Who's really contributing to Linux?

I wasn't at the Linux Plumber Conference in Portland, OR, but everyone who pays close attention to Linux knows that Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux kernel developer and Novell engineer, blasted Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, for contributing "In the past 3 years, from the 2.6.15 kernel to 2.6.27-rc6, Canonical has had 100 patches in the Linux kernel." That, as Kroah-Hartman pointed out, means Canonical "did 00.10068% of all of the kernel development for the past 3 years." In other words: almost nothing.

Kroah-Hartman then went out to blast Canonical for what he sees as its minimal contributions to what's really important in Linux. These include programs like gcc (GNU Compiler Collection), the X.org, the fundamental building block of Linux graphic systems; and Binutils, a collection of Linux's primary binary tools. I'm sure Debian developers who resent Ubuntu's popularity were nodding their heads. This song is right from their hymnal.

I'm certainly not going to disagree with them. Kroah-Hartman is right. When it comes to Linux's foundation stones, Canonical has done little.

And, Canonical isn't arguing the point. Ubuntu CTO Matt Zimmerman replied to Kroah-Hartman's speech in a blog posting: "The fundamental argument he makes is that Canonical doesn't contribute as much as Red Hat, Novell and many other organizations which he names. This is absolutely true." But Zimmerman continued, "No one, certainly not Canonical, has ever claimed that Canonical does as much Linux development as Red Hat or Novell. He's refuting a claim which has, quite simply, never been made."

Zimmerman continued, "Canonical is primarily a consumer of the Linux kernel. It is one of the building blocks we need in order to fulfill our primary mission, which is to provide an operating system that end users want to use. ... We routinely backport patches from newer kernels, and fix bugs which are particularly relevant to us, but our kernel consists almost entirely of code we receive from upstream." Before Kroah-Hartman made his speech though, I'll also note that Canonical's CEO Mark Shuttleworth had already announced that it would be contributing more to core Linux programs.

Even so, I doubt though that Canonical and Ubuntu will ever be as big a contributor to the core Linux programs as Red Hat, number two in Linux kernel contributions, or Novell, number five. Working on Linux's vital infrastructure clearly isn't Canonical's strong point.

Where Canonical is great is in, as Stephen O'Grady, an analyst at Red Monk Research points out, "integration, packaging and polish." Exactly.

Canonical produces a great looking, strong Linux distribution. Ubuntu is almost certainly the most popular end-user Linux. When Dell decided to become the first major OEM to routinely pre-install desktop Linux, they picked Ubuntu. Michael Dell knew what he was doing.

What Canonical has done is more than just make a great Linux distribution. It has made Linux 'cool.' I think Ubuntu has brought more end-users to Linux than any other distribution.

This is not a small deal. Is Kroah-Hartman correct in pointing out that Canonical has done little for Linux's core? Yes, of course, he is. But, Linux is more than that. Linux also now has an attractive, powerful desktop and a lot of the credit for that goes to Ubuntu.

Canonical has done a great job of popularizing Linux. I know some old-school Linux users resent that. They want it to be the operating system that only a techie's techie can really get into. Please. Get over it, or move to one of the BSD operating systems.

I want Linux to become even more popular than it is now. The more Linux users the better. While the Linux kernel developers are making sure that Linux becomes an even stronger, more stable operating system, others, like Canonical, KDE and GNOME are making sure that it becomes easier and more accessible to more users. To me, this is a win win.

I'd really like if more people could see Linux this way. Linux developers and companies after all, need to work together. If not, well, Microsoft may be on a downward slide with Vista's failure, but Microsoft is far from out. So, how about everyone in Linux development circles spending more time working on what they're good at and less time grumbling about each other? OK?

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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