Ubuntu Users: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

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The Ubuntu Linux distribution has always been free. It’s also always welcomed donations from users. Historically, though, the donation page hasn’t been featured prominently on the Ubuntu website. As of yesterday, users who download Ubuntu are now invited to donate to Ubuntu.

It’s important to note two things. First, donations are completely voluntary. Ubuntu is still free to download and use. There is no obligation to donate anything. Second, anyone who donates gets to choose where they want their money to go.

Some folks have decried this move by Ubuntu, calling it a move toward donation ware. It is a big change, to be sure, and raises questions about Canonical’s ability to provide long-term financial sponsorship of Ubuntu. Smaller Linux distributions have been asking for donations for years, so it’s not like this move is totally unprecedented.

The donation categories are a little contrived, but they will help the Ubuntu development community identify which areas are of top priority to users. Or, more specifically, the categories will help the Ubuntu development community identify which areas are of top priority to people willing to financially support them.

I asked Steve George, Vice President, Communications and Products at Ubuntu, whether the money would really go to the individual aspects identified in the donation, or if the donations would all be lumped together to help Ubuntu generally, and use the donor’s choices to help decide how to prioritize development. He told me that “the money will go directly to the specific areas that it was intended.”

People will be able to contribute financially to areas that they think are most important. The money received from contributions will be collected and distributed to the teams responsible for the specific area it was intended for. This means that each team will have additional funds to develop, code, test, design, innovate and improve those areas of Ubuntu.

While I think this is a good move, overall, to allow users to put their money with their mouth is, it’s not a perfect solution. Take, for example, the category “Make the desktop more amazing”. For the vocal number of people who absolutely despise the Unity desktop interface, does it make sense to donate money here? If your idea of making the desktop more amazing is to ditch Unity altogether, how do you say that? (Cynically, of course, you say that by not donating any money at all to Ubuntu.)

For KDE and XFCE users, you’ll be happy to see a “Better support for flavours like Kubuntu, Xubuntu, Lubuntu” category. And it’s nice to see that a dedicated category exists for “Better coordination with Debian and upstreams.” I’d be curious to see how many people opt to donate to the “Tip Canonical” option: how much of a tip does Canonical really need?

There’s no fill-in-the-blank option to ensure your money goes to whatever specific pet project about which you feel passionately, but I suspect that if this donation experiment proves successful the number of donation options will evolve over time.