Since I resumed active status in Debian, I’ve been thinking about how to bridge the gap between Debian and its derivatives*. I’ve spoken at length with Zack, the attendees of the Derivatives BoF at DebConf 10, and the fine folks at the Derivatives Front Desk about the technical and social issues affecting derivative projects, and could probably write a very thorough series of blog posts on the subject.
Instead, Zack and I decided to try doing something about it: we have begun a project to test out a new approach to the problem.
DEX is all about action: merging patches, fixing bugs, crunching data, whatever is necessary to get changes from derivatives into Debian proper. DEX doesn’t try to change the way any existing project works, but adds a “fast path” for getting code from one place to another.
DEX is a joint task force where developers from Debian and its derivatives work together on this common goal. As a pilot project, we’ve established an Ubuntu DEX Team focused on merging code from Ubuntu into Debian. With members from both projects, we hope to be able to resolve blockage anywhere in the pipeline. Whatever needs to get done in order to merge an Ubuntu patch, someone in the Ubuntu DEX team will know what to do. If we get good results with Ubuntu, we hope that other derivatives will follow. With thanks to David Paleino, we’re excited that the Utnubu project is merging into DEX as it aligns well with their goals. I’m very grateful to have Colin Watson and James Westby signed up to contribute as well.
Our first project is simple: turn this list green. This is an archive of quite old patches from Ubuntu, most of which have probably been merged already or made obsolete, but they pre-date any kind of tracking system so they need to be verified. Once that’s done, we’ll move on to a new project with a new todo list.
If you want to see Debian benefit from technical work done in derivatives, DEX is a chance for you to act together to make it happen. If you work on a derivative and want to carry a smaller delta, come and join us. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from this experience.
* There are many instances of great cooperation between Debian and derivative distributions, including joint package maintenance teams, and some derivatives are even part of the Debian project. Nonetheless, there are areas were most people I’ve spoken to agree that we need to do better. This is what I’ve referred to as the “gap”.
In the software community, people hold strong opinions on the subject of listening to users. Some feel that users are an essential source of information for making successful products, as evidenced in the customer development methodology, and seek to involve users deeply in product development. Others believe that users don’t know what they want, invoking the quote attributed to Henry Ford, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘a faster horse’”. Some say that user needs are unknowable except through the lens of a marketplace, where people choose in aggregate which products suit them best, and customers “vote with their wallets” (anything else is “anecdata”).
Regular readers will not be surprised that I believe they are all right, but only in certain contexts. The right strategy for involving users in product decisions will depend on factors related to the product itself, the market, and the product development method being used.
One of the most important is the life cycle stage of the product: is it a new and rapidly evolving concept, or a mature commodity, or somewhere in between? Simon Wardley explains this well over on his blog, so I won’t rehash his points here, but will add a few of my own.
If what we’re looking for is inspiration for a new product, it’s here that Henry Ford was right: users generally won’t hand you a complete product vision on a silver platter. They’ll frame their input in terms of what they know, and the choices already available to them. However, this doesn’t mean that users don’t have a role to play in this instance: watching users can be a great source of inspiration. It’s the combination of domain knowledge and passionate imagination which triggers the creative spark. Henry Ford applied his engineer’s interests to a problem which was evident all around him.
If our goal is to test whether a new product is a good fit for its users, there is no substitute for user feedback. We can guess at whether there is a fit, and our intuition may be good, but users are the ultimate judges, and we don’t know if we’re right or wrong until users evaluate it. So ask them! By engaging in dialogue with individual users, we can learn unexpected things which will help to refine the idea. If we don’t find what they think until our new product is released, we risk making something that no one wants. Why wait until it’s too late? It can be challenging to extract useful feedback for a product which doesn’t yet exist, but this effort is well worth it to avoid wasting much more effort in software engineering.
When our objective is to incrementally improve an existing product, individual anecdotes can mislead us. A given change may be an improvement for one user, but a disaster for another. What we want to know is whether the new version is better for the population as a whole, and in this case, we do well to rely on data. There are pitfalls here as well, of course. We need to choose our questions carefully, and realize that users will often resist any change: not because they’re stodgy by nature, but because they have to invest effort in adapting to the change. I think of incremental improvement as a joint investment made between product developers and their users, to improve the whole system of people and technology for the better.
By choosing the right tool for the job, we can make better decisions, improve faster, and ultimately solve the right problem for our users.
The Ubuntu website states that “we aim to make Ubuntu a wonderful place to participate”. We developed the Ubuntu Code of Conduct to set a standard for participants to accept each other in the spirit of cooperation, and have improved it over time to state these principles more clearly.
