We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Ubuntu: Project, Platform, Products

When most people talk about Ubuntu, they usually mean our flagship product, Ubuntu Desktop Edition. Sometimes, they might mean the Ubuntu project, or the community of people who work on it, or various other things.

Similarly, Debian might mean the Debian operating system, or the package repositories, or the project, and so on.

This gets a little confusing sometimes. When I’m talking about Ubuntu, I’ve started to use more specific terminology to explain what I mean, and this seems to help people understand better the nature of the whole Ubuntu. In particular, I use the three Ps:

  • a portfolio of products, including Desktop Edition, Server Edition, Netbook Edition, Kubuntu and more. These are software bundles which can be downloaded, pre-installed on retail computers, and so on. Each one is designed to meet a certain set of user needs, and to work on a specific form factor of computer.
  • a technology platform, which can be used to build a wide range of products. It is primarily of interest to developers, who build derivative distributions, OS products, applications and infrastructure using Ubuntu packages. This platform is the common foundation of the Ubuntu products above, and includes things like the global package repository. Joel Spolsky does a good job of explaining why platforms are distinctly different from products, and should be treated as such.
  • an open community project, which collectively produces, distributes, promotes and supports the products and the platform. The Ubuntu project has a philosophy, a government, and various tools and processes to help contributors work together. Canonical supports the Ubuntu project by providing resources and infrastructure, and also directly participates in Ubuntu at various levels.

This breakdown may seem a bit obvious to those of us “on the inside”, but it’s confusing to people who are encountering it for the first time. I’m sharing this in the hope that if more people start using the same words, it will get easier for people to understand how these pieces fit together. I’ll also be linking to it a lot, to help put things into context using this framework.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 15, 2010 at 18:39

18 Responses

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  1. @Matt Debian, unlike Ubuntu, do not claim to be an operating system and, indeed, give proper attribution to the operating system upon which their distribution is built (N.B. it is a distribution not an operating system in its own right.) To quote Debian GNU/Linux’s own site “Debian GNU/Linux is a free distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system.”

    Without lessening any acknowledgement of the work done by Canonical on their distribution of GNU/Linux might we please, in particular given that your item is about correct terminology, get this terminology right?

    If you will refer to the following link you’ll see why using the proper term (GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux) is appropriate, correct and gives full attribution to those involved in its production and also see that products based on GNU/Linux aren’t operating systems in their own right but, as Debian correctly state, distributions of an operating system.

    As stated on that link (above) it would be greatly appreciated if the correct terminology (GNU/Linux or GNU+Linux) could be used.

    Many thanks for your kind attention in reading this comment…and, I hope, on acting on it.

    P.S. I have posted in a respectful manner so might I ask others to do likewise?

    David (GNU/Linux supporter)

    November 15, 2010 at 19:24

    • http://www.debian.org/ asks: “What is Debian?” and answers “Debian is a free operating system (OS) for your computer.”

      I see no problem with referring to Debian and Ubuntu as operating systems, since that term reasonably describes how these products are used (installed on a computer to enable it to run applications).

      Debian and Ubuntu take different positions with regard to the “GNU/Linux” term, and it’s been discussed to death on both sides. It’s also not what this blog post is about, so let’s end the discussion here (no more comments on this thread please).

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 15, 2010 at 19:32

    • To be honest, I don’t believe GNU is an OS in it’s own right either, as much as it’s a collection of programs (tools) which may be used in the construction of an operating system (a distribution, as it were). The only thing that makes Debian a distribution is the fact that it is distributed, and in it are parts which make up a collective whole, together.

      Using your line of thought, maybe we should just start appending everything to the end of operating systems; for instance, Windows Symantec(tm)+proprietary_base+NT, or Ubuntu (Firefox+)Gnome+GNU+Linux. It’s ridiculous, verbose, and unnecessary; there are plenty of other places where you can advertise these parts (during the install process, for instance), and zombie-desktop users probably don’t care about such things anyway.



