Ubuntu's Contributions to Linux

Posted by tuxchick on Jun 6, 2011 11:12 AM
LXer Linux News; By Carla Schroder

LXer Feature: 06-Jun-2011

Ubuntu and Canonical attract a lot of praise and a lot of criticism, and are characterized as angels and devils and everything in between. Love 'em or loathe 'em, Ubuntu has been an energizer all across the Linux world, especially desktop Linux.

These tidy bullet points list a few examples:

  • Raised the visibility of Linux overall.
  • Generated excitement and given desktop Linux much-needed accelerant.
  • Entered commercial arenas both server and desktop: Dell, independent Linux OEMs like System76, ZaReason, Emperor Linux; commercial training and support.
  • Inspired hosts of derivatives such as Vinux, Mint, Mepis, nUbuntu, Gnoppix, Ulteo, moonOS, SuperOS, and dozens more.
  • Created good name recognition for "Ubuntu" out in the real world.
  • Created a welcoming, supportive developer community that supports noobs.
  • Streamlined and popularized the LiveCD.
  • Maintains multiple official editions-- Ubuntu Server, Xubuntu, Edubuntu, Mythbuntu, Ubuntu Studio, and Kubuntu-- that all share the same repositories, with 100% compatibility.
  • Pioneered an easy installer.
  • Created UCK, Ubuntu Customization Kit, for easily creating your own customized Ubuntu LiveCD.
  • Created netbook/tablet/touch versions before any other distro.
  • Continually pushing ahead on multiple fronts.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Let's go back in time, back before Ubuntu existed. Red Hat Linux, Mandrake, Libranet, Lindows/Linspire, Xandros, Corel Linux, SuSE, and many others I have forgotten all tried to penetrate the retail consumer market, and to some degree the business market, with their desktop Linux editions. You could actually find most of these on store shelves, and in online computer stores. Then Red Hat discontinued Red Hat Linux, stopped providing free ISO downloads, and quit talking about desktops entirely, focusing mainly on the enterprise server while quietly offering an enterprise "workstation" edition. Mandrake became Mandriva, and continued its habit of teetering on the brink of insolvency. Libranet, Linspire, and Corel all went away.

The consumer retail computer desktop is the most difficult of all to succeed in. For some reason the established tech companies just can't figure out Linux-- look at all the failed Linux-based netbooks by the likes of HP, Acer, and ASUS. They stunk and deserved to fail. Look at Dell's on-again off-again affair with Ubuntu, and Lenovo's dithering over whether they like Linux or not. You'd think that after years of so many Linux users preferring Thinkpads they would wise up. I'm not even all that enthused about Android because vendors are up to their same old lockin and spyware tricks. Canonical deserves credit for sticking to free-of-cost releases, libre software, and treading the tricky path of making it easy for users to get proprietary software such as Adobe Flash and Nvidia drivers.

Back in those olden days Debian and Red Hat were the most-used Linuxes, and had the most derivatives. Debian was stagnating, with time between releases stretching out longer and longer:

  • Debian 1.1 Buzz (June 17th, 1996)
  • Debian 1.2 Rex (December 12th, 1996)
  • Debian 1.3 Bo (June 5th, 1997)
  • Debian 2.0 Hamm (July 24th, 1998)
  • Debian 2.1 Slink (March 9th, 1999)
  • Debian 2.2 Potato (15 August 2000)
  • Debian 3.0 Woody (19 July 2002)
  • Debian 3.1 Sarge (6 June 2005)
  • Debian 4.0 Etch (8 April 2007)
  • Debian 5.0 Lenny (February 2009)
  • Debian 6.0 Squeeze (February 2011)

The longest stretch was between Woody and Sarge, nearly three years. That's a long time in the fast-moving Linux world, especially for a point release. There is no such thing as a magic point in time when a piece of software is perfect; it's always a moving target, and many applications reach a point where older releases are unsupportable.

I may be seeing cause-and-effect where it does not exist, but Ubuntu Warty Warthog, the very first Ubuntu, was released on October 20, 2004. I think it was a wake-up call for the Debian team and at least part of the impetus for going to a time-based development freeze cycle of two years, started in 2009. Debian development freezes are scheduled for December of every odd year, for releases in the first half of every even year.

Pushing Ahead

Debian is by far the largest Linux distribution, supporting the most packages and CPU architectures. Buzz entered the world with 474 packages. Squeeze supports over 35,000 packages and 18 different architectures, and now supports the FreeBSD kernel. Ubuntu supports about 13,000 packages and six architectures. For comparison, Fedora has about 11,000 packages and supports about a half-dozen CPU architectures.

So one could say that Debian should take longer because it is so much bigger. But there are so many differences between the two that a direct comparison is hard to make. Debian is focused mainly on packaging and supporting great libre software. Ubuntu is pushy-- pushing into new commercial markets, pushing new user interfaces, pushing new technologies, and pushing real community development and involvement. So much of FOSS is wheel-spinning: multiple implementations of the same thing with trivial differences, multiple implementations of the same thing with major incompatibilities, so much scratching developer's itches with not enough regard for end users. Linus Torvalds likes to quote Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." The saying goes back centuries:

Quoting: "Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size."

That is from way back in the 12th century. Progress is made by forging ahead and building new things, and building on the works of others. Which is what FOSS is expressly designed to foster.

Community Development

Ubuntu's most significant contribution to Linux and FOSS is building a true community infrastructure that provides a clear path for users to become contributors, and for newbies to get mentoring and support. The lack of this is one of the biggest shortcomings of FOSS. There are a few individual projects that do this well, but overall I agree with Matt Jadud:

Quoting: "...the Learner must demonstrate that they are worthy of the time and attention of members of The Community, and it is not up to The Community to help them get there...If every FOSS project had an educator as part of their team---or, at least, assigned someone as "Project Educator"---we might be able to have a conversation about FOSS projects representing learning communities. But, they don't. The Linux Kernel is not a "learning community." The Mozilla Foundation is not a "learning community." There are lots of people "learning" as they go about their work, yes... but the projects themselves have no educational mission whatsoever...The reason for projects like Google's CS4HS, TeachingOpenSource.org (and the community's outreach effort, POSSE) is to bring educators into the mix. The Community (in general) has taken no responsibility regarding the education of Learners"

Fostering a community and providing a space for noobs to learn and grow is a special skill set and a lot of work. But for Linux and FOSS to continue to grow it's the most important job of all, and Ubuntu and Canonical deserve credit for giving this a high priority.

UI Follies

Change and progress sound good in theory, but in practice they can be fruitless detours, and I think "fruitless detours" sums up most of what passes for user interface (UI) design. My thoughts on UI design will fill another article, so here is the executive summary: I think that Gnome, KDE4, and Canonical are confusing what they think makes a cool visual appearance with real usability. Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear more about this.

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Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
A fine and thorough article! albinard 15 3,016 Jun 8, 2011 5:13 AM
fact check: Mepis Richard 0 1,531 Jun 6, 2011 2:46 PM

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