In a comment left for the interview with gNewSense founders Paul O’Malley & Brian Brazil, it was asked why they had chosen to base the distribution on Ubuntu rather than Debian. The argument was made that Ubuntu "…adds more restricted firmware and uses more binary blobs then debian. So rather that using a base that adds that type of software in and then removing it again, why not just start with debian…"
I don’t really know whether Ubuntu adds more of these things, other than those in Restricted (which I would exclude from my Ubuntu install anyway). However, for the sake of argument, we’ll say that it’s true and look some of the reasons Ubuntu may have been chosen in spite of this.
The Debian distribution was first announced on August 16, 1993 by Ian Murdock, then a student at Purdue University. Murdock initially called his system the "Debian Linux Release". In the Debian Manifesto he had called for the creation of a GNU/Linux distribution to be maintained in an open manner, in the spirit of Linux and GNU. He formed the name "Debian" by combining the first name of his girlfriend (now wife) Debra with his own first name.
Debian has been one of the foremost examples of a Free Software GNU/Linux distribution. The Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG) were considered a most stringent list of the requirements for software to be considered Free. Their original exclusion of KDE was testament to these values, and was instrumental in Trolltech’s decision to re-license QT under the GPL (KDE requires QT, which was the source of licensing problems). They did maintain a "non-free" repository of packages for which the functionality was not duplicated by Free Software, but these were not in the default install.
Their position has been tempered by their inclusion of binary drivers in the Linux kernel, but their are few distributions that match their commitment to software freedom. This is a good argument for gNewSense to choose Debian as their base.
However, Debian also suffers from the volunteer status of its developers.
Unlike most GNU/Linux distributions, Debian is not supported by a commercial entity. This removes many distractions, and allows them to concentrate on their moral commitments. They do not have the same pressure to release often and gain revenue from CD sales, or to release with the latest software versions. Instead, they release when the software has been very thoroughly tested, and on multiple platforms. This has given a reputation of rock-solid stability, sometimes with the only downtime being for a kernel upgrade.
Unfortunately, this also leads to stagnation. There were long periods between releases, and by the time they arrived, the software was out of date. Users want the latest stuff, and they go elsewhere. There has always been a ‘testing’ version of the distribution, which most developers will run, that provides more of the latest software. This gives the developers even less motivation to release, because they’re already using the newer applications. Debian also had a reputation for being difficult to use (although I liked hacking the text file configurations), again because the developers had no commercial motivation to make it usable for non-developers.
Debian was suffering from these effects, and Redhat gained in popularity. Debian’s superior package format, the "deb" (don’t remember if it had a proper name), even came under great pressure from Redhat’s rpm format. Then came the derivative distributions. These were generally based on the ‘testing’ version of Debian, which was still comparatively stable. The first of these, Corel Linux and Storm Linux, had limited success, but they share the same motivations as Ubuntu and other Debian-derivatives. They wanted to tap into the power and stability of Debian, but provide more recent software versions and greater usability.
These derivatives breathed new life into Debian, and the ‘deb’ package format. It gained a great deal of influence.
Ubuntu has surpassed its siblings and become very successful. This may be because the other distributions were perceived as too commercial, with a lax attitude towards software freedom. Ubuntu seemed to share Debian’s values, while succeeding in its other objectives.
Ubuntu seemed to have the same devotion to Free Software, but fixed the problems inherent in a volunteer-run distribution.
It is backed by a commercial entity, Canonical, so it has the motivation to deal with Debian’s issues. They include up-to-date software, with a brisk six-monthly release cycle, and they have created one of the most user-friendly GNU/Linux distributions out there.
That’s why I chose it. I thought I was getting the best of both worlds. A commitment to Free Software, and a user-friendly, up-to-date Debian.
I actually think that’s what the Ubuntu community want. They showed great support for Debian with their position on Firefox (see "Fire and Ice"), even though Canonical let them down by ignoring the issues. Ubuntu are also famous for using a non-free distribution management system ("Launchpad").
Why Choose Ubuntu?
It would seem that Ubuntu’s weakened commitment to Free Software would be a good reason to choose Debian. However, you would then have to deal with the problems listed above.
If you take Ubuntu as your base, you have a user-friendly, up-to-date distribution, that inherits Debian’s stability. Most of Ubuntu is Free, so they’ve done a lot of the hard work for you.
In fact, even though Ubuntu includes recent software, it isn’t just a reproduction of the Debian ‘testing’ version. They’ve done a lot of work to make the distribution stable with these software versions.
A big consideration is the fact that Ubuntu is just one CD, whereas Debian takes up 15 CDs. For a project with few resources, this is a significant factor.
Ubuntu is also a very popular distribution. The effectiveness of piggy-backing on this popularity should not be underestimated.
I hope this post has been useful in understanding the reasons that gNewSense have for choosing Ubuntu as their base distribution.
Because of this choice, we have a user-friendly, up-to-date GNU/Linux distribution that is completely Free. I’ve now got what I was looking for - the best of both worlds.
Disclaimer: These are my opinions. I haven’t asked the gNewSense guys why they chose Ubuntu. These ideas just seemed logical to me.
- An interview with gNewSense founders Paul O’Malley and Brian Brazil
- An Ubuntu gNewSense
- A new gNewSense (1.1)