May 18, 2009, 2:02 PM — The commercial sponsor and originator of the Ubuntu project, Canonical, has stepped into new territory with the launch of a storage and sync service called Ubuntu One. In the tradition of open source marketing, this has been a "quiet product launch", and appears to have come from nowhere in the last week or two.
It's essentially an online storage service for desktop users that's like the online storage/backup solution Dropbox. Although presently in invitation-only beta, once signed-up each user gets 2GB of online storage free of charge, and can buy 10GB for US$10 per month.
Once signed-up, you need only install a small applet program on each Ubuntu computer you have. You'll then get what appears to be a network drive that files can be saved to. By installing the client applet on each of your Ubuntu computers (only Ubuntu at present!), you can sync files between your computers. It seems the plan is to tightly integrate Ubuntu One into many of Ubuntu's applications, so that storing files online will be seamless.
I use Dropbox on all my computers and I have to say that it's extremely useful, although the chief feature for me is cross-platform support. This is presently lacking from Ubuntu One.
Details about Ubuntu One are a little scant right now, at least outside of developer circles, but presumably the storage is secure, and nothing is sent or retrieved from the server without being encrypted by a private key. Dropbox adopts a similar policy.
It's a neat idea, and kudos to Canonical for thinking it up. In the world of open source people are extremely hesitant to open their wallets to pay for software. But nobody minds paying for a service that's actually useful. Indeed, it's long been said that services and support are the future of commercial open source. Cloud computing offers a method of doing this. Canonical has millions of users worldwide, and if even a fraction of them sign-up, Canonical could be achieving the pipe-dream of many an open-source company: actually making money.
Unfortunately there's a stinky little issue, and it's related to a blog posting I made last week: Trademarks. Although it seems the Ubuntu One client is open source, the Web server side of things are still secret. This is probably for reasons of data security, or maybe plain old competitive advantage, but few people in the community are happy about attaching the Ubuntu name to what is essentially a proprietary project.
The problem is bigger than this, however. Canonical, and not the community, owns the "Ubuntu" trademark. And they can do what they want with it, including launching commercial projects featuring it. Unfortunately, the Ubuntu trademark guidelines prohibit anybody else from doing this without permission. Do you think a competitor would get permission if they started a similar service, called something like Ubuntu Online? Or any project involving proprietary software? I doubt it.
A lot of the strength of the Ubuntu project comes from its community. And communities are by their nature egalitarian. For Canonical to single itself out for special treatment is going to draw significant criticism. Yes, they have to make money. But they can't bend the rules to make this happen. See this bug report to see a long and detailed community discussion of this issue.
Trademarks can be prickly things when it comes to open source, and can often run counter to the ethics, philosophy and demands of open source. This is perhaps a perfect example.
Keir Thomas is the author of several books on Ubuntu, including the free-of-charge Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference.