Ubuntu, Canonical, and IP

Recently there has been a flurry of concerns relating to the IP policy at Canonical. I have not wanted to throw my hat into the ring, but I figured I would share a few simple thoughts.

Firstly, the caveat. I am not a lawyer. Far from it. So, take all of this with a pinch of salt.

The core issue here seems to be whether the act of compiling binaries provides copyright over those binaries. Some believe it does, some believe it doesn’t. My opinion: I just don’t know.

The issue here though is with intent.

In Canonical’s defense, and specifically Mark Shuttleworth’s defense, they set out with a promise at the inception of the Ubuntu project that Ubuntu will always be free. The promise was that there would not be a hampered community edition and full-flavor enterprise edition. There will be one Ubuntu, available freely to all.

Canonical, and Mark Shuttleworth as a primary investor, have stuck to their word. They have not gone down the road of the community and enterprise editions, of per-seat licensing, or some other compromise in software freedom. Canonical has entered multiple markets where having separate enterprise and community editions could have made life easier from a business perspective, but they haven’t. I think we sometimes forget this.

Now, from a revenue side, this has caused challenges. Canonical has invested a lot of money in engineering/design/marketing and some companies have used Ubuntu without contributing even nominally to it’s development. Thus, Canonical has at times struggled to find the right balance between a free product for the Open Source community and revenue. We have seen efforts such as training services, Ubuntu One etc, some of which have failed, some have succeeded.

Again though, Canonical has made their own life more complex with this commitment to freedom. When I was at Canonical I saw Mark very specifically reject notions of compromising on these ethics.

Now, I get the notional concept of this IP issue from Canonical’s perspective. Canonical invests in staff and infrastructure to build binaries that are part of a free platform and that other free platforms can use. If someone else takes those binaries and builds a commercial product from them, I can understand Canonical being a bit miffed about that and asking the company to pay it forward and cover some of the costs.

But here is the rub. While I understand this, it goes against the grain of the Free Software movement and the culture of Open Source collaboration.

Putting the legal question of copyrightable binaries aside for one second, the current Canonical IP policy is just culturally awkward. I think most of us expect that Free Software code will result in Free Software binaries and to make claim that those binaries are limited or restricted in some way seems unusual and the antithesis of the wider movement. It feels frankly like an attempt to find a loophole in a collaborative culture where the connective tissue is freedom.

Thus, I see this whole thing from both angles. Firstly, Canonical is trying to find the right balance of revenue and software freedom, but I also sympathize with the critics that this IP approach feels like a pretty weak way to accomplish that balance.

So, I ask my humble readers this question: if Canonical reverts this IP policy and binaries are free to all, what do you feel is the best way for Canonical to derive revenue from their products and services while also committing to software freedom? Thoughts and ideas welcome!

Rebasing Ubuntu on Android?

NOTE: Before you read this, I want to clear up some confusion. This post shares an idea that is designed purely for some intellectual fun and discussion. I am not proposing we actually do this, nor advocating for this. So, don’t read too much into these words…

The Ubuntu phone is evolving step by step. The team has worked their socks off to build a convergent user interface, toolkit, and full SDK. The phone exposes an exciting new concept, scopes, that while intriguing in their current form, after some refinement (which the team are already working on) could redefine how we use devices and access content. It is all the play for.

There is one major stumbling block though: apps.

While scopes offer a way of getting access to content quickly, they don’t completely replace apps. There will always be certain apps that people are going to want. The common examples are Skype, WhatsApp, Uber, Google Maps, Fruit Ninja, and Temple Run.

Now this is a bit of a problem. The way new platforms usually solve this is by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay those companies to create and support a port. This isn’t really an option for the Ubuntu phone (there is much more than just the phone being funded by Canonical).

So, it seems to me that the opportunity of the Ubuntu phone is a sleek and sexy user interface that converges and puts content first, but the stumbling block is the lack of apps, and the lack of apps may well have a dramatic impact on adoption.

So, i have an idea to share based on a discussion last night with a friend.

Why don’t we rebase the phone off Android?

OK, bear with me…

In other words, the Ubuntu phone would be an Android phone but instead of the normal user interface it would be a UI that looks and feels like the Ubuntu phone. It would have the messaging menu, scopes, and other pieces, and select Android API calls could be mapped to the different parts of the Unity UI such as the messaging menu and online account support.

