Ubuntu Strikes Out on Its Own Again

If Canonical has shown anything over the past few years, it’s that it’s not afraid of doing things differently.

Ever since the arrival of Unity in Ubuntu 10.10’s netbook edition back in 2010, it’s been clear the company is “marching to the beat of its own drum,” as they say, with a growing focus on mobile and convergence.

Well, last week brought yet another example of Canonical’s independent-mindedness when the company announced its decision to create a brand-new package format and installer.

A ‘Simplified Packaging Format’

Linux Girl

“There’ve been many discussions of late about the challenges of scaling app installation to a very large number of apps, including making app packages much easier to automatically audit and sandbox, and making them safer and quicker to install without the possibility of system-level breakage,” explained developer Colin Watson in a post on the Ubuntu developers’ email list. “This is needed to make it quicker and easier for app developers to get their software into Ubuntu.

“There are several pieces to this, but it seems clear that one of those is some kind of simplified packaging format which we can offer to third-party application developers,” Watson went on.

Chief among the advantages of such a format is that there would be “no dependencies between apps,” he added.

The news spread like wildfire to Slashdot, so Linux Girl braced herself for an uproar down at the Linux blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon.

‘Unity, MIR and Now This’

“I understand what Canonical is doing here, and I also understand that this is intended to be supplemental (at least at this stage), but it’s starting to be an alarming trend of Canonical taking things in house,” opined Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone over a fresh Tequila Tux cocktail.

“Unity, MIR and now this,” Stone explained. “I don’t know that I like the precedent that this is setting for future development.”

What has made Linux great “more than anything else is the community around it, and Canonical is not using that resource to its fullest,” he added.

‘The Wrong Way to Go’

Indeed, “this is another example of Canonical replacing working infrastructure of Debian GNU/Linux for no particular benefit to the world,” agreed blogger Robert Pogson.

“Package builders can do static builds for .deb if they want to eliminate dependencies; package builders can do static builds for .deb if they want to bog down systems and waste RAM loading stuff into RAM that’s already in RAM,” Pogson added.

The new Ubuntu packaging, however, “is the wrong way to go,” he opined. “If there’s anything wrong with APT they should fix it and share the patches with upstream (Debian).”

On a higher level, “I don’t know what’s wrong with Canonical,” Pogson said. “They seem not to understand that GNU/Linux is a cooperative product of the world, and wasting resources to do things differently when existing software is working well is poisoning the well.

“FLOSS is the right way to do IT, whether as a developer, a distributor, OEM, retailer or user,” he concluded.

‘I’ll Stick with Debian’

Either there is “something very wrong with Debian, since some derivative distributions are moving on, or there is something rotten in the ‘market’ view of things,” Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed. “I’ll bet on the second one.”

Looking ahead, “I’ll stick with the continent called Debian, instead of building a beautiful small island for me,” he asserted. “However, regular and new users (what Canonical wants) won’t bother. They’ll just click and go on any product, as they did with Android, Mac OS, etc.”

For the future, Gonzalo Velasco C. concluded, “I see many distros like Mint, SolydXK, Epidemic, Aptosid, CrunchBang, Knoppix, Kali Linux and antiX receiving new users.”

‘Fragmentation Hurts’

Similarly: “Sigh, just what Linux needs,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet lamented. “How many installers does this make? Three? Four?”

What’s needed is for “everybody to get behind a single way of doing things instead of this constantly reinventing the wheel,” hairyfeet explained. “Fragmentation never helps anybody, it ONLY hurts.

“So now a company that wants to support Linux will have to add this on TOP of the Debian way and the Red Hat way and…ugh,” he concluded.

‘Not a Big Deal’

Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien, on the other hand, could see it from Canonical’s perspective.

“It looks like part of the issue is the move to mobile, and it may well make sense there,” O’Brien told Linux Girl.

“I suspect that those people who have decided to hate Ubuntu will consider this another reason, but it really is not a big deal,” he added. “What most people seem to overlook is that the target audience for Ubuntu is people who don’t care about any of this.”

‘A Good Thing for Ubuntu Users’

Indeed, “if Ubuntu is implementing an OS X-like package container format, then that is probably a good thing for Ubuntu users,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza agreed.

“It should have little effect on anyone else any time soon, if it is not a good idea,” Espinoza added. “It’s a feature that some users have been asking for now for quite some time. We already have numerous binary packaging schemes, but none of them are as simple as dragging an icon.”

Since Ubuntu has “long had a cross-platform compilation service (to support PPAs), it seems like something that should be relatively simple for them to implement,” he suggested.

“I doubt there is a package format designed for userspace apps, so I can see why they would invent one,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered.

‘I Don’t See the Problem’

“I am not worried about this,” began Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

“I noticed that they are advertising a lack of dependency tracking between packages as a feature, but I always thought this was the problem package management frameworks were supposed to solve,” Travers added.

“It seems to me, then, that this is a niche application for tablets, particularly for paid non-Free applications in an app store model,” he suggested. “So I don’t see the problem.

“Mainstream, productive use of Linux as a computing platform is not compatible with the tablet media consumption model,” Travers opined. “If Ubuntu wants to go for both, more power to them, just so long as they don’t forsake the former.”

‘It Could Be Great’

Google+ blogger Brett Legree took a similar view.

“Ubuntu is continuing to show that they are not shy to chart their own path, whatever that may be, so the fact that they are developing their own package format and installer doesn’t seem out of line,” Legree told Linux Girl.

Moreover, “if it is to be aimed at their phone/tablet plans, it makes a lot of sense,” he opined.

