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Wednesday, 18 November 2009 05:51

Why Ubuntu release schedules should be changed

Since the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution kicked off five years ago, it has been churning out release after release every six months.

The decision to release at remarkably rapid intervals is tied to the GNOME Desktop Project's schedules; GNOME releases a month ahead of Ubuntu.

While this pace of development has given Ubuntu a goodly portion of the small number of GNU/Linux desktops worldwide, and also had an effect on many other distributions in that they have tended to release more often in order to compete with Ubuntu, there are indications that it is better for Canonical, the parent company of Ubuntu, to rethink its strategy.

One reason is the bugs that have created a bad buzz for the distribution.

The last two releases, 9.04 and 9.10, have had some showstopper bugs and while it may be true that only a small number of users have suffered, in both cases these have been the most vocal minority.

Every release is bound to cause distress for a number of users. More so, given that Ubuntu is largely taken up by people who are not exactly the most hardened of GNU/Linux users.

This group is the one which feels the biggest sense of entitlement and, thus, makes the loudest noise when things turn rough.

It does not do much for Ubuntu's public image at a time when the company is on the front foot and putting in major efforts to spread its use far and wide in order to get hardware manufacturers interested in pre-installing the distribution.

A second reason why schedules should be spaced out to something like an annual release is the extra cautiousness that has been forced on the project as a result of the problems with the last two releases.

Canonical recently said that it would be auto-syncing its next release, a long-term support one, with the testing stream of Debian, and not the unstable stream as usual.

Debian has three releases which are actively maintained at all times - stable is the current release for which only security fixes are issued; this is, just like its name, rock-solid.

The testing stream receives software from the unstable stream after it has sat in the latter for a while and does not display any serious breakage. Many intermediate-level users opt to use testing on their desktops as it contains much newer versions of software.

The unstable distribution is where active development occurs. This is bleeding-edge stuff and is only meant for experienced people who are prepared to fix things on their own.

Ubuntu has generally been auto-synced with Debian's unstable stream; the fact that Canonical is going to use testing this time is indicative of the cautiousness that has been forced on the company.

If there had been an annual release from the start, it it unlikely that the kind of bug problems seen in recent Ubuntu releases would have surfaced.


Additionally, Ubuntu does itself no favours by trying to put out something every six months - in my opinion, just to give the impression that it is in perpetual motion - because users are under the impression that they can just replace what they are running with the latest release and expect the same behaviour.

Imagine - you have sorted out the problems with a release and started doing some productive work. You then upgrade to the next simply because it has come out - you simply can't resist and, after all, every one of your buddies has that new shiny toy. You have to get it too.

Unfortunately, this scenario is played out over and over again - and users never take responsibility for their own mistakes, they blame Canonical. This is a problem of perception which has to be corrected.

An annual release would provide more time to sort through issues, more time for consultation and coordination, and more time for the small pool of developers who work for Ubuntu to sort out issues that cause them more pain than gain when they emerge after a release.

It is important to remember that despite much talk about the deep pockets which Canonical owner Mark Shuttleworth has, the number of people who actually work on Ubuntu is relatively small.

(Shuttleworth is acutely aware that it is a long, painful battle to establish GNU/Linux on the desktop and he is in it for the long haul; he is not interested in heavy investment over a few years, but rather a smaller investment over a much, much longer period.)

Add to this the fact that software releases are _never_ on time and you have very difficult hurdles to surmount.

A third reason is Ubuntu's marriage to GNOME. As is well known, GNOME is planning what it calls a paradigm shift for version 3.0 - but has been forced to push back the release by six months to September 2010.

This version is expected to be something that will bring GNOME out of the middle ages and into contention with the new, flashy KDE4.

After an initial perception of being problematic - mostly caused by ignorant reviewers who assumed that a .0 release was meant for prime time - KDE4 has proved itself to be a snazzy desktop, with several very interesting features.

And, after having had a play with a recent GNOME snapshot, it is evident that the developers there are trying to match KDE. Given this, it is self-evident that the bug count in the new GNOME will be proportionately higher.

If Ubuntu were to stick to releasing a month after GNOME releases, then all those bugs would be very much part of its release, bugs that would certainly not help its cause. It is extremely doubtful whether a month would suffice to clean out the bug cupboard properly.

And finally, given that Canonical is going to source the next release, 10.04, from Debian testing, it is bound to be very, very stable.

Hence, even small bugs will be easily noticeable in the following release; 10.10 will include the new GNOME 3.0 and probably be extra unstable. Not that one wishes to cast aspersions on the GNOME project; one cannott expect the number of changes which are coming in from version 2.30 to 3.0 to be bedded down so soon.

For Ubuntu, this will not be good at all - when you have even a small wave washing up on a quiet beach, it is noticeable. Imagine what a bigger wave on that quiet beach would look like.

If Shuttleworth can put some thought into the idea of annual releases - and then try and get Debian to release every two years - it will be possible for him to get the best from both projects: GNOME and Debian. Ubuntu has little left to prove - apart from the fact that it can be used on the desktop without fear of any more showstopper bugs.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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