Yesterday Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth held a phone conference to talk about the state of Ubuntu. It's clearly become more than just "Linux for human beings". But it's getting harder to avoid thinking of Canonical as a black box, and that hurts.
Two things revealed during the call helped shape my apprehensions about this issue. The first was Shuttleworth's description of Ubuntu as becoming an "end-to-end solution" -- not just a desktop, but a desktop, a server, a cloud infrastructure, and so on. One wonders if this also means Ubuntu will become an architecture for mobile devices as well (or at least tie that much more closely with the various Linuxes used in same now).
I like the sound of all this -- up to a point.
What makes me uneasy is that there is little sense of how Canonical plans to allocate its internal resources. Canonical is not a company with an infinite talent pool, and open source is not a magic box from which software can be simply pulled out on demand. Even an existing open source solution has to be tailored to work in a given environment -- doubly so if that environment is a whole distribution and not just an end-user deployment of the software. It takes real work to create all of these things, to make them work, to support them consistently and make sure people who commit to them can rely on them for years at a time.
It's also difficult to assess how successful Canonical is at funding the development and testing of all these things when they're a privately-held company. At each of these calls someone inevitably asks, how close is Canonical to breaking even this time? No answer yet.
This brings up a tough question that I still have no good answer to: Does it make sense for a company to sell support for open source and develop it as well, and yet not have transparency in its finances? This is not to disparage the efforts being made over at Canonical -- only that it's getting difficult to keep one's eyes willfully shut to this.
Ubuntu in all its incarnations is deeply impressive, and I don't mean to sound like I'm disparaging the hard work of a lot of good people, Mark Shuttleworth included. I just don't want them to end up being compulsively opaque about the very things a company like this needs to be most forthright about.
(I was going to say "You don't want to end up like Apple, do you?" Then I realized there are far, far worse ways to end up.)
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