Even though the idea of formal alignment between the freezes of Debian and Ubuntu didn’t hold, there has been some good practical collaboration between the maintainers of key subsystems. There are real benefits to this, because maintainers have a much more fruitful basis for sharing patches when they are looking at the same underlying version.

Harmonization for Ubuntu 10.04 LTS and Debian Squeeze

I think this is where we stand now:

Ubuntu Debian RHEL SLES
Kernel 2.6.32 + drm-33 2.6.32 + drm-33 2.6.32 2.6.32
GCC 4.4 4.4
Python 2.6 2.6
OpenOffice.org 3.2 3.2
Perl 5.10.1 5.10.1
Boost 1.40 1.40
X Server 1.7 1.7
Mesa 7.7 7.7
Mono (thanks Jo Shields) 2.4-snapshot 2.4-snapshot

I’m sure there are inaccuracies, please help me keep this up to date, sabdfl on freenode is the best way to reach me. The RHEL and SLES numbers are third-hand, so up-to-date information would be appreciated.

The actual release dates of Ubuntu LTS and Debian will vary of course, because of different priorities. And there’s no requirement that the same base version be used for every major component – there may well be differences allowing for different approaches. But where we do have it, we’ll be able to collaborate much more effectively on bug fixes for key upstream pieces. If a lot of distributions pick the same base upstream version, it greatly increases the value of extended shared maintenance and point releases of that upstream.

Why every two years?

Two years is a compromise between those who want 1 year releases for better support of cutting-edge hardware and those who want 7 year releases so their software stack doesn’t change before their job description does ;-).

A whole-year multiple has several advantages. It means we can schedule the processes that are needed for collaboration at the same time of year whenever we need them – unlike 1.5 or 2.5 year cycles. Three years was felt to be too long for hardware support. Two years is perceived to be the Goldilocks Cadence – just right.

What are the criteria for choosing a common base version?

In both the Ubuntu and Debian cases, we’ll be making a release that we support for many years. So be looked for versions of key upstreams that will pass the test of time. Sometimes, that means they can’t be too old, because they’ll be completely obsolete or unmaintainable in the life of the release. And sometimes that means they can’t be too young. In general, it would be better to be reviewing code that is already out there. But there are also lots of upstreams that do a credible job of release management, so we could commit to shipping a version that is not yet released, based on the reputation of the community it’s coming from.

What if there’s no agreement on a particular kernel, or X or component-foo?

We will almost certainly diverge on some components, and that’s quite OK. This is about finding opportunities to do a better job for upstreams and for users, not about forcing any distro to make a particular choice. If anyone feels its more important to them to use a particular version than another, they’ll do that.

Open invitations

It’s really helpful to have upstreams and other distributions participate in this process.

If you’re an upstream, kick off a thread in your mailing list or forums about this. Upstreams don’t need to do anything different if they don’t want to, we’ll still just make the best choices we can. But embracing a two year cadence is the best way you have to be sure which versions of your software are going to be in millions of hands in the future – it’s a great opportunity to influence how your users will experience your work.

Of course, we’d also like to have more distributions at the table. There’s no binding commitment needed – collaboration is opportunistic. But without participating in the conversation one can’t spot those opportunities! If you represent a distribution and are interested, then please feel free to contact me, or Matt Zimmerman, or anyone on the Debian release management team about it.

I think this is a big win for the free software community. Many upstreams have said “we’d really like to help deliver a great stable release, but which distro should we arrange that around?” Upstreams should not have to play favourites with distributions, and it should be no more work to support 10 distributions as to support one. If we can grow the number of distributions that embrace this cadence, the question becomes moot – upstreams can plan around that cycle knowing that many distributions will deliver their work straight to users.

GNOME usability hackfest

Saturday, October 25th, 2008

The GNOME user experience hackfest in Boston was a great way to spend the worst week in Wall St history!

Though there wasn’t a lot of hacking, there was a LOT of discussion, and we covered a lot of ground. There were at least 7 Canonical folks there, so it was a bit of a mini-sprint and a nice opportunity to meet the team at the same time. We had great participation from a number of organisations and free spirits, there’s a widespread desire to see GNOME stay on the forefront of usability.

Neil Patel of Canonical did a few mockups to try and capture the spirit of what was discussed, but I think the most interesting piece wasn’t really possible to capture in a screenshot because it’s abstract and conceptual – file and content management. There’s a revolution coming as we throw out the old “files and folders” metaphor and leap to something new, and it would be phenomenal if free software were leading the way.

I was struck by the number of different ways this meme cropped up. We had superb presentations of “real life support problems” from a large-scale user of desktop Linux, and a persistent theme was “where the hell did that file just go?” People save an attachment they receive in email, and an hour later have no idea where to find it. They import a picture into F-spot and then have no idea how to attach it to an email. They download a PDF from the web, then want to read it offline and can’t remember where they put it. Someone else pointed out that most people find it easier to find something on the Internet – through Google – than they do on their hard drives.