The project could even operate like how we build Ubuntu today. Every six months upstream Android would be synced into Launchpad where a patchset would live on patches.ubuntu.com and applied to the codebase (in much the same way we do with Debian today).

This would mean that Ubuntu would continue to be an Open Source project, based on a codebase easily supported by hardware manufacturers (thus easier to ship), it would run all Android apps without requiring a cludgy porting/translation layer running on Ubuntu, it would look and feel like an Ubuntu phone, it would still expose scopes as a first-class user interface, the Ubuntu SDK would still be the main ecosystem play, Ubuntu apps would still stand out as more elegant and engaging apps, and it would reduce the amount of engineering required (I assume).

Now, the question is how this would impact a single convergent Operating System across desktop, phone, tablet, and TV. If Unity is essentially a UI that runs on top of Android and exposes a set of services, the convergence story should work well too, after all…it is all Linux. It may need different desktop, phone, tablet, and TV kernels, but I think we would need different kernels anyway.

So where does this put Debian and Ubuntu packages? Well, good question. I don’t know. The other unknown of course would be the impact of such a move on our flavors and derivatives, but then again I suspect the march towards snappy is going to put us in a similar situation if flavors/derivatives choose to stick with the Debian packaging system.

Of course, I am saying all this as who really only understands a small part of the picture, but this just strikes me as a logical step forward. I know there has been a reluctance to support Android apps on Ubuntu as it devalues the Ubuntu app ecosystem and people would just use Android apps, but I honestly think some kind of middle-ground is needed to get into the game, otherwise I worry we won’t even make it to the subs bench no matter how awesome our technology is.

Just a thought, would love to hear what everyone thinks, including if what I am suggesting is total nonsense. :-)

Again, remember, this is just an idea I am throwing out for the fun of the discussion; I am not suggesting we actually do this.

New Forbes Column: From Piracy to Prosperity

My new Forbes column is published.

This article covers how technology has impacted how creatives, artists, and journalists create, distribute, and engage around their work.

For it I sat down with Mike Shinoda, co-founder of grammy award winning Linkin Park as well as Ali Velshi, host on Al Jazeera and former CNN Senior Business Corrospondent.

Go and read the article here.

After that you may want to see my previous article where I interviewed Chris Anderson, founder of 3DR and author of The Long Tail, where we discuss building the open drone revolution. Read that article here.


So the Ubuntu Community Council has asked Jonathan Riddell to step down as a leader in the Kubuntu community. The reasoning for this can be broadly summarized as “poor conduct”.

Some members of the community have concluded that this is something of a hatchet job from the Community Council, that Jonathan’s insistence to get answers to tough questions (e.g. licensing, donations) has resulted in the Community Council booting him out.

I don’t believe this is true.

Just because the Community Council has not provided an extensive docket of evidence behind their decision does not equate to wrong-doing. It does not equate to corruption or malpractice.

I do sympathize with the critics though. I spent nearly eight years pretty close to the politics of Ubuntu and when I read the Community Council’s decision I understood and agreed with it. For all of Jonathan’s tremendously positive contributions to Kubuntu, I do believe his conduct and approach has sadly had a negative impact on parts of our community too.

This has nothing to do with the questions he raised, it was the way he raised them, and the inference and accusations he made in raising such questions. We can’t have our leaders behaving like that: it sets a bad example.

As such, I understood the Community Council’s decision because I have seen these politics both up front and behind the scenes due to my close affiliation with Ubuntu and Canonical. For those people for who haven’t been so close to the coalface though, this decision from the CC feels heavy handed, without due evidence, and emotive in response.

Thus, in conclusion, I don’t believe the CC have acted inappropriately in making this decision, but I do believe that their decision needs to be illustrated further. The decision needs to feel complete and authoritative, but until we see further material, we are not going to improve the situation if everyone assumes the Community Council is some shadowy cabal against Jonathan and Kubuntu.

We are a community. We have more in common than what differs between us. Let’s put the hyperbole to one side and have a conversation about how we resolve this. There is an opportunity for a great outcome here: for better understanding and further improvement, but the first step is everyone understanding the perspectives of the people with opposing viewpoints.

