April 9, 2007 4:35 PM PDT

Canonical wants open-source cooperation

Ubuntu Linux backer Canonical has launched a beta version of its Launchpad service, part of an effort to make open-source programming methods a better match for Microsoft.

Launchpad is a Web site that provides a foundation for Ubuntu's cooperative programming projects, with features for tracking bugs, managing source code repositories and planning new features. Canonical Chief Executive Mark Shuttleworth believes its broader use could help marshal free and open-source software forces more effectively against Microsoft.

"Microsoft has an efficient core infrastructure that allows developers from one part of the company to connect with a developer on another," Shuttleworth said in an interview after the move last week. "In a free software world, if we want to match that, we have to crank up the level of collaboration."

Launchpad was founded to run the Ubuntu project, but it's now open to other projects. Three--Zope, Jokosher and SilvaCMS--are hosted there now.

That hosting foundation makes Launchpad more like VA Software's Sourceforge.net site, which hosts thousands of open-source projects. Shuttleworth points out some differences, though: Launchpad can't currently host a project's Web page or run mailing list discussions. Canonical will add the mailing list support and is considering the Web page option as well, Shuttleworth said.

The company's goal isn't to gobble up the activity of other hosting sites, Shuttleworth said. "We're not trying to convince people to switch off their own infrastructure and adopt Launchpad wholesale," he said. For example, one feature of Launchpad is the ability to link bugs tracked on Launchpad with related bugs at other sites.

Though Launchpad is not entirely open-source software, it will be at some point, Shuttleworth said.

"I won't commit to a date for open-sourcing Launchpad. I think it's inevitable," he said. The reason Shuttleworth won't do so now: he doesn't want the project to fork into incompatible versions.

Launchpad supports another cooperative programming tool, the Bazaar software for managing programmers' different branches of a project's source code tree. To build Bazaar, Canonical hired lead architect Martin Pool, who also had worked on the Linux kernel for Hewlett-Packard and who had developed distcc, a compiler that could use several machines to turn the source code written by people into the binary instructions understood by computers.

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Good strategic thinking
This is the kind of directed strategic thinking that will make progress against the Microsoft monopoly. Shuttleworth is making good decisions (like accepting some closed-source programs into the Ubuntu repositories) which keep the enterprise going the in right direction. (Open-source purists are wrong and misguided to demand that only open-source programs be acknowledged; remember, it's always about the needs of the end users, not about your ideology of the future).

Another area that Shuttleworth and Canonical will want to look at is their Ubuntu community interfaces. The complex technical issues and rapid expansion of their usership is creating a confusing, irritable, sometimes nasty atmosphere between new users and the overworked cadre of volunteers on the Ubuntu community forums attempting to help them. There needs to be a layer of professional help somewhere between the forums and the bug reports to shield the community forums from the endless parade of routine startup problems. It would be the equivalent of "customer service" in the commercial world and, since the commercial softwares do customer service poorly, a chance to shine ahead of them if done well...
Posted by Razzl (1318 comments )
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