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I am an absolute Linux beginner trying to wrap my head around open source. I was keen to know about who is the key player in taking up decisions for open source development. How do the developers agree on a new functionality or feature?

For instance, to be more precise, Let me ask who was responsible for the introduction of Unity in 11.04? Obviously it might have been introduced as a creative thought irrespective of how it is received by users. So who exactly suggests these ideas in the Ubuntu team?

Even if one does suggest such a new creative feature, how is it agreed upon as a common standard by the rest of the development team involved?

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3 Answers 3

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You ask two questions in one, really. But let me begin by saying that there is a reason why we call it GNU+Linux distributions. Ubuntu distributes free software that is made by other people. What software to use and how to use it, is up to Ubuntu, whereas the projects themselves have their own decision making processes.

For things like Unity, that is basically a Canonical product, Canonical has a large role in decision making. But Ubuntu is much more than that. Firefox, for instance, is maintained by Mozilla, so in that case, Mozilla makes most of the decisions. It's like that for lots of applications and programs. It's usually the ones who make the software who makes the decisions. Based on how that works, Ubuntu chooses what software to use. It would be legal to take software, like Firefox and make a new project out of it in order to become "decision maker", but that very rarely happens in reality. When there is a major dispute over the direction of which a project is headed, it can be forked into two different applications. That would also mean splitting the responsibility of decision making and maintaining the software, which is a big job. Also, if the software is very good and the project is very poorly administrated, it can happen, as was the perceived situation around OpenOffice.org, leading to LibreOffice, for instance.

So, since Unity is Canonicals project, they're in charge. But that doesn't mean that other opinions aren't valued and welcomed. They are. Canonical is at the center of it, but it's still a community project. But if the community splits into more than one opinion, and you have to have only one solution, then Canonicals opinion will be the final word. Usually, though, there is a best solution that people can agree on.

For general decisions about the direction Ubuntu is headed and what to focus on, there is a developer summit right after the release of one version of Ubuntu and another begins. The next starts on October 31th and is where the big picture is ironed out. You can read more about that here: http://uds.ubuntu.com/

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Ubuntu, like several other distros (Red Hat most notably probably) have corporate backing so there is a company that's more or less "in charge" and decides what the official roadmaps and 'supported' features are.

In the case of Ubuntu, the company Canonical founded by Mark Shuttleworth is the one in charge. Shuttleworth amassed great personal fortune during the dot-com boom (he is a space man!) and has mostly been paying out of his own pocket, though he and the Canonical executives are working on paid services and support offered by Canonical to bring the company to profitability.

Red Hat, meanwhile, sells support for their own Enterprise distributions, and makes quite a lot of money doing so.

That said, the key to their success is listening to the community and allowing participation in submitting patches and input on the roadmap, so it's not just Canonical employees involved in Ubuntu or any of these other projects.

Anyone can "fork" an open source project and do what they want with it as long as they continue to publish the source to their changes (for the most part, there's a lot of nuance here I'm leaving out for simplicity) and you can see projects like that in the likes of Linux Mint, but obviously there needs to be quite a bit of interest and support by similarly minded individuals for such a fork to take off.

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There's a page about Ubuntu governance.

For the introduction of Unity the typical way would have been that the Desktop Team decides it and the idea gets then aproved by the Technical Board - with Mark Shuttleworth having his influence on all levels. But I don't know how it really went.

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