Ubuntu Ready logoMost VARs in the open source channel are happy just to get free code contributions from their users. Canonical, however, has taken community engagements one step further with the announcement of a user-driven hardware-certification program. Will it work?  Here are some thoughts.

Most software vendors can probably think of more than a few things they'd rather do than test hardware to make sure it works well with their products. Hardware certification demands many tedious hours, not to mention the acquisition of lots of hardware. Nonetheless, for companies like Canonical, whose main product is the Ubuntu operating system, hardware certification is a must-have to appeal seriously to users who want to be sure the Linux-based OS will be compatible with their computers.

Toward this end, Canonical has long maintained a list of Ubuntu-certified desktop, laptop, netbook and server hardware, organized by Ubuntu release. This is a useful resource, but it's not perfect: As Canonical employee Ara Pulido pointed out recently, the current system can be confusing for users because it offers two different certifications, "Ubuntu Certified" and "Ubuntu Ready."

The existing approach is also restrictive in that it privileges hardware from major commercial vendors who have relationships with Canonical. Dell, which has partnered with Canonical since 2007 to ship Ubuntu on its consumer, business and server-class systems, unsurprisingly has many more systems tested than any other manufacturer. IBM, meanwhile, certifies only its server hardware, which is also no shocker given IBM's main commercial interest in Linux remains in the datacenter.

At the same time, System76, despite being the only hardware vendor around today that ships all of its products with Ubuntu preinstalled, enjoys certification for only a handful of its models, while ZaReason, which deals exclusively with Linux systems, is not listed at all in the current database. The near-absence of these OEMs from the list is quite notable, since their hardware is perhaps more likely than anything else out there to be 100 percent Ubuntu-compatible.

Ubuntu Friendly

Recognizing these problems, Canonical has announced the discontinuation of the existing hardware-certification program and its replacement, beginning in the current Ubuntu 11.10 development cycle, of Ubuntu Friendly:
Ubuntu Friendly is an open hardware validation programme for desktops, netbooks and laptops that will be developed during the Oneiric cycle and that will allow to validate as "Ubuntu Friendly" those systems that are known to work well with a particular release of Ubuntu, based on test results sent by Ubuntu users.

The program and brand will be owned by Canonical (just as Ubuntu trademark is owned by Canonical), but all the processes will be open and there won't be any commercial requirements for systems to be Ubuntu Friendly.
While this change might mean that hardware-certification for Ubuntu will be a little less satisfying in the eyes of commercial partners, it also means it will become much easier to expand the range of hardware profiles officially sanctioned for Ubuntu by crowdsourcing out the hard work. At the same time, however, Canonical will retain official reins over the program, ensuring hardware gets the Ubuntu Friendly stamp only after rigorous and reliable testing -- a policy that should help users feel more confident in the meaning of the label.

VAR-Friendly

For VARs, particularly those in the open source channel, this strategy represents an impressive leveraging of community resources. It increases user engagement with the product while saving time and money for developers.

Yet more remarkably, the Ubuntu Friendly program is especially significant as an example of the way companies in the open source ecosystem can take advantage of users who may not be able to write code, but are still eager to support free-software projects. Traditionally, the contributions which non-programmers could offer in this realm were limited to writing documentation, working on translations, designing artwork or triaging bugs -- tasks that don't appeal to everyone and tend to demand specific skillsets of their own.

Now Canonical can offer its users a new way to contribute to Ubuntu by simply seeing how well the operating system runs on the hardware they already own. Almost anyone can do that, and everyone benefits from the results.

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