As such #ISupportCommunity; our wider Ubuntu and Kubuntu family. Let’s work together, not against each other.

Announcing Chimp Foot.

I am delighted to share my new music project: Chimp Foot.

I am going to be releasing a bunch of songs, which are fairly upbeat rock and roll (no growly metal here). The first tune is called ‘Line In The Sand’ and is available here.

All of these songs are available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike license, which means you can download, share, remix, and sell them. I am also providing a karaoke version with vocals removed (great for background music) and all of the individual instrument tracks that I used to create each song. This should provide a pretty comprehensive archive of open material.

Please follow me on SoundCloud and/or on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.

Shares of this would be much appreciated, and feedback welcome for the music!?

Bobbing for Influence

Companies, communities, families, clubs, and other clumps of humans all have some inherent social dynamics. At a simple level there are leaders and followers, but in reality the lines are rarely as clear as that.

Many leaders, with a common example being some founders, have tremendous vision and imagination, but lack the skills to translate that vision into actionable work. Many followers need structure to their efforts, but are dynamic and creative in the execution. Thus, the social dynamic in organizations needs a little more nuance.

This is where traditional management hierarchies break down in companies. You may have your SVPs, then your VPs, then your Senior Directors, then your Directors, and so on, but in reality most successful companies don’t observe those hierarchies stringently. In many organizations a junior-level employee who has been there for a while can have as much influence and value, if not more, than a brand new SVP.

As such, the dream is that we build organizations with crisp reporting lines but in which all employees feel they have the ability to bring their creativity and ideas to logically influence the scope, work, and culture of the organization.

Houston, we have a problem

Sadly, this is where many organizations run into trouble. It seems to be the same ‘ol story time after time: as the organization grows, the divide between the senior leadership and the folks on the ground widens. Water cooler conversations and bar-side grumblings fuel the fire and resentment, frustrations, and resume-editing often sets in.

So much of this is avoidable though. Of course, there will always be frustration in any organization: this is part and parcel of people working together. Nothing will be perfect, and it shouldn’t be…frustration and conflict can often lead to organizations re-pivoting and taking a new approach. I believe though, that there are a lot of relatively simple things we can do to make organizations feel more engaging.


A big chunk of the problems many organizations face is around influence. More specifically, the problems set in when employees and contributors feel that they no longer have the ability to have a level of influence or impact in an organization, and thus, their work feels more mechanical, is not appreciated, and there is little validation.

Now, influence here is subtle. It is not always about being involved in the decision-making or being in the cool meetings. Some people won’t, and frankly shouldn’t, be involved in certain decisions: when we have too many cooks in the kitchen, you get a mess. Or Arby’s. Choose your preferred mess.

The influence I am referring to here is the ability to feed into the overall culture and to help shape and craft the organization. If we want to build truly successful organizations, we need to create a culture in which the very best ideas and perspectives bubble to the surface. These ideas may come from SVPs or it may come from the dude who empties out the bins.

The point being, if we can figure out a formula in which people can feel they can feed into the culture and help shape it, you will build a stronger sense of belonging and people will stick around longer. A sense of empowerment like this keeps people around for the long haul. When people feel unengaged or pushed to the side, they will take the next shiny opportunity that bubbles up on LinkedIn.

Some Practical Things To Do So, we get what the challenge ahead is. How do we beat it? Well, while there are many books written on the subject, I believe there are ten simple approaches we can get started with.

You don’t have to execute them in this order (in fact, these are not in any specific order), and you may place different levels of importance in some of them. I do believe though, they are all important. Let’s take a spin through them.

1. Regularly inform

A lack of information is a killer in an organization. If an organization has problems and is working to resolve them, the knowledge and assurance of solving these challenges is of critical importance to share.

In the Seven Habits, Covey talks about the importance of working on Important, and not just Urgent things. In the rush to solve problems we often forget to inform where changes, improvements, and engagement is happening. No one ever cried about getting too much clarity, but the inverse has resulted in a few gin and tonics in an evening.

There are two key types of updates here: informational and engagement. For the former, this is the communication to the wider organization. It is the memo, or if you are more adventurous, the podcast, video presentation, all-hands meeting or otherwise. These updates are useful, but everyone expects them to be very formal, lack specifics, and speak in generalities.

