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Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?

Ubuntu is a beautiful word in one african language. It means something close to "connected humanity" or more exactly "the interdependent human community".
With this name, the Ubuntu Linux Distribution, created by Canonical, the company of Mark Shuttleworth, the deep-space zillionaire from South Africa, has managed to take over the Distrowatch Billboard of GNU/Linux distributions and remain as the number one distribution for more than 6 months.
Ubuntu is based on Debian, and is intended primarily for Linux newbies who use it mainly as a desktop. In short, it's a well-polished Debian distro, with fewer customization capacities and an excellent hardware detection.
But Ubuntu is much more than that. Ubuntu never positioned itself as a Debian derivative, like Xandros, or Mepis, or Knoppix. Ubuntu publicly acknowledges its relationship with Debian, and Canonical, through its recently founded Ubuntu foundation, hires some Debian developpers.
All this should be good news; but for some it's not. Wether on Distrowatch or on community forums, voices whisper that Ubuntu has a dirty secret you may not want to hear: they don't keep the compatibility with Debian, and they want to fork away from their mother distribution. Now, nobody could even care because we may find ourselves in the following scenarios:

- Ubuntu is a very small distribution nobody pays attention about
- Ubuntu is criticized by jealous people
- Ubuntu released a 1.0, but never managed to release a 2.0

All this is wrong, indeed. Ubuntu is the first, or one of the first distributions in the world. Some people may be jealous, but I know some who aren't and who criticizes Ubuntu anyway. Ubuntu releases often, and has no problems in terms of motivation or human ressources.

So, what's the fuss with Ubuntu? Does it want to become THE distribution for everybody? Does it want to fork Debian?
Let's move to these points. Ubuntu has something special that no other distribution ever had before. It shipped its own CDs to you, anywhere in the world for free. It has money (10 million USD from Mark Shuttleworth) and can afford that. For Linux newbies out there, Ubuntu is like Windows. In much the same way they have believed for years that Windows was included for free with their computers, they now have the same kind of facility with Ubuntu: they order CDs for free and it lands in their postal inbox. But much in the same way that they paid for Windows without knowing it, somebody has to pay for the free shipping. And since it's not the users, it's somebody else, namely, the resources of Canonical, or put simply Mark Shuttleworth.
To everyone who thinks this guy is a saint, let me tell you: I hope I'm wrong, but although he's doing a lot for FLOSS I'm sure he could do much better, and I'm going to explain you how.
Here's somebody who wants to help the Free Software movement, and what could be better than helping the holiest of the holy projects (for some, at least), the Debian project? At this stage, I'm all with Mark and Ubuntu.
So if you wish to contribute your 10 millions to Debian, make a donation to the Software in Public Interest ( the non-for profit corporation legally covering Debian.
But Mark Shuttleworth did not do that. He instead funded Ubuntu, its own distribution with both commercial and community interests in it. If you read this page, you will notice that Ubuntu acknowledges its relationship with Debian but openly gets away from it, by stating things about "what Debian is not good about". My poor fellows. What is really Debian, if not the single most important NON-DISTRIBUTION in the world? Debian has no product line, it maintains packages and one single big system (these days, it's called Sarge) and you create your own system on it. That's the Debian way, and let's not forget this. It's so true that its founder, Ian Murdock, started a business on this concept, called Progeny ( and sells a custom Debian distro called "Componentized Linux". So if Ubuntu wants to be pictured as the coolest debian desktop ever (and it is positioned this way actually), then why not arrange something in the Debian community? Why not leave its name, "Debian for desktops"?
Because Ubuntu has commercial interests too. Aha. Of couse, these are not bad, but where it starts to get bad is when you mix the two, community and business.
Ubuntu sells services, such as support. It's also looking for commercial partners Ubuntu has community forums and sends its CDs for free everywhere in the world. Now that's not what I call philanthropy anymore, I call that a damned smart business plan. So is it a community or a commercial distribution?
It seems to be both, but it does not stop there. In fact, it seems that Ubuntu does not keep the compatibility between Debian and its own distribution. I don't need evidences here, just browse the Debian, Ubuntu, and Linux forums and you will see that it's true. One of my business partner installed it and has trouble going back to Debian through the daily packages of updates (which, and that's the first, was feasible with Mepis or Knoppix). The problem is that these incompatibilities can only grow with time, as it should have been of perennial concern for Ubuntu before these could ever show up, and not after.
So in doing this, Ubuntu breaks its uncousciously-propagated promise of a true Debian desktop. And in doing this, Ubuntu is now able to offer support not for Debian-based systems, but for Ubuntu only.
There is even worse. When the Debian Core Consortium was launched, any single Debian reseller/service provider/linux distributor out there rushed to join the alliance . But Ubuntu refused, for the sake of its own business, and for the sake of its own foundation... So Ubuntu declared that day to the world that it would separate itself from Debian. It may sound overreacted, but it's true. If you refuse to join a consortium that is grouping the commercial and community players around Debian and is working withing the Debian project, you are simply saying that you're not part of this community.

