A few weeks ago, Canonical announced that the ShipIt program, which provides Ubuntu CDs for free, would be scaled back in order to cut costs.  Fair enough, but is the new strategy--which centers around making free CDs available only to people already active in the Ubuntu community--in line with the principles that underpin the Ubuntu project?  Here are some thoughts.

Those of us living in North America, where few ISPs have gotten around to charging for bandwidth and high-speed Internet connections are available relatively cheaply in most areas, might have a hard time imagining that in other parts of the world, downloading and burning an Ubuntu ISO image can be beyond the means of many people.

That's the chief reason why Canonical introduced the ShipIt program back in Ubuntu's early days.  The ability to obtain free CDs in the mail, without even having to pay shipping and handling, helped advance the Ubuntu philosophy of building an operating system maximally available to a maximum number of people.

Granted, many people may have used ShipIt without a good reason.  For example, I've known users who could easily have downloaded an ISO image, but requested CDs because they were new to Linux and were intimidated by having to burn an Ubuntu disk, even though Ubuntu's website provides exhaustive instructions.

More regrettably, I once worked with a group of geeks who requested CDs for an Ubuntu installfest just because they didn't want to spend a few of their own dollars buying blank discs.  People like them cost Canonical a lot of money for no good reason.

The wrong priorities?

Clearly, some people have a more legitimate need for the ShipIt service than others, and no one can criticize Canonical for wanting to cut some extraneous costs by making sure the CDs go only to those who deserve them.  Yet in making its decision to roll back the program, Canonical seems to have prioritized the wrong groups.

Under the new plan, only individuals who have become official members of the Ubuntu community by contributing back to the project are eligible for ShipIt.  To a degree, this makes sense.  Surely there are some important contributors out there who might otherwise have difficulty obtaining CDs.

But I suspect that the vast majority of people actively involved in Ubuntu development already have the means of obtaining new releases on their own.  A lot of them are geeks with connections to bandwidth even in regions where it's generally prohibitively expensive to download ISOs.  Others are established enough to afford the minimal costs associated with purchasing Ubuntu CDs for a moderate price.

The people who suffer most under this new scheme are those who just want to use Ubuntu without contributing back, but who are unable to obtain CDs or ISOs.  This means Canonical runs the risk of being accused of punishing people for being normal users rather than developers.

To construct a system that privileges coders and other technophiles over normal people who just want to use Linux in their everyday lives undermines Ubuntu's promise of equal access for all.  It also reinforces negative stereotypes of the free-software community as an elitist ecosystem hostile to non-geeks.

I have no gripe with Canonical working to streamline the ShipIt program by cutting shipments of CDs to people who don't really need them.  But it should take steps to ensure that those who really do deserve the media are not left out in the cold, even if they aren't active in the Ubuntu community.