Wishful Thinking

Would you cater a huge party for all your friends and acquaintances, buy a flash new car and poke your boss in the eye and tell him what to do with his crappy job all on the grounds that you may win the lottery next Saturday? No, of course not. That would be insane. But something similar was done by a company recently. Let me tell you about it.

Software is a strange commodity. The first copy of it is incredibly expensive: in order to produce it you have to pay designers, developers and testers, pay rent on offices for them to work in, pay for all the support serices they require and so on. But once they have done their work, each additional copy of the software is essentially free to produce, which is why piracy is a problem. As a software business, you can either charge a fee to licence each copy of your software which you hope will pay your development costs and leave something over for profit (a la Microsoft) or, and this is quite a recent business model, you can give the software away for free and sell services related to the software. This is the model adopted by Red Hat and Canonical, for example.

One of the advantages of this business model is that since you are giving the software away free of charge, you can also make the source code public. This has the effect of dramatically reducing development costs because a community comes into being which does a lot of development and testing for you without you having to pay any of their costs. Open source software is continually evolving as it is modified by the community, which arguably results in higher quality overall than the proprietary model. The open source software company acts as a gatekeeper, making the decisions as to what changes made by the community to include in their distribution.

This is what Canonical does. It distributes Ubuntu (and its derivatives Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Medibuntu) which is an open source, Linux based operating system for PCs and servers. It is an alternative to Microsoft Windows. Now imagine that Canonical is an eighteen-wheeler pantechnicon barrelling down a deserted country road. Imagine that the Ubuntu community has discovered a giant, gaping abyss where the road has been washed away. They know the Ubuntu pantechnicon is on its way, so they stand in the middle of the road waving their arms and shouting.

What does the driver do? The sensible thing to do would be to think, “Gosh, what’s that lunatic doing in the middle of the road? He’s jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting something. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me about a giant, gaping abyss where the road used to be. I’d better stop.”

What did the Canonical driver actually do? He thought, “Gosh, what’s that lunatic doing in the middle of the road? He’s jumping up and down, waving his arms and shouting something. Perhaps he’s trying to warn me about a giant, gaping abyss where the road used to be. Ah well, I’m sure the council will have filled it in by the time I get there. Might as well keep on truckin’.”

The huge, gaping abyss was a critical regression in the new version of the software called Karmic Koala, released in October 2009 as Ubuntu 9.10, the lunatic in the middle of the road was the Ubuntu community, and the driver of the truck was Canonical’s management team. (For those interested the bug meant that a lot of 3G modems stopped working on the new version of the software, which turned a lot of people’s computers into very expensive typewriters.) The community warned Canonical that there was a critical flaw in the new software long before it was released, but Canonical management decided to go ahead with the release anyway, hoping that their developers would be able to come up with a patch for the bug sooner rather than later.

They didn’t. Four months after release the bug remains unfixed and there are thousands (millions?) of former Ubuntu users who have switched to other operating systems. Not only has this reduced Canonical’s revenue stream (fewer users equals lower demand for support services), but because Ubuntu’s reputation has been badly damaged, future revenue streams are also adversely affected.
Canonical is not a public company, so there will be no shareholder revolt at the next AGM, but I sincerely hope for Ubuntu’s sake that the incompetents that let wishful thinking guide their actions are thrown out and Canonical and the Ubuntu community can move on without any repetition of this sort of debacle.

Wishful thinking? Probably.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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