Canonical COO Matt Asay intends to leave the company to join a start-up. Big news, indeed, especially since Asay held the COO post for only about 10 months. Is this a sign of Canonical's maturity or of a messy situation within the Ubuntu provider? And what does his departure mean in broader terms to the open-source ecosystem, in which Asay is a key figure?  Read on for some thoughts.

As followers of the open-source channel will recall, Asay joined Canonical February 2010, filling an opening created when then-COO Jane Silber replaced Mark Shuttleworth as CEO (though Shuttleworth remains chairman and focused on Ubuntu).

Asay's roots within the open-source community already ran quite deep before his move to Canonical -- his previous employers include the Caldera offshoot Lineo, Novell and Alfresco, a company specializing in open-source CMS software. In addition, Asay maintains a prominent voice within the community through his blog The Open Road, and is founder of the Open Source Business Conference.

Asay will be taking his experience to Strobe, an open-source startup focused on touch-based Web applications. The new company lured him, he said, because it's "a very early stage company. ... I realized that much of what they needed was what I had enjoyed so much at Alfresco: early spadework with customers and partners, plus figuring out business models and evangelizing new ways to be open. It didn’t hurt that that company’s early focus is on the publishing industry, a market and challenge I love."

What It Means

There are two ways to interpret this news. While Ubuntu's critics might read Asay's move as a sign of problems within Canonical, the change also can be taken as a demonstration of the company's maturity.

Personally, I see no validity behind the former reasoning. I bring it up, however, because the sea of anti-Canonical hostility that has been foaming over the past year makes it likely that someone will present Asay's departure as evidence that the company is falling apart, Ubuntu is a conspiratorial front for Microsoft, and so on. And such claims could sound particularly forceful in the present circumstances because Asay has long stood as a strong advocate of open-source code, yet Canonical has been criticized for keeping some of its own software proprietary and for failing to give back to the open-source community.

But it seems quite unlikely to me that Asay's move has anything to do with how much of Canonical's code is open-source or any internal controversies which might exist inside the company. On the contrary, I'm inclined to believe that the growth the company has experienced recently -- Asay mentioned a 300 percent increase in sales each quarter over the last year -- has simply rendered it too mature for Asay's tastes.

Indeed, Canonical is no longer a fledgling startup led by an eccentric space tourist, as it was in 2004. Going into 2011, it has turned into a substantial organization with 400 employees around the world and with a CEO who has at least as much experience in the business world as she does with software development.

Where Canonical will go from here remains to be seen, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't have some doubts about the viability of the Unity and Wayland plans announced in recent months. All the same, Asay's departure, perhaps with a little irony, underlines the maturity which the company has reached, and the gravity of its position within the open-source ecosystem.

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