The Codethink guys also showed off some prototype experience work with Wizbit, which is a single-file version control system that draws on both Git and Bazaar for ideas about how you do efficient, transparent versioning of a file for online and offline editing.

We need to rearchitect the experience of “working with your content”, and we need to do it in a way that will work with the web and shared content as easily as it does locally.

My biggest concern on this front is that it be done in a way that every desktop environment can embrace. We need a consistent experience across GNOME, KDE, OpenOffice and Firefox so that content can flow from app to app in a seamless fashion and the user’s expectations can be met no matter which app or environment they happen to use. If someone sends a file to me over Empathy, and I want to open it in Amarok, then I shouldn’t have to work with two completely different mental models of content storage. Similarly, if I’ve downloaded something from the web with Firefox, and want to edit it in OpenOffice, I shouldn’t have to be super-aware or super-smart to be able to connect the apps to the content.

So, IMO this is work that should be championed in a forum like FreeDesktop.org, where it can rise above some of the existing rivalries of desktop linux. There’s a good tradition of practical collaboration in that forum, and this is a great candidate for similar treatment.

At the end of the day, bling is less transformational than a fundamental shift in content management. Kudos to the folks who are driving this!

Update: thanks mjg59 for pointing out my thinko. The Collabora guys do great stuff, but Codethink does Wizbit.

When you present yourself on the web, you have 15 seconds to make an impression, so aspiring champions of the web 2.0 industry have converged on a good recipe for success:

  1. Make your site visually appealing,
  2. Do something different and do it very, very well,
  3. Call users to action and give them an immediate, rewarding experience.

We need the same urgency, immediacy and elegance as part of the free software desktop experience, and that’s is an area where Canonical will, I hope, make a significant contribution. We are hiring designers, user experience champions and interaction design visionaries and challenging them to lead not only Canonical’s distinctive projects but also to participate in GNOME, KDE and other upstream efforts to improve FLOSS usability.

Fortunately, we won’t be working in a vacuum. This is an idea that is already being widely explored. It’s great to see that communities like GNOME and KDE have embraced user experience as a powerful driver of evolution in their platforms. Partly because of the web-2.0 phenomenon and the iPhone, there’s a widely held desire to see FLOSS leap forward in usability and design. We want to participate and help drive that forward.

There’s also recognition for the scale of the challenge that faces us. When I laid out the goal of “delivering a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years” at OSCON, I had many questions afterwards about how on earth we could achieve that. “Everyone scratches their own itch, how can you possibly make the UI consistent?” was a common theme. And it’s true – the free software desktop is often patchy and inconsistent. But I see the lack of consistency as both a weakness (GNOME, OpenOffice and Firefox all have different UI toolkits, and it’s very difficult to make them seamless) and as a strength – people are free to innovate, and the results are world-leading. Our challenge is to get the best of both of those worlds.

I don’t have answers to all of those questions. I do, however, have a deep belief in the power of the free software process to solve seemingly intractable problems, especially in the long tail. If we articulate a comprehensive design ethic, a next-generation HIG, we can harness the wisdom of crowds to find corner cases and inconsistencies across a much broader portfolio of applications than one person or company could do alone. That’s why it’s so important to me that Canonical’s design and user experience team also participate in upstream projects across the board.

In Ubuntu we have in general considered upstream to be “our ROCK”, by which we mean that we want upstream to be happy with the way we express their ideas and their work. More than happy – we want upstream to be delighted! We focus most of our effort on integration. Our competitors turn that into “Canonical doesn’t contribute” but it’s more accurate to say we measure our contribution in the effectiveness with which we get the latest stable work of upstream, with security maintenance, to the widest possible audience for testing and love. To my mind, that’s a huge contribution.

Increasingly, though, Canonical is in a position to drive real change in the software that is part of Ubuntu. If we just showed up with pictures and prototypes and asked people to shape their projects differently, I can’t imagine that being well received! So we are also hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, Gtk, Qt, GNOME and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop experience ideas into reality. Those teams will publish their Bzr branches in Launchpad and of course submit their work upstream, and participate in upstream sprints and events. Some of the folks we have hired into those positions are familiar contributors in the FLOSS world, others will be developers with relevant technical expertise from other industries.

One strong meme we want to preserve is the idea that Ubuntu, the platform team, is still primarily focused on integration and distribution. We will keep that team and the upstream work distinct to minimise the conflict of interest inherent in choosing the patches and the changes and the applications that actually ship each six months as part of an Ubuntu release.

Of course, there’s a risk to participation, because you can’t easily participate without expressing opinions, visions, desires, goals, and those can clash with other participants. It’s hard to drive change, even when people agree that change is needed. I hope we can find ways to explore and experiment with new ideas without blocking on consensus across diverse and distributed teams. We have to play to our strengths, which include the ability to diverge for experimental purposes to see what really works before we commit everyone to a course of action. It will be a challenge, but I think it’s achievable.