It is implicit in our philosophy that these and other Ubuntu values should hold equally true for everyone. I would like to propose that we upgrade this to an explicit statement on behalf of the project.
I have spoken with many people who were interested in joining a free software project, but were put off because they felt unwelcome. I know various people who participate in Ubuntu today, but sometimes face difficult social obstacles in order to do so. Going forward, I would like for us, as members of the Ubuntu community, to make the extra effort to accept all kinds of people. This may sound simple, but it can be very difficult to put into practice. People often don’t even notice they’ve gotten it wrong, until the offended party points it out to them. We need tools and guidance to make this a reality.
To that end, I would like to propose a diversity statement for Ubuntu. This draft has already received support from a majority of the Community Council, but I’d like to take it a step further. Because I want this to be a commitment that we can all stand behind, I’m also calling for support from the community as a whole. Please give this issue your consideration, and let me know in the comments if you can get on board with an official statement like this. The more support we have, the more real this commitment can be.
Here’s the text. Many thanks to Mary Gardiner, Valerie Aurora and Benjamin Mako Hill for their review and input.
The Ubuntu project welcomes and encourages participation by everyone. We are committed to being a community that everyone feels good about joining. Although we may not be able to satisfy everyone, we will always work to treat everyone well.
Standards for behavior in the Ubuntu community are detailed in the Code of Conduct and Leadership Code of Conduct. We expect participants in our community to meet these standards in all their interactions and to help others to do so as well.
Whenever any participant has made a mistake, we expect them to take responsibility for it. If someone has been harmed or offended, it is our responsibility to listen carefully and respectfully, and do our best to right the wrong.
Although this list cannot be exhaustive, we explicitly honor diversity in age, culture, ethnicity, genotype, gender identity or expression, language, national origin, neurotype, phenotype, political beliefs, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, subculture, and technical ability.
A couple of months ago, Debian project membership voted, after extensive discussion, to implement a fundamental change in the Debian community: to welcome as members people who make a valuable contribution to the project, even if they are contributing something other than source code.
This was a tremendous milestone for Debian, and one which made me feel proud to have been a part of the project. Historically, only developers had been eligible for membership, including voting and other formal privileges. Although other kinds of contributions were welcome, this disparity gave the impression that they were less valued than code contributions. It seemed to me at the time that Debian’s mission was to package all of the free software in the world, and if one’s efforts didn’t go directly to improving packages, they just weren’t as important.
I don’t remember when I first installed Debian, but I made my first contributions to the project in 1999, and officially joined as a developer in 2000. After several fun and rewarding years of packaging and development, I started a very demanding day job, and spent more and more of my energy into that, and less and less coding for Debian as a volunteer. However, my job with Canonical involved working with Debian, and that was a primary reason why it was interesting to me. It was an opportunity to introduce a whole new population of people to the things I loved about Debian.
The reality, of course, was more complicated. Following the launch in 2004, Ubuntu grew quickly in popularity and scope, diverged from Debian in significant ways, and relations between Debian and Ubuntu became strained. Canonical grew quickly as well, and the combination of a growing community, a growing company and growing user adoption was a challenge for everyone concerned. As a Canonical manager and a Debian developer, I felt the strain as much as anyone.
Meanwhile, and I felt more and more alienated from Debian. Debian developers who had been friendly in the past became suspicious of Ubuntu—and me—and I quickly became an outsider. My code contributions to Debian continued to decline, and I was no longer maintaining any packages. In Debian at the time, that meant that I didn’t exist. I saw it as an important part of my job to work with my counterparts in Debian, in a coordinating role, but found this increasingly impractical. In 2007, I received an inquiry from the Debian Account Manager, who had noticed I wasn’t actively involved in packaging, and wished to disable my account for security reasons if I wasn’t using it. Although I wanted to remain active in the Debian community, I had to agree that it wasn’t good security practice for me to hold onto my developer privileges. I relinquished my upload rights, with the option to come back if I resumed my development work, and officially became a nobody: I lost the right to vote, my email address and mailing list subscriptions, and all other official ties with Debian, except for the record of my GPG key in a special “emeritus” keyring for informational purposes.
Last month, Enrico Zini announced instructions for contributors to apply for membership under the new guidelines, which recognize many kinds of contributions, not only code. Today, after a three year hiatus, I am proud to be the first Debian member to be accepted through this new process. I expect to continue to submit the occasional patch, but my primary interest is in healing the rift which still exists between Debian and Ubuntu by contributing in a more personal way. Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to work together on this. You can reach me as mdz at either debian.org or ubuntu.com, or on IRC.
