Free software is famously close to its users, drawing on them for warnings about bugs (and sometimes fixes), as well as ideas and suggestions for future developments. But I don't think any project has previously gone so far as to encourage ordinary users to make financial contributions directly in support of new features they want. That's precisely what Canonical, the company that oversees the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution, plans to do:
Today, we're making it easier for people to financially contribute to Ubuntu if they want to. By introducing a 'contribute' screen as part of the desktop download process, people can choose to financially support different aspects of Canonical's work: from gaming and apps, developing the desktop, phone and tablet, to co-ordination of upstreams or supporting Ubuntu flavours. It's important to note that Ubuntu remains absolutely free, financial contribution remains optional and it is not required in order to download the software.
As this notes, even if people don't offer money, their views on what's important to them can still be gathered, and that's valuable information for developers who need to prioritize their work.
By allowing Ubuntu users to choose which elements of Ubuntu they're most excited about, we'll get direct feedback on which favourite features or projects deserve the bulk of our attention. We're letting users name their price -- depending on the value that they put on the operating system or other aspects of our work. That price can, of course, be zero -- but every last cent helps make Ubuntu better.
In principle, letting people support new features of interest sounds like a good idea, since it gives users a chance to vote with their wallets. But it comes in the wake of a plan to let people search for items on sites like Amazon from within the Ubuntu operating system, for which Canonical would presumably get paid if purchases were made as a result. As the hundreds of comments on the blog of Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical and Ubuntu, indicate, this has raised a number of concerns about privacy and the direction of the Ubuntu project.
Some might see both moves as evidence that Canonical still isn't making as much money from the Ubuntu ecosystem as it needs to, and that Shuttleworth is looking to bolster income. Four years ago, he admitted that Canonical was "not close" to breaking even, and that it would "require time and ongoing investment" to make it do so. Given Ubuntu's place as probably the most popular GNU/Linux distribution, users must hope that Shuttleworth will still be happy to invest in Canonical, and hence in Ubuntu, for a while yet. Perhaps that's another good reason for Ubuntu fans to start paying at least some of the development costs under the new scheme.
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