Why Ubuntu and not Debian?

June 8th, 2005 § 2 comments

My dear friend Metal took issue with my choice of Ubuntu as my new primary desktop in the comments of the post I wrote about the switch.

The matter of forks is older than open source itself, and I won’t go into the merits of the question here and now. It’s enough to say that I believe forks are essential to the open source process, and beneficial in most cases.

That said, why should I use Ubuntu, which is a fork, and not Debian, the primary trunk? Just saying I believe in forks in no reason enough for the choice.

I presented two reasons in my previous post:

First, Ubuntu is easier to install than Debian. Not only that, but it also recognized my hardware much better than any other distro I tried. It presented me with clear choices, made choices for me when they were obvious, and didn’t bother me asking how many buttons my mouse has.

Second, Ubuntu is much more polished than Debian. A lot of effort was clearly spent to make it comfortable to end users, and it shows.

Obviously, considering the relative positions of the Debian Foundation and Canonical, that is hardly a surprise. The latter has much more resources available than the former (from what we can gather from news and press releases, at least), and can use them to work in ways not readily accessible to Debian developers.

But that’s what it matters, and Debian is aware of it. I talk more about that in a while.

The first complaint Metal made is that Ubuntu isn’t giving anything back to the Debian community. I disagree. Ubuntu is giving Debian something it was losing: users. That’s more important for a distro than anything else, even code. Even if Ubuntu just repackaged Debian with more eye candy, I would see that as a valid effort from this point of view.

But Ubuntu is much more than simply Debian repackaged. As far as I know, and from what I’ve seen since I started using Linux, Ubuntu is the first coherent effort to create a Linux distro that is good enough for end users without losing the focus on open source and quality. Debian has quality and focus, but is not suitable for end users. Ubuntu solves this problem elegantly, in a way not even Mandriva, Linspire, and Suse — all notoriously for their focus on usability — were able to do. I’ve used them, and a few days with Ubuntu were enough to see that.

Of course, that’s not exactly the sense in which Metal said Ubuntu is not giving anything back. But, even when code is taken in account, the situation is not that bad.

I don’t know if and how Debian and all its forks exchange code, but I believe we are not far from seeing more integration is this area. That can be perceived in the decisions taken by the new Debian’s Project Leader. The goal of a more specific focus where supported platforms are concerned and the possibility of a quicker release cycle show that Debian is learning the lesson. After all, nobody wants to use a distro where all packages are lagging two or three years behind in relation to their more recent versions. And don’t even start talking about testing and unstable. They don’t get security updates, and I don’t want to spend my copious free time worrying about conflicts and changes in configurations that stop services from running.

Metal’s second complaint is that Ubuntu is not compatible with Debian. Again, I believe that can be seen from two different angles.

First, compatibility is a gradual process. The changes introduced by Ubuntu were interesting and necessary enough to make incompatibility, to the extent needed, acceptable. In a certain way, Debian is the distro that needs to adapt itself. Ubuntu is much more pleasant that Debian, and that a case when a fork can teach a thing or two to the primary project. After all, a fork would exist if the primary trunk was good enough.

On the other hand, I don’t care for compatibility. Ubuntu and Mandriva are equally incompatible. On Debian, the Apache configuration is located at /etc/apache. On Mandriva, it’s located in /etc/httpd. Other similar variations are quite common, and it affects everything I write for those distros. That’s why things like ./configure exists. Even if Ubuntu is a direct fork of Debian, it’s not required to follow in Debian’s steps.

To all pratical purposes, at home I’m a typical end user, and I want the latest and the greatest. Ubuntu gives me that. If Debian can do the same, even better — I will have more choice, which is what open source is all about. But, for now, Debian will remain confined to my servers until something better comes along. And that will only happen if we drop the zealot talk and start seeing each others efforts as something that adds to the community, even if those efforts are forks.

At the end of the day, when everything has been done and said, a Linux distro for end users should try to please a single public: grandparents of common users. If this public can use a distro, with no more and no less pain than a typical Windows session provides, Linux at the desktop will be real. From what I can see, Ubuntu is much closer to that than any other distro. And no amount of ideology will change that.

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