      November 15, 2010 at 20:06

      • Now, to be fair (and now that I’ve cooled down a bit), I think it’s fine to mention GNU and Linux when describing what the OS is built on. I just don’t think it’s fair to say that Ubuntu (or any other GNU/Linux distribution) isn’t an operating system. Every part of such a distribution contributes to the system’s operation and use, and (to us, at least) obviously the GNU tools and Linux kernel contribute a great deal to that end (more so than, say, Firefox).

        …actually, that got me thinking. I was reading the FreeBSD wikipedia article and it mentioned derivatives–how they’re similar to “Linux distributions”–and I thought, “maybe all the ‘confusion’ is caused by a lack of a base OS that all distributions are derived from”. Sure, there are some: [Fedora/RedHat, Debian, slackware] + derivatives. But there’s no common name between them all (except GNU or Linux) to associate with. I guess there’s the LSB (Linux Standard Base), but I don’t know how well distributions adhere to that, and it has Linux in it’s name (though, that would be an accurate description in most cases).


        November 18, 2010 at 19:23

        • @Ben

          I’d been adhering to Matt’s wishes and not replied but now you’ve had two bites at this I feel I ought to add a little too.

          I don’t believe that GNU on its own (assuming that it is not used as shorthand for GNU/Linux) is an OS any more than you do…and I doubt that there are many who do…however the combination of GNU and the Linux kernel forms a basic (very) OS. It would be unfair to call it either GNU or Linux as you need both and if you look at the relative contributions to the whole there’s far more GNU than there is Linux so calling the combination Linux is all the more unfair. From the GNU side of things we don’t want to lessen the contribution of Linux and thus explicitly say that we prefer the combination to be called GNU/Linux even though most of it is GNU. Calling it GNU/Linux is fair to both. We’d say that as GNU/Linux is an operating system in its own right it is then correct to call end user products distributions not operating systems though they contain an operating system.
          My view would be that distributions such as Ubuntu are the GNU/Linux operating system with a lot more added so as to give a fully workable end user product…in no way does this seek to lessen the appreciation of the work done to make a distribution but it does recognise the core parts….though not the optional additions which is why calling it “Ubuntu(Firefox+)Gnome+GNU+Linux” would not be of the same order as stating the core components of the OS. Richard Stallman in the link I gave states that calling the OS GNU/Linux also gives credit to Gnome BTW but you can add to that as you see fit; he suggests GNU/X11/Linux and GNU/Linux/Perl as quite reasonable ones for example. In each of these examples the additions are, however, core components not optional extras. We can each set the upper limits where we see fit but lower limit should be GNU or, as we prefer so as to give Mr. Torvalds due mention, GNU/Linux. None of this seeks, in any way, to downplay the additional components, and work, added by a distribution.
          BTW while Mr. Torvalds Linux kernel is the most common version of that kernel it isn’t the only one…there are some forks of it…so the ecosystem gets ever more complex the more we look at it.
          The Linux Standard Base also doesn’t give credit to GNU in its name though there is more of it that comes from GNU than there is from Linux…same issue again.
          I do take your point about “zombie users” but though you’re undoubtedly right regarding their lack of interest in such matters should this then mean that we all ought not to care?
          Please forgive my coming back at the points you raised though Matt is right in saying that this may not be an appropriate venue for this discussion…all the same it’s a pleasure to have a reasonable, and friendly, discussion with you.

          David (GNU/Linux supporter)

          November 18, 2010 at 22:16

          • I think we ought to respect Matt’s wishes and take the naming debate elsewhere.

            But where? Well, I’m happy to host the discussion: http://randall.executiv.es/node/15

            It’s an article I’ve written for this express purpose, so it’s on-topic. Come on over…


            November 18, 2010 at 22:30

            • Yeah, sorry about that. My first post was just after his, and I don’t remember reading it before posting; an honest mistake.

              I only made my second comment because I thought I shouldn’t leave it on that note, since it wasn’t very nice and it stepped on multiple people’s toes…though I guess I didn’t improve much on the first comment.


