Just how much’s a Shuttleworth? : Notes on communitizing the community


The good news first. The netivity site is back online,we are coming back from our second near death experience and hoping to stay alive. More on that later.

I had changed the colour theme on the CSS on the version I was working on. Which I then uploaded to our servers.
Our head code monkey/CTO/guiding light @eebrah made clear he didn’t like the new colour theme. Was hurting his eyes he said.
He also took issue with the unilateralism of the action. Also into  big words, this one is. And so we heard a problem.

I never did like the old green theme of the site. Found it too dull, unexciting. And it spoke against everything I know about web design. I still do not like it.
In the back and forty  that ensued from the colour disagreement, I made a spectacular I “can’t take it to the enterprise” arguement, worthy of any Cannonical  exec.
I argued that it was about the users. True, I am yet to receive feedback from folks who were on the site, who thought it was any good. Some designer pals outrightly hated it. But didn’t offer suggestions.
My decision to alter the CSS,and @eebrah’s sharp reaction to erm, the unilaterism of the said action,led to an epiphany.
Right there I had a microcosm, a snapshot of sorts of the power struggles and beefs between the sponsoring  Corporation and it’s community of developers, as occassioned most recently by Ubuntu, it’s communitized developers and recent decision to push their own shell/Desktop environment Unity.
Business is predicated on the notion,rather pretentious, that execs and proprietors  know what’s best for their customers. This is often arrived at through extensive research. But more often than not ,through gut feeling, business instict and is largely informed by prevailing trends. But do businesses really know what users want
Business is not science. Execs often get it wrong. As exemplified by my arguements, and those of Canonical, Ubuntu’s sponsors.
The sponsoring corporation,the business end of things, and the community both have the well being of the project at heart.

And very often, the business feels, wrongly, that the community just does not get it.

In early  2009, Canonical felt they had a problem. Much like me, they felt that their choice of colour, themes and overall design, did not reflect well on their identity and the User Experience on their flagship Ubuntu desktop product.

A product that had in less than 5 years, achieved a user base of over 10million users and become, according to distrowatch, the world’s most popular distro.

So in March of that year they brought in Ivanka Majic,a brilliant designer, to work on revamping branding and UX.

And things for Ubuntu have never been quite the same.

Ubuntu’s mantra Linux for Human beings is based on the presumptuous notion that the Linux community does not get the average, human user and doesn’t consist of, itself “human” users of Ubuntu.
And so they brought in Aubergine, a more earthly human theme to Ubuntu,and
a tinkering of the buttons [maximize isn’t where maximize used to be] on the title bars of windows.
A lot of users didn’t like it. @methoddan’s mother didn’t like it for instance. And I doubt she is a bearded, hippy, free software  geek. The decision was never properly communicated to the community, and actual users of the distro.
A more recent change, Unity essentially a Gnome fork [At some point, I informed @eebrah that I would fork the darned CSS,and we would see which one would win out] was released to considerable backlash by the community and many average users. My cousin, a DTP designer who I got on Ubuntu around 8.10, certainly didn’t like it.

I get Canonical. They feel that they are more invested in the long-term well being of the project. They pay the bills. They have to make the business decisions. They certainly have the skills and expertise to do. Their CEO Mark Shuttleworth has had considerable business success before [See Here Be Dragons,Thawte Consulting]. Who better to make the decisions?
Where they, and myself, and several other companies and  execs involved in open source projects get it wrong, is the in their logic defying presumption  that their communities aren’t invested in the long term success of the project.

Members of your community have the actual purchasing power for when you are selling your product. They are the ones who are more likely to pick a netbook/laptop running Ubuntu over a similar one running on Windows  or Mac OS X.
They’re the ones who make suggestions and assurances to potential & newbie buyers.
Some go as far providing support to users who you the Corp would otherwise not be able to reach. My cousins who run Ubuntu, and to be fair love Unity,are more likely to call me for support, than say Cannonical or even getting on the Ubuntu site and forums.

They evangelize your project.
They use it in ways you couldn’t have conceived.
[Heck, I run a business on a Canonical product, and am very much interested in their eucalyptus “cloud” computing offering.]
They are as equally , and at times more so invested in it than you are. [See Illumos Project, Solaris after Sun.

A top down approach in a community simply doesn’t work. “We know what’s good for you only sparks trouble”

Hoisting decisions on people while working in a team only gives birth to resentment. Which in turn leads to estrangement of your community.

Ask Novell SUSE, estranging your community is the surest way to lose momentum and fail.

Mass hypnosis is the corporation’s end game, mass benefit the community’s.
Communities rarely do get things wrong. Company execs often do.

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4 Comments

  1. Heheh, thanks for sharing that personal story :)!

    Regarding Unity, I think Canonical does have a plan, some long-term vision. I’ve been a Linux user for about 10 years, and have used every distribution and every window manager in the eco system, including Gentoo, Slackware, Arch, etc, and used to be a seriously-dedicated Open/Fluxbox die hard.

    I dig Unity now. Apps always start in full screen, I have hot keys for virtual desktops and running applications, and I still spend most of my time in a black/white terminal! Also, I don’t need to save CPU cycles now, all my machines have a Core i7 and 4+ gigs of RAM! HEHEHEHEH.

  2. Because I’m working mostly on my netbook, I’m using Ubuntu, and I tried to make unity work because a side menuvmakes so much sense for the small widescreen real estate. But it didn’t work as I thought it should, and it just drove me nuts, so I’m back to classic.

    You would think that computer companies might have noticed the boom and bust nature of the industry. Most of the company names that were huge when i started using computers are lucky to still survive.

    Push the users too far, and we will go away.

    Good article 🙂

  3. An eye-opening article. I for one like the simplicity of netivity as it were… Guess I’ll have to see your ‘unilateral’ css to judge…

  4. I think trying to understand what users want is admirable but they’ve forgotten to consider why we chose GNU/Linux in the first place. I switched before the new colour landscape, but it was definitely needed! Still, my choice of OS is not based on shallow ‘treats’.

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