Canonical: Hardened corporate or community leader?

Open Source is starting to become a very lucrative business model these days and I think we have Google to thank for that. However, this means money is coming in for people who didn’t get much before and who feel that it’s long overdue.

Naturally capitalist greed gets the better of the once generous and the Gnome Foundation and Canonical have locked horns. Let’s investigate the situation a little further.

Founded by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical is the corporate backer of Ubuntu, the third most popular desktop operating system in the world after Windows and MacOS. Ubuntu is built from open source projects like Linux and Gnome Desktop Environment among others. Gnome has become the most widely used desktop environment for Open Source/Linux based operating systems and is the default for Ubuntu as well.

Banshee is a media player strongly affiliated with Gnome. The standard build of Banshee includes the Amazon MP3 store that allows users easy access to legal music downloads and provides a revenue stream for the Gnome Foundation. Banshee is also built using the Mono framework which, to cut a long story short, probably infringes on many of Microsoft’s patents.

Canonical has its own MP3 store by the name of Ubuntu One Music Store which is available through Rythmbox — the media player currently bundled with Ubuntu. Canonical has decided to drop Rythmbox in favour of Banshee for future releases of Ubuntu. Amazon’s MP3 store and Canonical’s Ubuntu One Music Store are obviously in direct competition, which is where the drama comes in.

Canonical’s Perspective

Being an open source project, Canonical is free to use and change Banshee as it pleases. It therefore makes sense to completely remove the Amazon MP3 store from Banshee when it’s included with Ubuntu in order to remove any competition with the revenue generating Ubuntu One music store.

Canonical has decided that it would be in the best interest of Ubuntu users to include both. However to avoid damaging income streams they have decided to partner up with Amazon and earn a cut from any music sold by Amazon through Ubuntu and Banshee. To be fair to the wider community, Canonical has decided to donate 25% of those profits to Gnome. In addition to that, Canonical will donate 25% of the Ubuntu One Music Store profits as well. That’s 25% of all profits made through Ubuntu music sales going straight to the Gnome Foundation out of good will.

Gnome’s Perspective

Default desktop environment’s aside, Banshee is effectively a Gnome project and a lot of hard work has gone into it, in order to make it an appealing media player. When Canonical announced that they would include Banshee as a standard application in Ubuntu, the Gnome Foundation expected them to use it as is, including the Gnome/Amazon partnership.

Instead Canonical decided to run off with 75% of what should be Gnome’s profits. Ubuntu makes use of a significant amount of the Gnome Foundation’s efforts and deciding to including Banshee could have been a good way for Canonical to give back to the Gnome Foundation. Instead they have decided to take even more and are now just abusing the open source community.


Obviously I have simplified the situation here but this is the gist. Canonical is a business and profits are their first concern — they could have chosen to pocket 100% of all the profits involved or they could have chosen to just stick with Rythmbox instead of Banshee.

Being part of the open source environment they have decided to plow some nutrients back into the soil which many will agree, is an important part of the open source ecosystem.

I think the Gnome Foundation is being optimistic if they think that a corporate like Canonical will open itself up to competition simply to help the community. On top of that the Mono framework could open Canonical’s OEM partners to patent lawsuits by Microsoft, so Canonical are really taking risks by including Banshee. All things considered, I’d be thrilled if I could walk away with 25% of the profits from the potential customer base that Ubuntu offers (estimated at 12 million users).



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