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Rolling Releases Make no Sense for a Linux Distribution Like Ubuntu

Yesterday, rumors started, possibly first in an article found at The Register, that Mark Shuttleworth has stated that Ubuntu would change eventual to rolling releases.

Since then, Rick Spencer, Engineering Director of Ubuntu, has corrected this article. This is very reassuring to hear, because a general movement to rolling releases in the current environment and target market for Ubuntu would just not make a lot of sense.

Ubuntu direction for a long time has been to create a very user-friendly linux distribution that allows non-IT professionals to be able to use their computer for their purposes instead of needing a lot of knowledge to install and maintain their computer systems. Furthermore, with the current changes at SuSE, Ubuntu now has the best position to also be a dominant player in the business desktop environment. A second direction is Ubuntu's push into the server market with a lot of work done in the areas of virtualization and cloud computing.

The target markets require in particular a stable and defined system. In particular system administrators who have to maintain 100s and sometimes 1000s of servers or desktops need to have a baseline configuration which allows them to know that two particular systems are not different in the software releases that are installed. Rolling Releases would not be able to manage fixed configuration in the same way as the current cadence mixed in with long term support releases does.

The areas which rolling releases would be beneficial are mobile devices and a active developer community. Linux fanatics with lots of knowledge often want to have the bleeding edge of technology and are often bored with stable releases. Furthermore they might have multiple computers which allows them to have a stable system for production and other "test" systems they can at any time re-installed when they get instable. For this purpose, daily or nightly build repositories in form of PPAs, as they are currently more and more done, are fully sufficient, a rolling release cadence for the broader public is not necessary.

On the other hand, there are mobile devices. However, the complexity for those are far smaller than for full fledged linux systems. Furthermore, there needs to be a distinction between the base OS and the applications used. It certainly makes sense to allow upstream projects to offer releases in their own cadence through an application store like the software center offered by Ubuntu. However, I would assume, the base OS might still be better off with a regular release schedule in order to allow the upstream projects a proper stability to test their rolling releases against.

It seems reasonable to assume that Mark Shuttleworth's comments were targeted more in the direction of mobile devices. The leap by online authors to equate this with a total change of the Ubuntu development infrastructure seems rather foolish and let's one wonder if this was one of those "Oops I did it again - let's bash Ubuntu" attitudes again. In particular since such news could potentially confuse lots of partners, developers, and users of Ubuntu and could undermine its current strong position.



"Furthermore they might have multiple computers..."
or run it in virtual machine like I do.

What should Ubuntu do is some kind of program like Software Center (or integrate this feature in it) to have an easy searching and adding a PPA for trusted sources.

When new version of Firefox appears a lot of people like to install it. In Windows you just download exe file and install it. In Ubuntu you have to search the web to get a info about PPA and add PPA to your Software Center. This is way to difficult for nontechnical users. There should be some program to have an easy way of searching and adding a PPA. Or even better to have a collection of applications something like Ubuntu Tweek's "Application Center" where all sort of applications are available to install.

But there also has to be some QA available, if not Ubuntu can get bad reputation of being unstable and a lot of new questions can appear on forums and official support.

There is also possible to have a new repository like "new-untested", but it should be set to off - but it would be nice to have an option to select which application you would like to install - stable or new-unstable.

To sum this up, just make it easy to install new software versions, if not in deep, then for most used programs.

Thanks for writing this.

"In particular since such a news could potentially confuse lots of partners, developers, and users of Ubuntu and could undermine its current strong position."

Articles that get it so wrong are all part of generating FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). One can trace the ownership, sponsors, and investors of most publications to determine whether sufficient motive exists, and in most cases it does.

Expect more of the same as Ubuntu grows and becomes even more popular.


"It certainly makes sense to allow upstream projects to offer releases in their own cadence through an application store like the software center offered by Ubuntu. "

And this is what Ubuntu has lacked for too long.

You see, "normal users" don't want a one year old version of Firefox, or VLC, or something else. They also want the "newest and coolest" apps with the new feature they hear about from friends or read about somewhere. "Normal users" qnat the lates just as much as any other geek, they just don't want the hassle. (And they care about end user software, not gcc or python versions.)

It is good to see Ubuntu finally doing something about the current PPA-hell - using 27 different PPAs to keep your every day software like open office and firefox up to date is not user friendly, neither is it good security practice to have third party PPAs all over tha place.

The question here is what are normal users. Normal users are not people who have IT skills and are Linux enthusiasts. Normal users are people who want everything to work without having to fix anything.

Rolling releases cannot offer such a stability. Furthermore, it would be impossible to manage the package dependencies to underlying libraries. The reason why distro releases often don't have the newest application releases is that they must all play nicely together including being compatible with all the dependencies.

Hackers that want the bleeding edge of software are not normal users, at least not for the market Ubuntu aspires. Such users are far better to use other distros.

Certainly, it would be nice if upstream projects can push newer code faster into Ubuntu. However, they then have to work with the current infrastructure (i.e. current dependencies and library requirements). This would also never be a real rolling release for Ubuntu itself, but rather introduce another abstraction layer in which the application is more decoupled from the distro which would rather deliver the foundation.