Case study: Ubuntu and Debian

Interesting 3-page case study at H online magazine, which discusses the relationship between the free software community Debian and its more commercially oriented Ubuntu.

An excerpt from the longer article:

“Ubuntu is explicitly based on Debian, but this doesn’t come without its problems. From the beginning Canonical, Ubuntu’s holding company, employed a core of key Debian Developers. This created some jealousy among Debian Developers and some annoyance that energies were being diverted away from the Debian project. These irritations were compounded by a perception that the Ubuntu developers were not feeding back their changes, and that Canonical’s own software projects such as Launchpad, were not being released under free software licenses. These issues came to a head at Debconf in 2006, when Shuttleworth and Ubuntu team members met with Debian Developers to discuss their concerns, and it was agreed that greater acknowledgement would be given to the Debian contribution to Ubuntu and to promote better communication between the two projects.

Ubuntu is unlike other Debian derivatives which, for the most part, have been based on the stable release and are less intimately involved with the Debian development process. As Steve McIntyre, the British developer who was recently elected to be Debian Leader for a second one-year term, observes: “Ubuntu is undoubtedly the most popular of all the spin-offs, and has the highest profile. They also tend to have the widest target audience(s) of all the derived distros; many of the others are focussed on smaller groups of users, e.g. specialised for netbooks or educational users. Ubuntu is also one of the few members of the Debian family that itself is commonly used as a base for further derivations.”

Resolving the issues is as much a concern for Canonical as it is for the Debian developers. Despite a spate of misplaced headlines claiming that Ubuntu is bigger than Debian, Ubuntu needs Debian to maintain its momentum and is dependent on the good faith of the Debian Developers.

Nonetheless McIntyre takes the view that the success of Ubuntu has been “mostly a good thing” for the furtherance of Debian. “In general terms”, he says, “Ubuntu is cool. It’s responsible for helping a lot of new users move over to using Linux and other Free Software. Canonical is employing a large number of developers to work on Free Software full-time, and that’s an excellent thing to do. Ubuntu developers also contribute (at least some of their) changes back to Debian too…”

“However, to offset all that positive outlook”, he says, “it’s also quite clear that they’re taking more attention than we are these days; that’s not a fun thing to acknowledge but hey, shit happens…”

“Some Debian developers are quite jealous of that, or are angry that Ubuntu are ‘stealing’ our work. I’m more pragmatic. Free Software use is not a zero-sum game: I believe we’re still picking up users over time even if Ubuntu are getting more. I’d rather see people using Ubuntu (or even Gentoo!) than Windows, after all. If Ubuntu are building on the work of Debian, that’s a good thing: that they’re allowed to do that is one of the most important features in the Free Software licenses we’re using! Maybe in time we’ll convince some of the Ubuntu users to move upstream…”

For all the differences there remains a necessary symbiosis between the developers of Debian and Ubuntu. “Many of us are still good friends,” says McIntyre, “and we’re often working alongside each other on a daily basis. I’m expecting to see a lot of the Ubuntu folks at DebConf, and we still go out and get drunk together when we meet up at other conferences too”, although understandably, he points out that “the relationship is not always so cosy; it depends on the particular people involved.

Asked if formal channels of cooperation had been established between Ubuntu and Debian to resolve the philosophical and technical issues, McIntyre hints at progress. “We have a few teams where our efforts overlap directly, and I’m trying to encourage more people to work together like that so work is shared more readily. That’s slow progress so far, but it’s progress.”

Similarly, McIntyre believes that “Debian is doing very well with longer release schedules and many of our users have told us that they like those longer cycles. Some people who want much shorter times between upgrades may have moved over to using Ubuntu instead, while some use our testing distribution more than the stable distribution. There’s a wide range of possible choices out there. In terms of usability, we of course want Debian to be usable by as many people as possible. We’re happy to go with whatever our upstream projects are producing and pulling that together with our own ideas, that’s how things go. Not everything’s done in Ubuntu!”

The issues surrounding the release and submission of patches from the Ubuntu developers have been partly resolved, although McIntyre points out that “this is an area where different teams work quite differently. In some cases, things are working just fine but in others patches are not forthcoming or in the wrong format, or even not acceptable. There are some places where the two distros are just diverging, and that adds to the difficulty in collaboration.”

More importantly, McIntyre sees the potential for a greater sense of common purpose in the future. “Mark and I also chat regularly about how things are going, and how we can help each other,” he says, “and there are some ideas in motion right now to do with long-term release plans. Not too much to talk about just yet, as the ideas are still quite nebulous…” Perhaps hinting that Debian may be working towards a more regular planned release cycle which may, or may not, mesh with that of Ubuntu.

Shuttleworth is quick to acknowledge the significant contribution made by the Debian community to the success of Ubuntu. “I’m of the opinion that Ubuntu could not exist without Debian”, he has written. “So it’s absolutely my intention to see that Ubuntu is a constructive part of the broader Debian landscape. It’s vital that Ubuntu help to sustain and grow Debian, because it’s the breadth and strength of Debian which make up the “shoulders of greatness” on which we in the Ubuntu community stand when we reach for the stars.”

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