              November 18, 2010 at 22:45

  2. Great post Matt. Thanks for the clarity.

    I’m tempted to add a fourth though: People. Those who associate themselves with the Products by using and enjoying them. They share the Ubuntu ethos but perhaps aren’t ready or able to join the Project as contributors in a formal sense. They may be off to the sides advocating to friends and cheering us on though, and over time will join.



    November 15, 2010 at 20:19

    • I would probably put people into the “project” bucket, whether they’re recognized contributors, or supporters, or just people who believe in the project’s ideals. They’re part of the system which makes all of the rest possible.

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 18, 2010 at 02:59

      • Makes sense.

        In my never ending quest to add yet another “P”, how about Philosophy? “Humanity to others.” It’s a brand differentiator and an important reason why so many get involved. Perhaps it’s even the foundation for everything else.


        November 18, 2010 at 19:56

  3. What Ubuntu is missing is hardware. I know that Ubuntu is not a hardware company, but look at Android. Google is not a hardware company either. Yet to push the Android platform they understood that they must create a flagship phone. I think that Ubuntu has to do the same.


    November 18, 2010 at 02:56

    • Our answer to that is http://webapps.ubuntu.com/certification/

      As Google did, we work with our hardware partners, like Dell, to certify and pre-install Ubuntu on computers, including new hardware designs.

      Matt Zimmerman

      November 18, 2010 at 03:01

      • These computer are certified to work with Ubuntu, but many of them cannot be bought with Ubuntu installed. There are very few such options. (I’m typing this message on a System76 laptop.)

        And you miss my point about the Nexus One. Google works with OEMs to certify Android on their hardware. But in addition, they also made the Nexus One, to make sure that there is one phone they have complete control over. This set the standard for all the other phone manufacturers.


        November 18, 2010 at 06:23

        • You’re correct that not all of them can be bought with Ubuntu installed at the present time. More models (both pre-installed and not) are being added to the list all the time.

          I read your point about the Nexus One, and thought I responded to it. Google didn’t create the Nexus One alone; they worked together with a hardware partner (HTC). Similarly, Canonical works with partners to jointly develop Ubuntu devices. Unlike the Nexus One, these devices generally don’t carry the Ubuntu brand, but only the OEM’s brand.

          Matt Zimmerman

          November 18, 2010 at 14:14

          • As a thought experiment: Let’s imagine a hardware device that is fully and distinctly branded, not with the OS name, but with the company that backs and facilitates the OS. There’s a solid market precedent for this. (I’m thinking of a well capitalized fruit company in Cupertino. They don’t make their own hardware and we don’t call their devices by their OS names.) If such a device were to exist, it could clear a lot of market noise and establish a reference that others could clone…


            November 18, 2010 at 20:03

  4. Having Distro branded computers (devices) is an idea long over due, I mentioned this many times in posting and was very excited when Open-PC.com formed, unfortunately it was a little on the expensive side (Eur-359). And who is more appropriate to have its own than K/Ubuntu! It is the most popular currently and probably the best over all.

    Linux branded devices will speed up Linux proliferation and stop all the shenanigans by OEMs who are on the list of MS lackeys.


    November 25, 2010 at 16:20

  5. The only reason Ubuntu isn’t so upfront about being Linux or GNU/Linux is simple marketing. By saying Ubuntu is an operating system, they have forgone the problematic association with Linux or GNU/Linux as a political adoption problem. Anyone that really cares or knows about Linux and GNU/Linux already knows, and those folks who after learning a little bit more about Ubuntu learn that it is in fact Linux or GNU/Linux and at that point they usually do not care because they either like it or do not like it without linux politics every really becoming a factor.

    The lack of Ubuntu’s in-your-face linux advocacy, is actually quite good for the Linux and GNU/Linux community because adoption has “increased significantly ™” because of it.

    Scot McPherson

    November 26, 2010 at 00:56

    • Scot, let me buy you a beer.


      November 26, 2010 at 01:08

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