Sister project in Ubuntu to Debian Eee PC

I was pleased to learn through Christer Edwards
of the existence of a sister project in Ubuntu to our Debian Eee PC project. I followed up on his invitation to drop in on their irc channel and introduce myself. I’ve been looking over the bugs listed on their TODO to see if any are applicable to Debian. Already I have filed #479217 based on the corresponding bug in Ubuntu, and have encouraged them to check out ours as well. I look forward to sharing more with them in the future so we can benefit from each other’s work.

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Ichthux and Ubuntu CE: Why two projects?

Barbicane asked me the other day: “Why Ichthux and Ubuntu CE? Why not consolidate efforts?”

As much as I’d like to see Ubuntu CE succeed, I believe they are headed down a path that will make it difficult for them to survive if they continue. In this thread (see Google cache since the forums
seem to be having problems today) Jereme severely understates the differences in development philosophies that
keep us apart. One key difference is more fundamental than just using metapackages instead of scripts.

As I wrote about earlier, the approach Ichthux has chosen is to be a Custom Debian Distribution (CDD), working within Debian and Ubuntu to configure those distributions
for the needs of Christians to meet their various needs. This is incompatible with CE’s approach, which uses scripts to tailor an Ubuntu system. This approach risks violating the integrity of the packages being modified, and makes each system upgrade an adventure for the user. What you end up with cannot truly be called an “edition” of Ubuntu at all, but is more accurately described as an Ubuntu derivative. Derivatives are not easily sustained because they are always struggling with staying in sync with the parent distribution. Ubuntu itself is a derivative, but it has an impressive amount of infrastructure with a lot of manpower behind it to ensure that the branching and merging process doesn’t get out of control. I don’t see how the much smaller Ubuntu CE development team will manage to accomplish anything significant using their current approach without being crushed by the maintenance costs of their customizations.

Another difference, perhaps more readily apparent to end users, is what’s included in each distribution by default. While CE has chosen the Gnome desktop, Ichthux has gone with KDE. With each new release of Ubuntu CE, it seems what is stressed the most in their release notes is “what’s included”. Well, I just can’t see how that’s terribly important. Debian and Ubuntu both have a vast amount of software available, and both make it easy for users to make choices. If a user wants to add another application, it’s often just a few clicks away. It’s
not nearly as important to have these installed by default as it is to ensure that the packages we do include are as solid and well-integrated with the system as possible.

To this end, Ichthux makes use of its Debian and Ubuntu developers to ensure that each package included is kept in good shape from release to release. This means addressing bugs and wishlists that matter to our users, improving those packages not just for Ichthux, but for Ubuntu, Debian, and where those fixes flow back upstream, the broader community of Christian FOSS users everywhere. This is the real work of Ichthux: not just the production of a livecd, nor merely tweaking the default selection of packages we include from one release to the next, but to be actively involved in the Christian FOSS developer and user community. Our greatest successes will
not be in the degree to which we differentiate ourselves from other Linux distributions, but rather how well we’re listening to what Christian FOSS users are saying they need, and how broad we can make our solutions. We can’t afford to be a niche distribution working off in a corner on our own pet project. That would be a terrible waste of our energy. We’re dreaming big: we want every Christian Linux user to be able to benefit from our work.

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Ichthux, a joint Debian/Ubuntu project

Whew. Ichthux has released, and now I can breathe again!

When I joined the Ichthux development team, they had produced their “proof of concept” release as yet-another-Knoppix-remaster. At that time, I encouraged them to move away from tacking their work on as a derivate of a derivative and instead become a CDD. I argued that as a CDD Ichthux would last, while as a Knoppix-remaster, it would just be another marginal custom livecd that went nowhere. They got the message. So you may well be surprised to hear our first release is based on Kubuntu, and not Debian.

So, what’s the story here? Have you defected?

Nope. It just happens that most of the team ended up being actively involved in Ubuntu development. Also, when we first started casting about for the best way to package a livecd/install disk, it seemed to us that Ubuntu already had a head start on this.

What about being a CDD? It looks to me like that idea has fallen by the wayside.

Nope again. We’re a joint team now, and though we’ve started out with Ubuntu, we’ll be pushing changes back into Debian. The goals of a CDD are well understood by the whole team: to best meet the needs of our users, we design the system to mesh well with the parent distributions, not forking and making a derivative, but working inside those distributions to improve them for our particular subgroup of users.

Hold on now, aren’t you contradicting yourself? A CDD’s development is all within Debian, but Ubuntu itself is a derivative, and what’s worse, Kubuntu is a derivative of a derivative! Aren’t you right back where you started?

Well, on the last count, you’d be wrong. Kubuntu is not a fork. And as for Ubuntu being a derivative, well, sure it is. But the Ubuntu/Debian relationship is different from other derivatives, and although there is friction, I’m enough of a crazy idealist to believe a joint Debian/Ubuntu CDD is quite doable, benefits both projects more, and serves our users better than if we were to split up and each go work on our own.

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Keeping free software projects fun as they grow

On the whole I agree with Erich. Subprojects are key to preserving positive energy as a free software project scales. But I wouldn’t say the ill effects suffered by projects as they age is just “a matter of size”. And I wouldn’t de-emphasize the importance of guidelines like the Ubuntu Code of Conduct and the Debian Community Guidelines in countering those effects, though I’d agree they do not provide immunity by themselves.

Ubuntu benefits from the Debian social experiment having started first. So the people involved have the opportunity to learn from and improve on earlier efforts while their project is still young. The DCG and CoC are no panacea, but they are a clue that lessons are being learned; deliberate effort needs to be made to keep work fun, especially as a project grows and people begin to lose touch with each other. Putting these lessons into practice isn’t always easy, but I think it would help if as individual developers we’d reflect more on how we interact within our projects and work on making improvements. I appreciate the personal guidelines Erich shared and will adapt them to make them my own.

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