I would like to thank Stefano Zacchiroli, for proposing the General Resolution which enabled Debian to make this transition, and for all of his other work as Debian Project Leader to help Debian grow and improve. I also appreciate Enrico Zini, Jonathan McDowell and Martin Zobel-Helas for expediently processing me and working through the technical changes needed to implement the resolution correctly.
It’s good to be back.
As I mentioned recently, the Ubuntu Technical Board is reviewing the most popular topics in Ubuntu Brainstorm and coordinating official responses on behalf of the project. This means that the most popular topics on Ubuntu Brainstorm receive expert answers from the people working in these areas.
This is the first batch, and we plan to repeat this process each quarter. We’ll use feedback and experiences from this run to improve it for next time, so let us know what you think.
Power management (idea #24782)
Laptops are now outselling desktops globally, and laptop owners want to get the most out of their expensive and heavy batteries. So it’s no surprise that people are wondering about improved power management in Ubuntu. This is a complex topic which spans the Linux software stack, and certainly isn’t an issue which will be “solved” in the foreseeable future, but we see a lot of good work being done in this area.
To tell us about it, Amit Kucheria, Ubuntu kernel developer and leader of the Linaro working group on Power Management, contributed a great writeup on this topic, with technical analysis, tips and recommendations, and a look at what’s coming next.
I am going to attempt to summarize the various use profiles and what Ubuntu does (or can do) to prolong battery life in those profiles. Power management, when done right, should not require the user to make several (difficult) choices. It should just work – providing a good balance of performance and battery life.
IP address conflicts (idea #25648)
IP addressing is a subject that most people should never have to think about. When something isn’t working, and two computers end up with the same IP address, it can be hard to tell what’s wrong. I was personally surprised to find this one near the top of the list on Ubuntu Brainstorm, since it seems unlikely to be a very common problem. Nonetheless, it was voted up, and we’re listening.
There is a tool called ipwatchd which is already available in the package repository, and was created specifically to address this problem. This seems like a further indication that this problem may be more widespread than I might assume.
The idea has already been marked as “implemented” in Brainstorm based on the existence of this package, but that doesn’t help people who have never heard of ipwatchd, much less found and installed it.
What do you think? Have you ever run into this problem? Would it have helped you if your computer had told you what was wrong, or would it have only confused you further? Is it worth considering this for inclusion in the default install? Post your comments in Brainstorm.
Selecting the only available username to login (idea #6974)
Although Linux is designed as a multi-user operating system, most Ubuntu systems are only used by one person. In that light, it seems a bit redundant to ask the user to identify themselves every time they login, by clicking on their username. Why not just preselect it? Indeed, this would be relatively simple to implement, but the real question is whether it is the right choice for users.
Martin Pitt of the Ubuntu Desktop Team notes that consistency is an important factor in ease of use, and asks for further feedback.
So in summary, we favored consistency and predictablility over the extra effort to press Enter once. This hasn’t been a very strong opinion or decision, though, and the desktop team would be happy to revise it.
Icon for .deb packages (idea #25197)
Building on the invaluable efforts of Debian developers, we work hard to make sure that people can get all of the software they need from Ubuntu repositories through Software Center and APT, where they are authenticated and secure. However, in practice, it is occasionally necessary for users to work with .deb files directly.
Brainstorm idea 25197 suggests that the icon used to represent .deb packages in the file manager is not ideal, and can be confusing.
Matthew Paul Thomas of the Canonical Design Team responds with encouragement for deb-thumbnailer, which makes the icon both more distinctive and more informative. He has opened bug 685851 to track progress on getting it packaged and into the main repository.
I have reviewed the proposed solutions with Michael Vogt, our packaging expert. Solution #1 is straightforward, but we particularly like solutions #5 and #10, using a thumbnailer to show the application icon from inside each package.
Keeping the time accurate over the Internet by default (idea #25301)
It’s important for an Internet connected computer to know the correct time of day, which is why Ubuntu has included automatic Internet time synchronization with NTP since the very first release (4.10 “warty”). So some of us were a little surprised to see this as one of the most popular ideas on Ubuntu Brainstorm.
Colin Watson of the Ubuntu Technical Board investigated and discovered a case where this wasn’t working correctly. It’s now fixed for Ubuntu 11.04, and Colin has sent the patches upstream to Debian and GNOME.
