Joachim Breitner's Homepage
I just came out of scott's talk on revision control and package management. He also talked about Launchpad, a probject by Mark Shuttleworth's Canonical Ltd. Launchpad collects, as far as I can tell, all (relevant) Free Software in source format from everywhere including the complete history, as well as all modifications done by the distributions, and puts it in a single revision control system. Supposedly, this has happend to a certain extend already, and fills up 1700 Gigabyte on their drives. This can be accessed then, for example, by the Debian mainter to very easily integrate the changes that the Red Hat maintainer did to his sources, and the other way around, and so on. The technical usefullness is almost unlimited, and it seems as if this might be a service to the Free Software community larger than sourceforge.net and freshmeat combined.
So why would I blog about it? Because this is as dangerours as it is useful. What Canonical is trying to achieve here is to collect all the work that the free software have made and will made, and put them under their control. Sure, it is all accessible, sure, the code might even be free software someday (where someday is probably the moment that launchpad is so established that competitiors, even with the same software, have no chance of etablishing themselves), but the data is in Canonical's hand, and by this, we all depend on Canonical to continue providing the service.
This way, Canonical does to Free Software code what Google did to data of the masses: Google not only provides a search engine that might beat Internet Explorer's market share, but has a hand on people’s mail (GMail), discussions (Groups), shoppings (Froogle), they are about to become the single important source for maps and satellite images and I am sure that I forgot a few services for the public here. Both Canonical and Google do not seem to want to make money by charging for these services - we don't have to pay anything (besides our privacy and our independance, but who cares?). I can not forsee what evil will come from this, may it be monetary by charging for then indispensable services, maybe by secretly blackmailing blackmailable users, maybe by selling profiles to profilers and advertising agencies, maybe by selling out to the government. Maybe no evil at all, but the possibility of evilnees is evil enough to worry about.
And why is this more dangerous than Microsoft? Microsoft did a pretty clever thing: By good marketing, clever programming and commercial pressure, they locked in a lot of people to use Microsoft products and formats. This is evil, but we have found a solution to that: reverse engeneering and Free Software. Microsoft can be coped with. But Google and Launchpad were even cleverer. Instead of locking something in, they open everything: It is free, it has nice usable APIs to integrate in applications, and they suck all that opened data in and keep ahold of it. And while Microsoft has a record of doing a bad job when it comes to technical quality, thus helps the alternative, non-evil, Free Software, Google, and probably Launchpad, excels in what they doing, thus reducing the immediate need for alternatives altogether.
Are there alternatives? What can be the answer to these threats? Decentralized services. Just like e-mail, like the web itself, like blogs and like Free Software currently work: No central entity having control over the service, but everybody being able to control a little bit of it. There are plans for a decentralized search engine to reduces Google's power, and like that, we should thrife to provide the features Launchpad provides: Easy cross-distribution patch exchange, bug tracking system integration and so on, but in a networked, peer-to-peer way. Also, try to use alternative services if possible and convienient. Do you really need GMail, or can you live with a squirrelmail installation on a friend's server? Do you really need Launchpad for your new software project, or would you rather host it on sf.net or nongnu.org or savanna or alitoh or (insert as many alternatives as possible).
I know this is a radical approach, more radical than practical. Just as I use google now, I will most likely use Launchpad. But if you notice that you are about to become dependant on such a service, you should really consider alternatives. I am looking forward to a constructive and fruitful discussion.