Pushing For The Forest Canopy

By Andrew Price, 2007-04-13 20:39:16 in General.

I've just been reading an article on linux.com about Debian. It's mainly about how Debian is going to reinvent itself to be more desktop friendly etc. which is great, but I found it a bit worrying that it contains pessimistic statements like "as Debian developers and users have deserted the distro for Ubuntu, does Debian have a purpose any more?" and "Rumors of Debian's decline or irrelevance have been circulating for some time." In reality, I believe Debian has nothing to worry about and will continue to go from strength to strength.

The article seems to imply that Ubuntu and Debian are in a win-or-lose competition against each other in the Linux distro market. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ubuntu is based on Debian and depends on all the great hard work and openness of the Debian community, just as Ubuntu derivatives depend on those qualities of Ubuntu.

The article paints the relationship as two trees in a forest, struggling to grow above one another to get all the available sunlight and blocking out the other. The real picture is more of a single, young tree, with upstream FOSS developers as the roots that keep the whole thing alive, Debian as the wide trunk and Ubuntu et. al. as its branches and sub-branches. The contributors to Ubuntu and its derivatives would be the leaves, feeding energy and new ideas back into the whole system and, to complete the analogy, our users would be the sunlight, oxygen and water that we all need to keep growing.

It may be seem like an excessively romantic way of looking at the situation, but I like that. It's the passionate and neighbourly atmosphere surrounding the free and open source software community that keeps me involved and wanting to contribute to it (plus I get to help to improve the software that I and my friends and family use every day). I believe that many others contribute for the same reasons.

My first notable contributions to FOSS were for Ubuntu. I then took over maintaining a project and, once I felt it was ready, I packaged it for Debian rather than Ubuntu, because I felt that it was best to feed another root directly into the trunk of the tree so that the whole tree could benefit. From packaging to sponsored upload (thanks Nico) took less than a day and thanks to the well documented nature of Debian's processes I found it quite straightforward.

The Ubuntu community is different from the Debian community in lots ways but members of both are all good people for contributing to this quickly growing young tree of ours and I'm happy to say that I'm part of both of the communities, part of the whole tree. Debian may not be the best distribution on offer for the new user, fresh from a half life of Windows usage, but it has a lot of good things going for it. It has a very important part to play in the big picture and deserves a lot of respect for being the strong trunk that gives birth to branches like Ubuntu and allows them to grow from it.

Debian may have its problems here and there but as long as it still has that sense of passion and community flowing through its xylem, its branches will eventually push through the forest canopy and tower over other trees in the forest.


Julian writes:

The way you talk about Debian here underscores the phobias many developers have about the future of Debian in the context of Ubuntu's rapid growth in popularity: many developers don't want Debian to be seen as a raw material from which other distributions are hewn. That this is contradictory to many of the founding ambitions of Debian as a 'Universal Operating System' is beside the point.

The positions of Ubuntu and Debian as distributions from which other distributions are derived cannot be compared. Debian is the ore from which some 70% of all distributions are now based. The concerns of some DD's - that Debian itself is increasingly _considered_ less a standalone OS than a collection of repositories and tools from which other OS's can be built - are fair, but only so in light of their own motivations as developers. Motivation is everything in free software development contexts..

It would be impossible for Debian to 'compete' with Ubuntu now on the level of the desktop. That is a foolish quest. Ubuntu serves a purpose and serves it well and arguably the success of Ubuntu is a great complement to Debian. By _virtue_ of it's own code maturation process Debian cannot offer a stable _modern_ desktop, and anyway, it is spread too thinly across ambitions as a multi-arch stable server OS to sanely try to make comparable waves in the desktop space.

It's here I think that soe DD'sfeel a little bitten: that Ubuntu succeeds in the desktop market is fine, but as a server? That is perhaps stepping on their toes, at least in the sense of their own personal motivations for working upon Debian in the first instance: to produce the world's finest server OS.

All said, it doesn't matter if any of these fears are justifiable or not. Ubuntu is completely dependent upon Debian, not vice versa by any stretch. These malcontents will need to be addressed at some point, even if it means coming to a compromise of ambition. The ball is largely in Ubuntu's court I think.

2007-04-13 21:33:20

Keith writes:

While I agree that the popularity of Ubuntu is a good thing for Debian, I am not so sure the article at linux.com is saying that is not the case. Julian has a good point about the expansion of Ubuntu into areas where Debian has traditionally excelled (such as server OS) could be a greater concern than where it started (the desktop OS, which was not a strength of Debian IMHO).

Ultimately, the growth of both Debian and Ubuntu is good for most people involved in those projects, any derivatives, or Linux in general.

However, I think there are some legitimate concerns about the popularity of Ubuntu when compared to Debian. I also think these two concerns are referenced directly by the linux.com article but not addressed at length. They are:

(1) Certainly some of the Ubuntu developers probably came from Debian. For them, Ubuntu might be more of what they are looking for technically, or it might be ideological. But the presence of Ubuntu, while bringing more people to involvment probably does shift at least a few from Debian.

(2) Similarly, Ubuntu probably takes users from Debian proper. While I think this impacts Debian less than a loss of developers, it does lend itself toward the quesiton of whether Debian could become irrelevant.

I do not think that Ubuntu is bringing demise to Debian, but there is a small risk that could be an unintended consequence. If things should ever start to head in that direction, I hope some action is taken by both camps to make sure it does not happen. Given the dependence of Ubuntu on Debian and the open acknowledgement of that, I think this is quite likely (if it should ever be necessary).

Thanks to both groups for the great work they do! Please keep it up.

2007-04-14 03:11:00

wedge writes:

Wow, that was all poetic and sweet and filled with the joy of living and stuff. Go you!

2007-04-14 12:02:59