All of this has me tapdancing to work in the mornings, because we’re sketching out really interesting ideas for user interaction in Launchpad and in the desktop. The team has come together very nicely, and I’m thoroughly enjoying the processes, brainstorming and prototyping. I can’t wait to see those ideas landing in production!

A distribution occupies a very specific niche in the free software ecosystem. Among other things, we need to accept some responsibility for ALL the software defects (“bugs”) that users actually experience across the entire stack. Most users don’t install their apps from upstream source tarballs, they install them from the packages provided by their distribution. So when they experience a bug, they don’t know if it’s a bug introduced by that distribution, or a bug in the underlying upstream code. They don’t know, they don’t care, and they shouldn’t have to. More often than not they will report the issue to their distribution, and the way we respond to it is important, because it represents an opportunity to make the whole ecosystem more robust.

I had a lecturer who was very opposed to the use of the term “bugs”. He said that the term “bug” was a cute-sification for “nasty biting insect”, and similarly, software defects have potentially serious consequences, so we shouldn’t treat them lightly. Bug work is serious work, and it’s one of the most important forms of contribution to the digital commons that Ubuntu can make, so I’d like to salute the extraordinary efforts of the Ubuntu Quality Assurance Team and Bug Squad. Initiatives like five-a-day are already making a huge difference to our users. As Henrik Omma says, effective bug reporting requires a diligent and professional approach, and I’ve noticed a real improvement in our community. Hopefully, we can bring the benefits of that competence to the broader free software ecosystem.

Ubuntu gets as many bugs reported against it as OpenOffice, Mozilla, Gnome, and KDE combined.The vast majority of those bugs are issues that exist in upstream tarball releases, or in Debian. Our primary goals should be to ensure that fixes we produce, and information we generate in the QA process, make their way upstream where they will benefit the broadest cross-section of the community. Separately, we want to ensure that each Ubuntu release ships without major issues, regardless of where those issues originated. We are responsible for the user experience of every line of code, even though we don’t produce every line of code.

In the month of April 2008, I found the following bug counts for large FLOSS projects:


OpenOffice 1,076
Gnome 5,364
KDE 1,335
Total: 13,109
Ubuntu 13,064
Debian 5,103

With hindsight, April was possibly a bad choice, because it was an Ubuntu release month so there’s usually a small spike in the number of bugs filed. It would be interesting to see the stats for other distributions, and projects, over a full year. But the general picture is clear – within our family of distributions, Ubuntu carries the brunt of the load w.r.t. bug tracking, triage and patch management – not only for our users, but for a broad cross-section of the open source stack.

When I delved into the data to see how we do with pushing bugs upstream, I found a somewhat mixed picture. In many cases, we do very well indeed. We have a very good relationship with GNOME, for example, with a very high percentage of bugs appropriately forwarded to the relevant upstream bug tracker. In other projects, it’s harder to make a definitive statement. The percentage varies based on whether the Ubuntu team members have good relationships upstream, or whether there’s a person acting as an ambassador from Ubuntu to upstream (this is a great way to make a difference if you care about a specific application in Ubuntu!) or whether upstream themselves have taken an interest.

We need to improve the tools that support these kinds of cross-project conversations. Launchpad does currently allow us to track the status of a bug in many different bug trackers, and there are quite a few distributions and upstreams that are now either using Launchpad directly or exchanging data efficiently. We’ll keep working to improve the quality of exchange across the whole ecosystem, including those projects that don’t use Launchpad themselves

I’m absolutely thrilled to see this chart of untriaged bugs in Inkscape since the project moved to Launchpad:

Untriaged Inkscape bugs after move to LP

As you can see, the Inkscape community has been busy triaging and closing bugs, radically reducing the “new and unknown” bug count and giving the developers a tighter, more focused idea of where the important issues are that need to be addressed.

A lot of my personal interest in free software is motivated by the idea that we can be more efficient if we collaborate better. If we want free software to be the norm for personal computing software, then we have to show, among other things, that the open, free software approach taps into the global talent pool in a healthier, more dynamic way than the old proprietary approach to building software does. We don’t have money on our side, but we do have the power of collaboration.

I put a lot of personal effort into Launchpad because I love the idea that it can help lead the way to better collaboration across the whole ecosystem of free software development. I look for the practices which the best-run projects follow, and encourage the Launchpad guys to make it easy for everyone to do those things. These improvements and efficiencies will help each project individually, but it also helps every Linux distribution as well. This sort of picture gives me a sense of real accomplishment in that regard.

Bryce Harrington, who happens to work for Canonical and is a member of the Inkscape team, told me about this and blogged the experience. I’ve asked a few other Inkscape folks, and they seem genuinely thrilled at the result. I’m delighted. Thank you!