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What Canonical’s Launchpad Move to Open Source Means to Developers

Now that the code for Canonical Ltd.’s Launchpad open source development hosting community was released as open source last week, the company hopes that developers who may have stayed away from Launchpad in the past will take a new look.

Ironically, when Launchpad debuted two years ago as a place where open source software projects could find a free, hosted home for development work and collaboration, the code that ran the portal itself wasn’t even open source.

That kept some open source developers and their projects away due to concerns about future access and development freedom.

Canonical’s new mission is to try to change those attitudes so developers who may have been skeptical before will join Launchpad now, said Karl Fogel, Canonical’s Launchpad Ombudsman.

“We knew that there were projects that would not host on Launchpad because it was not open source,” Fogel said. “So we just decided to just remove that barrier and remove that problem.”

For Canonical, which is the company that provides support and service for the Ubuntu Linux open source operating system, the actual move to making Launchpad itself open source has been anticipated for some time.

The move came now, Fogel said, only after lots of internal deliberations. “There is some business risk to Canonical in doing this,” he said, including the possibility that someone else can take the open source Launchpad code and start up a similar, separate Launchpad-like portal. “It was always a risky decision, so I think that’s why it took so long,” he said.

Eventually, the decision was made to make Launchpad’s source code open to address the worries of those skeptical developers.

“Psychologically, it’s just one of those things that just matters a lot to them,” he said of the developers. “It’s a purely symbolic thing, yet it’s really important.”

For some developers, they stayed away from Launchpad because they didn’t want to put their critical projects on a development platform where they had no control of its future, Fogel said. “Some of them chose previously to run their own servers to maintain their projects so they could oversee their code from start to finish. A lot of software developers feel that if they don’t have access to the source code [for the hosting community], then they’re making an investment in the code and it could be taken away from them.”

With the changes made to Launchpad, those fears are now removed, Fogel said. “If the code to Launchpad is open source, it means you can feel safe putting your stuff on Launchpad.”

With the move to open source, it means that Launchpad’s future is no longer directly tied to Canonical’s future, Fogel said. “The developers knew that Canonical would always give them access to their code previously, but the developers wanted a ‘Plan B’ just in case,” he said. “It was just a philosophical issue for them. It was a very natural step for Canonical.”

Jay Lyman, an open source analyst with The 451 Group in New York, said in an e-mail reply that Launchpad’s open source move “has significant potential beyond Canonical, Ubuntu and that community in that it represents a significant step for cross-project collaboration” beyond the traditional open source development world. At the same time, he wrote, “I don't see developers having to pick and choose between the repositories and places where they work on their code. In fact, similar to open source software licenses, I see open source software developers using a variety of destinations and tools for their development, collaboration and communication.”

Other open source hosting communities, such as SourceForge.net, also host open source development projects, including projects being built for use with Ubuntu Linux.

Lyman also said he believes that Canonical’s decision to release the Launchpad code under the new AGPLv3 software license is “interesting” and “will help Launchpad attract more developers.”

Launchpad is important to Canonical because it is a place where applications for Ubuntu can be started, grown and encouraged, all in one community, Fogel said. “Our goal is to have more projects written on Launchpad for Ubuntu. “We just needed all these projects that form Ubuntu to be linked together in one place so that we can build Ubuntu efficiently.”

For developers who are now contemplating a move to Launchpad, “it’s not a giant step” from a competing community, he said. “Depending on how they are hosted currently, it could be fairly easy.” Several steps would have to be tackled, including migrating mailing lists, setting up Web pages and configuring bug reporting systems. “They are pretty straightforward projects.” Much of the needed information is at https://help.launchpad.net/.

So far, about 13,000 software projects are hosted on Launchpad. Open source projects are hosted for free, while fees apply for closed source projects.

There has been a “spike” of new projects opened on Launchpad since its move last week to open source, but Fogel didn’t have any estimates on how many came over due to the change. “I don’t know if they are new projects or if they are coming from somewhere else, but they had to be somewhere else because there’s no way someone could start up a new project and have all their code together” in such a short time,” he said.

 

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