Launchpad Open-Sourced. Now What?
Launchpad, a Web application developed by Canonical for managing software development, was finally open-sourced last week. But with a number of its other products remaining proprietary, what are Canonical's real intentions towards living by the free-software ideology that drives projects like Ubuntu?
Canonical faced criticism early-on for releasing the Launchpad platform under a closed-source license. The company's founder, Mark Shuttleworth, responded by promising that the software would transition to the GPL license when its revenue model matured, but that open-sourcing it at an earlier date would distract developers and risk useless forking of the code.
FUD or pragmatism?
I'm a bit ambivalent about Canonical's endorsement of proprietary development models for its products. On one hand, it seems more than a little hypocritical that the company behind Ubuntu, an operating system built around deep-rooted principles of software freedom, should keep its code secret.
And the excuse that Canonical's ventures remain closed because developers have to be paid is a weak one: first, there are thousands of well compensated programmers at other organizations who work on open-source projects; and second, developers don't always need to be paid to produce quality software. Shuttleworth's insinuation that generating revenue is incompatible with open-source sounds disappointingly similar to the old FUD plied by enemies of free software for decades.
At the same time, launching a project under a proprietary model and transitioning to the GPL later has its merits. In particular, as Shuttleworth pointed out, it helps avoid the insanity of endless forking and bickering among developers that bogs down many open-source projects. In this respect, Canonical's decision to keep code closed reflects a valuable bit of sanity in a software ecosystem dominated by ideologues in need of a dose of pragmatism if they hope to reach the masses.
Shuttleworth, a former Debian developer, has spent millions of his own dollars funding Ubuntu and by all indications is genuinely committed to free software. If he decides to keep some code proprietary, he's doing what he truly believes to be in the long-term interests of Ubuntu. But only time will tell whether Canonical's policies will pay off.
It also emains to be seen whether Canonical's other products, like UbuntuOne and Landscape, will follow Launchpad's trajectory from proprietary development to the open-source world. If they do, the company may be making an important contribution to the free-software community by pioneering a new development model where projects wait to mature before releasing their code to the wild.
In any case, Ubuntu users can take comfort in the fact that, with Launchpad now open-sourced, someone can finally write a patch so the application no longer takes an eternity to serve pages.