The UserLinux project
was founded by
Bruce Perens in 2003 with this mission:
Provide businesses with freely available, high quality Linux
operating systems accompanied by certifications, service, and
support options designed to encourage productivity and security
while reducing overall costs.
More informally, Bruce was disappointed with the currently-available
"enterprise" Linux offerings, which he sees as taking much of the freedom
out of free software. His goal was to create a new distribution (based on
Debian) which would be 100% free, aimed at the needs of smaller businesses,
and supported by a wide network of independent companies. UserLinux would
thus fill in the gap between the unsupported "development" distributions
and the expensive, restrictive packages offered by Red Hat and Novell.
A small community coalesced around the idea and got busy with peripheral
tasks: creating a web site (carrying the unfortunate tag line "Linux for
Business" once used by Caldera), designing a logo, writing a trademark
policy, and so on. But UserLinux never really got around to building a
distribution. This was partly by design: UserLinux was intended to be a
version of Debian Sarge with only minimal changes. A few metapackages
would be put together, and the package mix as a whole would be greatly
thinned down. But UserLinux never intended to create a new distribution;
it was more of a repackaging effort with an attempt to build a support
network around it.
The UserLinux experience carries a warning for future efforts: any business
or development plan which has a step reading like this:
- Wait for the next Debian stable release to come out.
is more than usually likely to encounter delays. UserLinux got to that
step, and found itself waiting for the Sarge release. For a long time.
This wait killed any momentum UserLinux may have had.
Nonetheless, the Debian Sarge release happened in June. Three months
later, nothing has been heard from UserLinux. So, finally, an interested
observer asked what was going on. Bruce responded that UserLinux was, indeed, still
alive, but, unfortunately, everything was waiting on him personally.
Essentially, the customer who was going to pay me to work on this
evaporated, and some time later I started running out of money to
support the project. I subsequently took a job with Sourcelabs. I
have 50% of my work time to work on whatever Open Source I choose
(courtesy of Sourcelabs) but so far have been pulled in a lot of
directions and thus not much has gotten done on UL of late.
Bruce may indeed succeed in getting others interested in doing some of the
lifting to make UserLinux 1.0 a reality. But a distribution which can
be stalled because one person gets busy is not going to be particularly
appealing to businesses looking for an alternative to the current support
offerings. UserLinux, in other words, appears to have little chance of
achieving its initial goals, even if it does get a release out.
The slow release of Sarge is one thing which happened to UserLinux, but
there is another unexpected event which came along as well: Ubuntu. In
many ways, Ubuntu is what UserLinux intended to be: a 100% free,
Debian-based distribution with relatively long support periods and
available commercial support offerings. Ubuntu seems to have beat out
UserLinux by virtue of not waiting for a stable Debian release, putting a
great deal of attention into ease of use and making things "just work," and
the small advantages that come from having a few tens of millions of
dollars of seed money in the bank. As a result, Ubuntu has a real
distribution, with a large and enthusiastic user community.
Not everybody is comfortable with Ubuntu, despite the fact that the
company's models appear to have put their clothes back on. Bruce's message
puts it this way:
I think the project continues to have value and I don't believe
that basing on the work of any one company, even Ubuntu which may
be more of a rich man's hobby project than a company, is the
solution for support of Linux distributions.
The creation of the
Ubuntu Foundation may help to ease the concerns about the distribution
being controlled by a single company. Meanwhile, Ubuntu has been building
a distributed support network along the lines of the one envisioned by
UserLinux, and a certification scheme is in the works. The 6.04 release,
due next year, will be supported for five years (for server use) - if the
Ubuntu Foundation lasts that long.
In other words, it seems that the distribution UserLinux wanted to create
has come to be - it just didn't happen quite the way they had intended.
Anybody who wants to carry the UserLinux banner forward as a separate
project should first be able to tell the world what they will do that
existing distributors are not doing, and how they will turn UserLinux into
a viable organization that businesses will trust. Without answers to those
questions, UserLinux will remain a project with a nice logo, but with no
software or users.
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