My first reaction was “hey, that’s odd – I thought we already did that?”. We install the ntpdate package by default (although it’s deprecated upstream in favour of other tools, but that shouldn’t be important here). ntpdate is run from /etc/network/if-up.d/ntpdate, in other words every time you connect to a network, which should be acceptably frequent for most people, so it really ought to Just Work by default. But this is one of the top ten problems where users have gone to the trouble of proposing solutions on Brainstorm, so it couldn’t be that simple. What was going on?
More detail in GNOME system monitor (idea #25887)
Under System, Preferences, System Monitor, you can find a tool to peek “under the hood” at the Linux processes which power every Ubuntu system. Power users, hungry for more detail on their systems’ inner workings, voted to suggest that more detail be made available through this interface.
Help the user understand when closing a window does not close the app (idea #25801)
When the user clicks the close button, most applications obediently exit. A few, though, will just hide, and continue running, because they assume that’s what the user actually wants, and it can be hard to tell which has happened.
Ivanka Majic, Creative Strategy Lead at Canonical, shares her perspective on this issue, with a pointer to work in progress to resolve it.
This is more than a good idea, it’s an important gap in the usability of most of the desktop operating systems in widespread use today.
Ubuntu Software Centre Removal of Configuration Files (idea #24963)
One feature of the Debian packaging system used in Ubuntu is that it draws a distinction between “removing” a package and “purging” it. Purging should remove all traces of the package, such that installing and then immediately purging a package should return the system to the same state. Removing will leave certain files behind, including system configuration files and sometimes runtime data.
This subtle distinction is useful to system administrators, but only serves to confuse most end users, so it’s not exposed by Software Center: it just defaults to “removing” packages. This proposal in Ubuntu Brainstorm suggests that Software Center should purge packages by default instead.
Michael Vogt of the Ubuntu Foundations Team explains the reasoning behind this default, and offers an alternative suggestion based on his experience with the package management system.
This is not a easy problem and we need to carefully balance the needs to keep the UI simple with the needs to keep the system from accumulating cruft.
Ubuntu One file sync progress (idea #25417)
Ubuntu One file synchronization works behind the scenes, uploading and downloading as needed to replicate your data to multiple computers. It does most of its work silently, and it can be hard to tell what it is doing or when it will be finished.
John Lenton, engineering manager for the Ubuntu One Desktop+ team, posts on the AskUbuntu Q&A site with tools and tips which work today, and their plans to address this issue comprehensively in the future.
Multimedia performance (idea #24878)
With a cornucopia of multimedia content available online today, it’s important that users be able to access it quickly and easily. Poor performance in the audio, video and graphics subsystems can spoil the experience, if resource-hungry multimedia applications can’t keep up with the flow of data.
Allison Randal, Ubuntu Technical Architect, answers with an analysis of the problem and the proposed solutions, an overview of current activity in this area, and pointers for getting involved.
The fundamental concern is a classic one for large systems: changes in one part of the system affect the performance of another part of the system. It’s modestly difficult to measure the performance effects of local changes, but exponentially more difficult to measure the “network effects” of changes across the system.
Developers are a crucial part of any successful software platform. In the same way that an operating system is “just” a means for people to use applications, a platform is “just” a means for developers to create applications and make them available to people.
There are three primary ways in which Ubuntu can help developers do their work. They are all related, but distinct, and so we should consider them individually:
1. Developing for Ubuntu
Today, Ubuntu bundles thousands of free software applications, for both clients and servers, most of which are packaged by Debian.
In both of these cases, many of these applications are actually developed on other platforms, and ported to Ubuntu, either by the free software community or by the creators of the software.
2. Developing on Ubuntu
Ubuntu is already quite popular among developers, who mainly run Desktop Edition on their workstations. They might be developing:
- web applications (with server-side and browser components)
- portable applications (e.g. using Java, or Adobe AIR)
- mobile applications (e.g. for Android or iOS)
- native applications, which might target Ubuntu Desktop Edition itself, or supporting multiple platforms through a framework like Qt
3. Distributing through Ubuntu
Like other modern operating systems, Ubuntu isn’t just a platform where applications run, but also a system for finding and installing applications. Starting with APT, which originated in Debian, we’ve added Software Center, the ISV partner repository, and various other capabilities in this area. They all help to connect developers with users, facilitating distribution of software to users, and feedback to developers.
So, where should we focus?
Some developers might be interested in all three of these, while others might only care about one or two.
However, most of the developer improvements we could make in Ubuntu would only address one of these areas.
For this reason, I think it’s important that we consider the question of the relative importance of these three developer scenarios. Given that we want Ubuntu to flourish as a platform, how would we prioritize them?
I have my own ideas, which I’ll write about in subsequent posts, but here’s your chance to tell me what you think. :-)