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Re: Canonical's business model

Andrew Suffield <asuffield@debian.org> writes:
> On Sun, Jan 08, 2006 at 10:30:07PM -0800, Russ Allbery wrote:

>> They're investing in writing better tools, and they're keeping them
>> private so as to maintain a competative advantage with them over Red
>> Hat, SuSE, Fedora, and so forth.  Including Debian, for that matter.

> ...damnit, I never thought of that. And you know why not? Because on
> some level I thought that all the noise they make about 'contributing
> back to Debian' was more than just lip service. I had (stupidly) wanted
> to believe that it wasn't *just* their PR machine at work.

I think that more than one thing can be going on at once.

There are commercial companies that keep things secret for competative
advantage and *also* contribute other things back to the broader
community.  IBM, for instance, to take a prominant example.  I don't
believe that all of the rhetoric around Canonical is bogus; I think much
of it is entirely true.

However, they're also a company.  Companies, no matter how generous the
founder and no matter how strong the ideals, still do behave in certain
ways.  Sometimes that's delayed, and often they continue to work with a
community while still finding other ways to make a profit, but the
decisions at some point do become economic.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing.  It's just a splash of reality.  It's
not infrequent these days for a company to form around a free software
project, and often the result is a burst of resources and significant
improvements.  But through that period, it's also important to maintain
sight of why the free software project is bigger than any company that
might form out of it, and to be constantly planning for the day when the
company will go away, become hostile, stop giving back, or otherwise take
its balls and go home.  Since this almost *always* happens sooner or

I'm not ideological about how other people work.  If people want to work
for a commercial company or not release their work or what have you, more
power to them.  I hope they make lots of money and live a wonderful life
with lots of interesting things to play with.  However, from the
perspective of building a free infrastructure, the only work done by
companies that matters in the long run is the work they release to the
world.  Everything else is just something more that will have to be
rewritten or reinvented later by someone else until finally it's released
as part of the commons.  It's their work to waste (and from their
perspective it may not be a waste -- putting food on the table of
employees is also a useful activity, even if it's not the activity that I
personally care to help), and I'm not going to fight with them about it,
but neither am I going to pour my time and resources into helping with
their business model unless it also benefits the information commons that
I'm trying to expand and improve.

As such, I think getting upset at them is fundamentally missing the
point.  Companies act like companies, sooner or later.  Companies are
fundamentally economic.  I don't mind them buying goodwill -- the only
actions a company *can* take, at a fundamental level, are buying and
selling.  However, I'm always going to expect a company to take whatever
actions lead to the most return on their investment.  If that's helping
Debian, they'll help Debian.  If at some point helping Debian is no longer
good for the bottom line, they'll stop helping Debian.  Because of that,
they're fundamentally unpredictable in a way that a personal relationship
is not, and I'm not going to rely on them and I don't want to see any
infrastructure beholden to them.

I agree with David; the best approach is to try to build personal
relationships with the people doing the work, and insofar as their job at
Canonical lets them do work that Debian can benefit from, to take
advantage of those additional resources and not worry about looking gift
horses in the mouth.  As long as we don't become *dependent* on the
actions of a company, we can certainly accept and use contributions that a
company is willing to pay for, with good grace and expressed gratitude.
For example, personally I really appreciate the Ubuntu patch archives.
For me personally, it's been useful and helpful.

> If you're right, then it would mean that their concept of 'contributing
> back' means to purchase 'goodwill' at the lowest available price - which
> would be consistent with the behaviour we've seen from them so far. In
> effect, treating it as another asset, and behaving like a classical
> company that focusses on the bottom line. So that's actually plausible.

It's also important to not completely conflate the people who work for
Canonical with the actions of Canonical the company.  Many people who work
for companies contribute to free software as part of their job, as a
hobby, or in that grey area of their days that's partly work and partly
their own time.  Many of free software's most valuable contributors have
done this.

Russ Allbery (rra@debian.org)               <http://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>

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