“If it turns out that they use this for Ubuntu desktop releases, it probably will not affect me since I am currently using other Linux distributions for my production systems,” Legree added.

“Who knows, though — if they do something really innovative and release it to the community at large, it could be great,” he concluded. “So let’s see what happens!”

‘More Benign Than Malign’

Last but not least, Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol focused on the big picture.

“We’re living in very interesting times,” Ebersol told Linux Girl. “Seems the community is fracturing, and everyone is reinventing its own wheel. So, let RH create systemD and shove it down our throats, Canonical with MIR, and now, a new package format that is not .deb.”

In Canonical’s case, however, this latest move is “more benign than malign,” he opined. “It’s gonna be like a JAR install that users can install in their own /home, not systemwide.”

It’s also “going to suit Canonical’s new goals, in the mobile and desktop, to distribute commercial apps with different licenses than GPL,” he added.

In short, “I hope for the best for Canonical, and that they can indeed thrive with their ambitions; since Google can make a lot of money out of Busybox and Gentoo, why can’t Canonical?” he concluded. “Good luck to Mark is all I can say.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • I have to disagree with the sentiment, that it is wrong to be different.

    Some people are hopelessly stuck in the past and their minds can’t grasp thinking outside the box. For them you build on something and patch things endlessly and never think of trying something new. If the world moved at the speed of Debian we would all be driving two year old cars and there would be no innovation. Somebody has to be the front runner and do something new. It may not always work, but that does not mean it should not be tried.

    Maybe Debian should try fresh thinking sometime and maybe they should abandon what they are doing. I don’t really mean this. I like Debian. But to say one approach is the only way to go is wrong. If Debian is to be the best it can be they, too, need fresh thinking.

    There is a second aspect to this sour grapes. Many people are ideologues and for them this an ideological battle and they look at every opportunity to heap scorn on those who do something different or better.

    I get the idea of community. But a city is really a bunch of communities and cities make up larger communities like states or provinces, ever expanding to include countries. In the end we are one big community, but in reality we are fragmented into parts.

    As a former teacher, we tried to function as a class, but there were always students who were off in the corner doing their own thing. I never tried to squash that individualism. In fact, I encouraged independence and free thinking. I feel the students were better off for it and as a community we were too. We need to accept and embrace differences to make the community stronger and better.

  • It makes perfect sense to me that a company like Canonical would want to have an active say in the things that make up their Operating System. Normal users will judge them by how difficult or easy it is to install software in Ubuntu. DEB, RPM, TAR.GZ, does it matter? LSB is a joke and hasn’t done anything to force all players to accept a new standard in which they all had a say.

    Do people say bad things about Windows because they don’t like some preinstalled program? You bet they do! Internet Explorer is an infamous example of software reflecting badly on it’s parent company. Xbox 360 on the other hand? – some people don’t even know is made by Microsoft it’s so good.

    I applaud Canonical for their bold decisions to build better products and not pretend that open source is an idealistic democracy in which no one needs to take the reigns and anything goes. They’ve put their money, careers, and futures on the table and they’re going to do everything in their power to make sure Ubuntu succeeds.

    If a person doesn’t like that Canonical is centralizing their development to streamline their evolution they should stop using Ubuntu and stop whining about them making decisions they disagree with. Stop hating on the #1 Linux Distro just because you’re jealous your favorite distro doesn’t have the same manpower, accomplishments, attention, and activity as Ubuntu and the Ubuntu forums.

    I’m sick of you all telling me to try LMDE, Mint, Arch, etc.. because it’s made of rainbows and sunshine. I’ve tried more than a hundred distros over the last decade and if the mantra is true that "software diversity" is good for linux then all of you should be welcoming another piece of good software to the table instead of hating on them for being a "black sheep".

  • I just wanted to point out that I was not defending Canonical in any way in my previous comment. I was just pointing out why Canonical might be doing things the way they are.

  • Speaking as objectively as I can…

    "This is the year of desktop Linux"–for how many years have we heard that said? Yet, it never happens. And rather recently, the saying that invariably follows it is something along the lines of: "If only the (Linux) community would settle and work together on one distro for the mainstream (OEMs, whatever)" And yet, that never happens either.

    And why is this? Because the world of Linux distros, of any type, has *always* been fragmented, this is hardly a new thing. Sometimes it’s been less, other times it’s been more but the fragmentation has always been there.

    As much as the people involved in these distros, from developers to end users, promote and advocate cooperation and sharing, there’s also an equal AM ount of infighting, strong individualism (read: hidebound stubbornness), and "fanboisism". Of course, this is hardly unusual when people are involved, yes?

    So, "Why can’t we/they settle on one distro?", asks not only the distro end user, but the Windows and OSX users as well. In fact, it’s those two latter users that made the point in the first place, whether in a derogatory sense or as an honest question, and now that cry has been taken up by the distro end users themselves. Since it doesn’t happen and most likely will not happen by the community at large, Canonical has decided to "go it’s own way" with an attempt to push at least one Linux distro to the mainstream.

    To do that, Canonical has to take on as many functions as they can for their OS so they’re not absolutely dependent on upstream packages, modules and systems. If Canonical is going to push Ubuntu to the mainstream as a viable desktop, tablet and smart phone OS, they have to have control of as many areas of Ubuntu as they feasibly can. If that alienates Ubuntu from the world of Linux distros, then so be it. The world of Linux distros is good a talking about pushing the Linux desktop to the mainstream but it’s lousy at doing so.

    That being said, I’ve been using Linux Mint for several years which, of course, is dependent on the Ubuntu binaries and packaging systems. So I have a stake in this as well as far as the direction Ubuntu takes in the future. The next couple years are going to very interesting I think.

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