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The lazy man's Debian

Ubuntu may be a snapshot of Debian unstable, or be described as the lazy man's Debian, but there are significant differences, as McIntyre observes. "There's an obvious difference in philosophy simply in terms of release policies. Debian is well-known for 'release when it's ready', whereas Ubuntu aim for regular, well-publicised short release cycles. To achieve that, they've had to make a few changes: official Ubuntu releases are smaller than Debian's, both in terms of the number of packages supported and the architectures. Plus, to be able to guarantee their release dates, Canonical employ quite a few engineers to work full time. That makes a very big difference when late problems crop up!"

"In Debian we do our best to make sure that all the packages we ship are free, but the Ubuntu system will readily install non-free components like binary drivers for video cards where they are considered useful. I'm not going to point and complain about how they've made that choice, though; there are many hard decisions in this area and we face them regularly ourselves."

"In Debian, we're more of a loose-knit community working on what interests us. We pull together on average, but when it comes to big core decisions we have to ensure we have consensus. In Ubuntu, a lot more of the choices are made centrally and, if needs be, one man can make the hard decision."

When asked whether Ubuntu was created as a means of testing Debian unstable, McIntyre responds, "Could be. But you'd have to ask Mark..."

A new cycle

Ubuntu's focus on predictable and frequent release cycles has brought a new level of anticipation to each release, and has brought new users to Linux who have different expectations, but the bootstrap for Ubuntu's success remains the idealism, chaos and proficiency of the Debian development process.

Asked if formal channels of cooperation had been established between Ubuntu and Debian to resolve the philosophical and technical issues, McIntyre hints at progress. "We have a few teams where our efforts overlap directly, and I'm trying to encourage more people to work together like that so work is shared more readily. That's slow progress so far, but it's progress."

Similarly, McIntyre believes that "Debian is doing very well with longer release schedules and many of our users have told us that they like those longer cycles. Some people who want much shorter times between upgrades may have moved over to using Ubuntu instead, while some use our testing distribution more than the stable distribution. There's a wide range of possible choices out there. In terms of usability, we of course want Debian to be usable by as many people as possible. We're happy to go with whatever our upstream projects are producing and pulling that together with our own ideas, that's how things go. Not everything's done in Ubuntu!"

The issues surrounding the release and submission of patches from the Ubuntu developers have been partly resolved, although McIntyre points out that "this is an area where different teams work quite differently. In some cases, things are working just fine but in others patches are not forthcoming or in the wrong format, or even not acceptable. There are some places where the two distros are just diverging, and that adds to the difficulty in collaboration."

More importantly, McIntyre sees the potential for a greater sense of common purpose in the future. "Mark and I also chat regularly about how things are going, and how we can help each other," he says, "and there are some ideas in motion right now to do with long-term release plans. Not too much to talk about just yet, as the ideas are still quite nebulous..." Perhaps hinting that Debian may be working towards a more regular planned release cycle which may, or may not, mesh with that of Ubuntu.

Shuttleworth is quick to acknowledge the significant contribution made by the Debian community to the success of Ubuntu. "I'm of the opinion that Ubuntu could not exist without Debian", he has written. "So it's absolutely my intention to see that Ubuntu is a constructive part of the broader Debian landscape. It's vital that Ubuntu help to sustain and grow Debian, because it's the breadth and strength of Debian which make up the "shoulders of greatness" on which we in the Ubuntu community stand when we reach for the stars."

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