The latter, engagement updates, are within specific teams or with individuals. These should be more specific, and where appropriate, share some of the back-story. This gives a sense of feeling “in” on the story. Careful use of both approaches can do wondrous things to build a sense of engagement to leadership.

2. Be collaborative around the mission and values

Remember that mission statement you wrote and stuck on a web page or plaque somewhere? Yeah, so do we. Looked at it recently? Probably not.

Mission statements are often a broad and ambiguous statement, once written, and mostly forgotten. They are typically drafted by a select group of people, and everyone on the ground in service of that very mission typically feels rather disconnected from it.

Let’s change that. Dig out the mission statement and engage with your organization to bring it up to date. Have an interactive conversation about what people feel the broader goals and opportunities are, and take practical input from people and merge it into the mission. You will end up with a mission that is more specific, more representative, and in which people really felt a part of.

Do the same for your organizational values, code of conduct, and other key documents.

3. Provide opportunities for success

The very best organizations are ones where everyone has the opportunities to bring their creativity to the fold and further our overall mission and goals. The very worst organizations shut their people down because their business card doesn’t have the right thing written on it, or because of a clique of personalities.

We want an environment where everyone has the opportunity to step to the plate. An example of this was when I hired a translations coordinator for my team at Canonical. He did great work so I offered him opportunities to challenge himself and his skills. That same guy filled my shoes when I left the Canonical few years later.

Now, let’s be honest. This is tough. It relies on leaders really knowing their teams. It relies on seeing potential, not just ticked-off work items. If you create a culture though where you can read potential, tap it, and bring it into new projects, it will create an environment in which everyone feels opportunity is around the corner if they work hard.

4. If you Make Plans, Action Them

This is going to sound like a doozy, but it blows me away how much this happens. This is one for the leaders of organizations. Yes, you reading this: this includes you.

If you create a culture in which people can be more engaged, this will invariably result in new plans, ideas, and platforms. When these plans are shared, those people will feel engaged and excited about contributing to the wider team.

If that then goes into a black hole never to be assessed, actioned, or approved, discontentment will set in.

So, if you want to have a culture of engagement, take the time to actually follow up and make sure people can actually do something. Accepting great ideas, agreeing to them, and not following up will merely spark frustration for those who take the initiative to think holistically about the organization.

5. Regularly survey

It never ceases to amaze me how valuable surveys can be. You often have an idea of what you think people have a perspective on, you decide to survey them, and the results are in many cases enlightening.

Well structured surveys are an incredibly useful tool. You don’t need to do any crazy data analysis on these things: you often just need to see the general trends and feedback. It is important in these surveys to to always have a general open-ended question that can gather all feedback that didn’t fit neatly into your question matrix.

Of course, there is a whole science around running great surveys, and some great books to read, but my primary point here is to do them, do them often, and learn-from and action the results.

One final point: surveys will often freak managers out as they will worry about accountability. Don’t treat these worries with a sledgehammer: help them to understand the value of learning from feedback and to embrace a culture in which we constantly improve. This is not about yelling about mistakes, it is about exploring how we improve.

6. Create a thoughtful management culture

OK, that title might sound a little fluffy, but this is a key recommendation.

I learned from an old manager a style of management that I have applied subsequently and that I feel works well.

The idea is simple: when someone joins my team, I tell them that I want to help them in two key ways. Firstly, I want them to be successful in their role, to have all the support they need, to get the answers they need, and to be able to do a great job and enjoy doing it. Most managers focus their efforts here.

What is important is the second area of focus as a manager. I tell my team members that I want to help them be the very best they can be in their career; to support, mentor, and motivate them to not just do a great job here at the organization, but to feel that this time working here was one that was a wider investment in their career.

I believe both of these pledges from a manager are critical. Think about the best managers and teachers you have had: they paid attention to your immediate as well as long-term success.

If you are on an executive team of company, you should demand that your managers provide both of these pledges to their teams. This should be real, not just words, and be authentic.

7. Surprise your staff

This is another one for leaders in an organization.

We are all people and in business we often forget we are people. We all have hobbies, interests, ideas, jokes, stories, experiences to share. When we infuse our organizations with this humanity they feel more real and more engaging.

