tom callaway (spot) wrote,
tom callaway
spot

musings on Atlanta Linux Fest and contributing responsibly

Flying back home from Atlanta Linux Fest today. I enjoyed the show, and I thought my presentation was well received by the 15 people who attended it. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to hear any other sessions, aside from the closing remarks. I spent most of the day on my feet, talking to folks about Fedora at our table. I did enjoy the event

I was a bit unsettled at how obviously biased towards Ubuntu the event was, even with Canonical as a premier sponsor. The fan worship of Mark S. was rather creepy, and I was not the only one to point that out. His prerecorded video apparently aired at least four times during the day, which is arguably three times too many. Airing it during the closing just felt like wasted time to me. Also, it felt odd that they used that time to do a raffle that only involved folks who had participated in Ubuntu specific events. (Oh, and that raffle went on far far too long.)

Something about the layout of IBM facilities also unsettles me, I always expect to come across a minotaur around a dark corner. A good percentage of our questions involved:

* Where is the coffee? (Answer: There is none.)
* Where are the bathrooms? (Answer: Turn right, then right again, then on the right.)
* Where are the vending machines? (Answer: There are some in the cafeteria, but they're not accessable.)
* Where is the cafeteria? (Answer: Turn left until you hit a glass wall, then walk right, past the Ubuntu clustering, keep going until you dead end.)
* Why is the schedule in the handout wrong? (Answer: Dunno. Trust the signs on the doors.)
* Where are the sessions/particular meeting room? (Answer: Turn right, then left, then eventually on your left. A map would have been useful.)

There was also no power outlets accessible at our table, or the table next to us, which prevented them from doing credit card sales (and really hurt their business). The lack of drinks not affiliated with lunch was something that I thought was trivially resolvable, so I sent David Nalley off to the nearby Kroger and he returned with enough Coke, Diet Coke, and bottled Water to keep everyone hydrated and/or caffeinated for the rest of the show.

Now, I don't mean to sound overly negative here. As I said before, I did enjoy the event. It's a new show, growing very quickly, and with any such event in its relative infancy, you'll have these growing pains. I have a high degree of confidence that some of these issues will be resolved next year. Some things that I particularly enjoyed:

* Talking to a hacker about how through transparency and courage, he could accelerate and improve upon a coding project he had been working on in private.
* A discussion with a gentleman involved with Plone about how Zope (and its lack of support for modern Python) was being held back from widespread adoption and future exposure through distributions
* Talking about chickens with Ellen Ko from Google.
* Watching Bradley Kuhn find GPL violations in DVR firmware, and later, having a great discussion about licensing issues (is it sad that I seem to enjoy that the most these days?)
* Getting a t-shirt with my name on it (spelled correctly, no less!)
* Seeing a penguin painted on the hood of a car
* Near death experiences in a car driven by Dave from lottalinuxlinks.com

There was one thing that was bugging me, but it wasn't really about the conference, it was more something that was said (out loud in public) during the conference by a key Canonical employee (names left out intentionally, because I see no interest in name-calling). He said "Canonical will contribute to upstream only when it benefits Ubuntu." Now, if you look at that from a logical perspective, it makes sense. You don't see Red Hat spending a lot of money or time contributing to the upstreams for open source projects that we don't ship or use in any way, but at the same time, I doubt anyone expects either Red Hat or Canonical to do so. After giving it some thought, I determined that what bugged me about it was that it was said as a sort of excuse, an attempt to rationalize bad behavior.

Now before anyone starts accusing me of inciting distribution wars, or interpreting my words to mean something they do not, lets get a few points in the open:

* I am not saying that Canonical does not contribute to FOSS. There is clear evidence of this, in works like bazaar, upstart, gwibber, and even Launchpad (eventually)
* I don't hate Ubuntu or Canonical because they are "popular", or because they are perceived as competition to Red Hat or Fedora. I think healthy competition is great, even necessary for open source to succeed and maintain momentum.

What bugs me about this excuse is that it seems to be the perpetual evolving excuse whenever concerns are raised about how and when Canonical decides to be involved with upstreams, especially upstreams that they do not control. For a while, I would hear about how small Canonical is in comparison to others, which always felt like a really cheap copout, because A) Canonical is extremely well funded thanks to Mr. Shuttleworth and B) Staffing parity to others should not be (and IMHO) is not a requirement to be active and involved with upstream communities. If it was, Red Hat should simply give up, because we cannot compete with Google or IBM.

In its current incarnation, it's spun to try to make the concerns seem unreasonable, when they really are not. In Fedora, like in many other FOSS communities dependent on upstream initiatives, we know that our involvement with those upstream communities is key to not only own success, but also, their continued growth and success. Instead of saying we "will contribute to upstream only when it benefits Fedora", we say "we always contribute to the upstreams that make Fedora possible". It might mean the same from a logic point of view, but it is totally different in spirit and practice. It is a commitment to good behavior, not an excuse (or rationalization) for bad behavior.

In thinking about this, I do believe that some of this behavior is inherited from Debian (like much of Ubuntu is). Debian is notorious for carrying Debian specific patches containing bugfixes, security fixes, and enhancements which are never taken outside of the confines of the Debian pkg. Upstream rarely sees these patches, unless they go digging through Debian. Sometimes these patches are good, sometimes they're not so good (openssl anyone). I'm sure there are some Debian packagers who work closely with upstream to get fixes merged, but I have to say that in my experience, I find more often than not, the first time upstream sees a Debian patch is when I email it to them as part of my role as a Fedora maintainer.

I think that Ubuntu has adopted much of that "good enough" mentality, which is easy to do. After all, Ubuntu users aren't complaining because a bug got fixed or a feature added in Ubuntu, but when those changes aren't driven upstream as part of the process, the spirit of Open Source is lost, and the opportunities to accelerate open source upstreams and kickstart new innovations to a wider audience are ignored.

I think that Ubuntu and Canonical have a tremendous opportunity to be a responsible participant in the larger FOSS community, to make a public committment to working closely with upstreams and to not carry distribution local changes except when absolutely necessary (and to document those changes clearly). They are doing some interesting work, and have access to a large quantity of already finished patches from Debian. I continue to hold out hope that they will rise to that challenge.

More of my thoughts are contained in my presentation from Atlanta, available here (which I wrote before the show, honest): http://spot.fedorapeople.org/Cultivating_Contribution-Atlanta-Linux-Fest.odp
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