Here is a little quiz. Which Linux distribution's mailing list recorded
over 1,000 posts during the first week of its existence? Which project
succeeded in attracting some of the best-known and most prominent open
source developers to work on it? And why do their email addresses
invariably end with @canonical.com?
The answer, of course, is Ubuntu
Linux. Ubuntu, a Zulu word representing a belief in a universal
bond of sharing that connects all humanity, gave the name to a new
Debian-based Linux distribution, which very few people heard of as
little as two weeks ago. Despite being a new kid on the block, Ubuntu
has a potential to turn the Linux distribution world upside down and
make rapid inroads into our minds, not to mention hard disks. The
reason? Ubuntu Linux is the first distribution since LindowsOS that has
serious capital behind it, a substantial financial backing from a
wealthy open source advocate.
But let's start from the beginning. It is the late 1999 and we are in
Cape Town, South Africa. A company called Thawte Consulting, the
world's second largest provider of digital certificates, has just been
sold to Verisign for $575 million. The name of the entrepreneur behind
Thawte is Mark Shuttleworth, a young man who thus became a
multi-millionaire just four years after he graduated from a university.
The local press excitedly reported that Mark had paid bonuses of one
million Rand (about $163,000 at the time) to every one of his
employees, including those who had been with the company for a very
Young and rich, Mark pursued some of his extravagant dreams as he became
only the second space tourist when he visited the International Space
Station on board of the Russian Soyuz shuttle in April 2002, in
exchange for some $20 million. Part of his fortune was also channeled
into more selfless projects, such as The Shuttleworth
Foundation, established with a goal "to invest in projects
that provide innovative solutions to educational challenges in an
African context, focusing on maths, science, entrepreneurship and
technology in education and open source." Note the magic words
"open source" in the above statement. Then, earlier this year, he
teamed up with Hewlett-Packard to launch Go Open Source, a massive
campaign designed to increase the awareness of open source software
solutions in South Africa. He also founded Canonical Limited, a Isle of
Man-based company now funding the development of Ubuntu Linux.
According to the company's web site and some of the early interviews
with its representatives, Canonical employs over 40 developers, most of
them from GNOME, Debian and GNU Arch projects. Among them, one will
find Sebastien Bacher (Debian GNOME packages), Carlos Perelló
Marín (Debian PowerPC port), Nathaniel McCallum (Gentoo Linux),
Dave Miller (Bugzilla), Martin Pitt (PostgreSQL packaging for
Debian), Daniel Stone (Release Manager, FreeDesktop.org), Colin Watson
(Debian QA and Debian installer), Jeff Waugh (GNOME Release
Coordinator) and Matt Zimmerman (member of the Debian Security Team),
just to name a few.
Besides being a free project (in both senses of the word) and the fact
that the developers are getting paid for their work, what else is
special about Ubuntu Linux? And why would an average Debian user
consider switching to it? One of the most interesting attractions is
the promise of regular stable releases in roughly 6 months' intervals.
In fact, the distribution's versioning scheme is time-based, with
version 4.10 representing October 2004, while the next stable release
due in April 2005 will be version 5.04. All releases will be supported
by the security team for 18 months after the release. Ubuntu's default
desktop is GNOME, with much less attention to other desktops (KDE is
available too, but only as an unsupported "universe" component). One
other peculiarity, rarely seen in a distribution, is the fact that the
superuser account is disabled by default. The first user created during
the installation has administrative rights on the system, and can run
programs as root with "sudo". Although it is easy enough to reset the
root password, the default setup encourages good security practices.
Ubuntu Linux currently supports three architectures: i386, ppc and
It is important to realize that Ubuntu Linux is not trying to compete
with Debian, and those Debian developers who now work on Ubuntu will
continue with their Debian duties as usual. But an interesting debate
is starting to revolve around the relationship between Ubuntu and other
Debian-based projects, especially the ones with commercial interests,
such as UserLinux or Progeny Componentized Linux.
The three of them have a lot in common, with the goal of developing a
commercially supported Debian-based Linux distribution. Bruce Perens of
UserLinux has already indicated his readiness to meet with Mark
Shuttleworth later this year and discuss issues of mutual interest.
This would certainly benefit UserLinux, the development of which has
been moving forward at a remarkably slow pace. Progeny's Ian Murdock
might be interested in this meeting too. It really is hard to justify
the existence of three projects with roughly similar goals, much
overlapping work and a risk of further fragmentation in the market
place. After all, it makes sense to combine resources if a small
start-up intends to compete with the likes of Novell or Red Hat.
Whatever the outcome, it will be interesting to watch the development of
Ubuntu Linux during the next few months. Will a Debian-based
distribution finally break into enterprise, with an offer of a superior
product, matching hardware and software support, certified by some by
the major industry players, such as IBM or Oracle? With Ubuntu Linux on
the table and Canonical Ltd behind it, hopes are higher than ever.
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