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The Shuttleworth FAQ (part 4): Is Ubuntu the Big Ticket for Debian?

By   |  October 24, 2005

This FAQ (frequently asked questions) was first published on the Ubuntu wiki. We thank Mark and his team for permission to republish it in Tectonic. Due to length, we have split the FAQ into multiple parts.

Is Ubuntu a Debian fork? Or spoon? What sort of silverware are you, man?
Yes, Ubuntu is a fork. No, it isn\’t. Yes it is! Oh, whatever.

In short, we are a project that tries hard to collaborate with many other projects — such as upstream X.org, and Gnome, and of course Debian. In many cases, the code we ship is modified or different to the code shipped by those other projects. When that happens, we work hard to ensure that our changes are published as widely as possible, in a format that is easy for other project maintainers to understand and incorporate into their own working tree.

In practice, we have gone to great lengths to develop tools that make it easy to collaborate with Ubuntu, and help us to collaborate with upstreams and other distributions. For example, we have an automatic patch publisher that shows Debian maintainers what patches for their packages are available for Ubuntu. It couldn\’t be easier for DDs to decide which patches they want, and which they don\’t. And frankly, it\’s a lot easier for us if they DO take them, but we can\’t force that. Many of the patches only make sense in Ubuntu. As a side benefit, these patches are also available for Gentoo, Redhat, Linspire (yes, really) and Suse. And we know they check \’em out and use some of them, which is cool.

Collaboration goes beyond patches though. We have developed Malone, a bug tracker that explicitly tries to create collaboration between Ubuntu and other distros, and upstreams, on the fixing of bugs. Each bug can be tracked in lots of places, and in a single place you can see the status of the bug in all places. It\’s pretty cool.

One of the triggers that got me out of the \”cosmonaut playboy international love rat of mystery\” game and into Ubuntu was the emergence of tools like TLA, which it seemed to offer the promise of even better collaboration on source code between distros and upstreams. So we did a lot of work on TLA, to the point where it looked different enough to call it Bazaar. Then we did a ground up rewrite in Python, and the result is Bazaar-NG, or Bzr, which will be Bazaar 2.0 by March 2006. Why is this important? Because passing patches around is not nearly as effective as working in a genuinely distributed revision control system. Many of the Ubuntu guys don\’t work on the distro, they work on tools like Bazaar, and HCT (hypothetical changeset tool), which we hope will really accelerate the kind of collaboration that is possible in the open source world. Time will tell.

In summary: binary compatibility between Ubuntu and Debian is not a priority for us. We believe we contribute more to the open source world by providing patches to make Ubuntu (and Debian) packages work better, and providing a cutting edge (or bleeding edge, depending on your perspective) distribution for others to collaborate with. We invest a lot of energy in making sure our patches are widely published and easily available to developers of ALL other distributions as well as upstream, because that way we think our work will have the biggest long term benefit. And we develop tools (see Bazaar and Bazaar-NG and Launchpad and Rosetta and Malone) that we hope will make source code collaboration even more efficient.

What about forking the community? The Ubuntu community has grown very quickly, and that causes some people to worry that this growth might come at some cost to other open source communities, Debian in particular.

Given that patches can flow so easily between Ubuntu and Debian, it seems to me that the bigger we can make our total combined developer community, the better for both projects. Ubuntu benefits from a strong Debian, and Debian benefits from a strong Ubuntu. This is particularly true because the two projects have slightly different goals. Ubuntu gets to break new ground sooner, and Debian benefits hugely from those patches. (Just scan change logs in Debian Sid since the Sarge release, and you\’ll see how many references to \”Ubuntu\” are in there. And that\’s only the cases where credit has been given.)

If the Ubuntu and Debian communities worked in the same way, then I think there would be more truth to this concern, because we would attract the same sorts of people, which would mean that we were competing for talent. But the two communities are quite different. We organise ourselves differently, and we set different priorities. That means that we tend to attract different sorts of developers.

There are certainly Debian developers who have started doing most of their work in Ubuntu now. There are also developers who work equally in Ubuntu and Debian. But the majority of the Ubuntu community is made up of newer developers, who are attracted to the Ubuntu way of doing things. There will always be some churn and movement between communities, and that\’s healthy because it helps to spread good ideas.

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