The Ubuntu Technical Board recently sanctioned continued use of Mono, the legally ambiguous open-source implementation of Microsoft's C# programming language, as a component of the default software stack on Ubuntu releases. At the risk of complicating Ubuntu's strategy for the corporate market, this move positions the operating system to take a tough stance against patent trolls, which should serve as an example for weaker-kneed Linux distributions. Here's why.
Since its release in 2004, Mono's use by open-source developers has been controversial. Individuals like Richard Stallman have warned programmers to keep away from the tool in the interest of avoiding patent lawsuits by Microsoft, which may be able to make a claim that certain components of the Mono stack infringe on its intellectual property.
Nonetheless, Mono has been used to build numerous open-source applications, including F-Spot photo manager and Tomboy notes, which have been included by default in the desktop version of Ubuntu for several releases.
While Microsoft and its partners have yet to announce any intent to challenge software developers and end users who run Mono, the risk that this could become a problem has prompted many mainstream Linux distributions to take evasive action. Novell went to bed with Microsoft in 2006 to achieve a guarantee of immunity, while Red Hat and Fedora announced plans earlier this year to phase out the use of Mono in their default application line up.
Ubuntu's defiant stance against the threat of lawsuit represents a unique position among major Linux distributions. At the same time, it complicates Ubuntu's image in the eyes of end users, particularly in professional environments, where a successful anti-Mono legal campaign would likely cause the most damage.
The decision to stick with Mono therefore places Ubuntu in a difficult position as it works to capture more of the lucrative enterprise market from competitors like Red Hat and Novell. Disappointment with Ubuntu's choice is real, as one end user made clear when he threatened to switch his organization to Fedora.
Example to others
While its position on Mono presents some risks and harms the operating system's image among corporate customers and free-software militants, Ubuntu's decision should serve as an inspiration to other Linux distributions. Surrendering to a theoretical legal threat before it has any tangible traction is not the way to innovate or advance the cause of free software.
After all, Linux faced numerous similar challenges in its early days, like the underhanded attempt by a malicious individual in the early 1990s to patent the word "Linux." Rather than cowardly backing away from such attacks by selling out to the transgressors or abandoning the Linux name, the nascent free-software companies at the time pooled their resources and successfully overcame the challenges.
Let's hope that Ubuntu's example on the Mono issue inspires other distributions to give developers the freedom to use whichever tools they like, while promising support in the event of a lawsuit. Otherwise, they can expect to be divided and conquered by a bit of sabre rattling from Microsoft.