Shuttleworth defined as "when one group of people start to think people from another group are 'wrong by default.'" Shuttleworth's point was that turning a discussion of open-source development into a fight over "my Linux distribution is better than yours" is a waste of time.

This isn't a new argument. Ubuntu developers have had to deal with brickbats thrown their way by Debian programmers ever since Ubuntu forked from Debian. Every now and again, Shuttleworth offers a peace branch in Debian's direction, but the distribution flame wars keep burning bright.

Since DeKoenigberg first wrote about Canonical, he's had second thoughts about his tone and apologized for going "over the top." That said, he also still thinks that "Canonical should be doing way more to sustain that platform."

Actually, I think Canonical is doing a lot for Linux. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it is doing as much for Linux as Red Hat these days — just not in code.

What Canonical has done for Linux is exactly what DeKoenigberg accuses them of: marketing Linux. I guarantee you that if you ask Joe and Josie Computeruser to name a Linux, they'll say "Ubuntu." If you ask a CIO or CTO, they'll name Red Hat and possibly Novell's SLES (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server). But Canonical has done more than all the other Linux companies and groups put together to popularize Linux with ordinary people.

Sure, they've made Ubuntu into as close to a household name as Linux has these days, but at the same time they've brought millions of new users to Linux. Many of those people may stick with Ubuntu, but many others will move on to other distributions, such as the Ubuntu fork, Mint, and other Linux distributions including, yes, RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux).

Shouldn't that count, too? I think so.

I also think that for a long time there's been too much emphasis on coding. The people who popularize Linux, the people who write about Linux, the people who run LUGs (Linux User Groups) and community Linux shows, and the businesses that have committed to Linux also deserve credit.

Yes, the people who write Linux are vital, and Red Hat is the clear leader in producing code — but it's not just about who writes the code. If you look at the bigger picture, I think Canonical deserves a lot of the credit as well for Linux turning into a grown-up family of operating systems.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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