In any melting pot of an organization, some people will freely share their human side…their past experiences, stories, families, hobbies, favorite movies and bands…but in many cases the more senior up the chain you go, these kinds of human elements become isolated and shared with people who have a similar rank in the organization. This creates leadership cliques.

On many cases, seeing leaders surprise their staff and be relaxed, open, and engaging, can send remarkably positive messages. It shows the human side of someone who may be primarily experienced by staff as merely giving directives and reviewing performance. Remember, folks, we are all animals.

8. Set expectations

Setting expectations is a key thing in many successful projects. Invariably though, we often think about the expectations of consumers of our work; stakeholders, customers, partners etc.

It is equally important to set expectations with our teams that we welcome input, ideas, and perspectives for how the team and the wider organization works.

I like to make this bluntly clear to anyone I work with: I want all feedback, even if that feedback is deeply critical of my or the work I am doing. I would rather have an uncomfortable conversation and be able to tend to those concerns, than never to hear them in the first place and keep screwing up.

Thus, even if you think it is well understood that feedback and engagement is welcome, make it bluntly clear, from the top level and throughout the ranks that this is not only welcome, but critical for success.

9. Focus on creativity and collaboration

I hated writing that title. It sounds so buzzwordy, but it is an important point. The most successful organizations are ones that feel creative and collaborative, and where people have the ability to explore new ideas.

Covey talks about the importance of synergy and that working with others not only brings the best out of us, but helps us to challenge broken or misaligned assumptions. As such, getting people together to creatively solve problems is not just important for the mission, but also for the wellbeing of the people involved.

As discussed earlier though, we want to infuse specific teams with this, but also create a general culture of collaboration. To do this on a wider level you could have organization-wide discussions, online/offline planning events, incentive competitions and more.

10. Should I stay or should I go?

This is going to be a tough pill to swallow for some founders and leaders, but sometimes you just need to get out the way and let your people do their jobs.

Organizations that are too directed and constrained by leadership, either senior or middle-management, feel restrictive and limiting. Invariably this will quash the creativity and enthusiasm in some staff.

We want to strike a balance where teams are provided the parameters of what success looks like, and then leadership trusts them to succeed within those parameters. Regular gate reviews make perfect sense, but daily whittering over specifics does not.

This means that for some leaders, you just need to get out the way. I learned this bluntly when a member of my team at Canonical told me over a few beers one night that I needed to stop meddling and leave the team alone to get on with a project. They were right: I was worried about my teams delivery and projecting that down by micro-managing them. I gave them the air they needed, and they succeeded.

On the flip side, we also need to ensure leadership is there for support and guidance when needed. Regular check-ins, 1-on-1s, and water-cooler time is a great way to do this in a more comfortable way.

I hope this was useful and if nothing else, provided some ideas for further thinking about how we build organizations where we can tap into the rich chemistry of ideas, creativity, and experience in our wider teams. As usual, feedback is always welcome. Thanks for reading!

Bad Voltage: Live @ SCALE13x

As regular readers of my blog will know, I rather like the SoCal Linux Expo, more commonly known as SCALE. I have been going for over eight years and every year it delivers an incredible balance of content and community spirit. I absolutely love going every year.

Other readers may also know that I do a podcast with three other idiots every two weeks called Bad Voltage. The show is a soup of Linux, Open Source, technology, digital rights, politics, and more, all mixed together with reviews, interviews, and plenty more. I am really proud of the show: I think it is fun but also informative, and has developed an awesome community around it.

Given my love of SCALE and Bad Voltage, I am therefore tickled pink that we are going to be taping Bad Voltage: Live at SCALE. This will be our very first show in front of a live audience, and in-fact, the first time the whole team has been in the same building before.

The show takes place on the evening of Fri 20th Feb 2015 in the main La Jolla room.

The show will be packed with discussions, contests, give-aways, challenges, and more. It will be a very audience participatory show and we will be filming it as well as recording the podcast, ready for release post-SCALE.

So, be sure to get along and join the show on the evening of Fri 20th Feb 2015, currently slated to start at 9pm, but the time may adjust, so keep your eye on the schedule!

About The Author

Jono Bacon is Director of Community at Github and formerly led community at Canonical and XPRIZE. He wrote The Art of Community, founded the Community Leadership Summit, and writes columns for Forbes and opensource.com.

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