Ubuntu may have had other commercial objectives, and that I can't prove nor criticize. It's just a pity that the largest Debian distributor out there decided to fork not only its bytes, but also its community from its mothercommunity.

Now, Ubuntu is trying to imitate Debian; Since it refuses to integrate inside the Debian framework, it captures its own community, and takes all the goodwill of volunteers who used to travell from and to projects like Knoppix and Debian for itself.
It's rather shameful to do this in my opinion, but I hope it is now clear that Ubuntu has at least an agenda. It is now progressively forking from its Debian core base, and is also forking its community.
Thanks to the millions of Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu became the number one distribution for desktop by giving away CDs to the masses and living in parasite on the Debian core base.
Well done Mr. Shuttleworth, well done Ubuntu, you have showed us how to take power inside a community and turn it to your own advantage.

Charles-H. Schulz is a leader of the Native Language Confederation.

Please take this poll related to the issue: Do you think Ubuntu is a fork or a derivate of Debian? Vote now. -- Libervisco



Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?

The arguments you bring up do sound at least somewhat convincing. It is not the first time that I hear that Ubuntu is the only distro not maintaining full package compatibility with Debian base, and I wasn't even aware that it refused to join DCC Alliance. This refusal alone would be enough for me to seriously consider these suspicions.

In the end, if Ubuntu is really a fork, it wouldn't be the end of the world, nor the end of Debian as it is as well, but it would be nice if the Ubuntu leadership would come clean about that then and openly admit that, yes, it's a fork.

In my mind, a "fork" is still a derivate, but one which doesn't essentially keep the cross compatibility with what it's based on, which makes a difference.

I would like to hear people high from the Ubuntu community comment on this.

Let's see what others say, but no flames please!

Thank you

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


I simply don't agree that Ubuntu is a fork. I move back and forth easily between Debian Sarge and Ubuntu. Ubuntu is my preferred, but I like them both.

On the other hand, if indeed it is a fork .... so what? So long as they live within the GPL, it really doesn't matter.

Tell us the truth, Charles. Why the sour grapes?

Gary Powers

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


Ubuntu is synched with Debian unstable SOURCE every 6 months so is not a fork in the usual sense of that word. In addition you do not mention that Ubuntu developers are contributing source back to Debian eg modularized X, xorg and gcc-4.0. Finally you are wrong in saying that Ubunti is making money through selling support. Shuttleworth has made it clear this is not the business model. If you want to develop conspiracy theories at least have some solid evidence....

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


Have a look at

A lot of presentations here talk about their relationship with Debian.
They want to be more than just a new Debian remaster.

- They only support about 2000 packages, the rest is available through "universe" as is a snapshot of Debian;
- They want to improve and give back to Debian, but still grow in a different and independent way;

Somehow it looks like a father and son relationship, and you think Ubuntu is evil for not following Debian's path. I'm glad Debian isn't Darth Vader Sticking out tongue
It can go different and still have enough room for everybody.

About the DCC Aliance there are also critics among the Debian community:

Still I think Ubuntu can get in DCC later if they think it suits their goals.
But somehow I feel DCC is a response to Ubuntu, who accuses Debian of "lack of accountability in the corporate sense"

The Ubuntu side:

The DCC Alliance side:

Ian Murdock's opinions on Debian derivatives and Ubuntu:

Somehow I feel my comment has more information than your article :-D


Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?

Maybe he has no solid evidence, and he openly admits that himself only wishing to start an open discussion about the issue, the fact that Ubuntu currently doesn't seem to be interested in joining the Debian Core Consortium Alliance is certainly something to take into account when judging Ubuntu.

There is an article about "Ian Murdock on the Debian Core Consortium and Ubuntu Foundation" which might be an interested read.

According to the article here is what Ian Murdock says about Ubuntu's relation with Debian and in regard to it's binary (in)compatibility with Debian:


Debian is increasingly just another upstream source for them. Personally, I think this is a huge mistake on their part–sure, they have lots of momentum, but that's largely because Debian seemed to be faltering for a little while. But now that sarge is out there, the real momentum is behind Debian again, though Ubuntu still has momentum on the desktop side. If I were them, I'd continue focusing on that. I certainly wouldn't be so eager to unhook from the Debian train just yet.

When asked about the asserted package incompatibility within Debian itself he rejected that and explained the only case where some incompatibility may creep in is in the transition process for new versions..


Of course, when testing or unstable are making a transition to new versions of core packages (as they are now), it's not quite that simple, and you have to do a recompile. But that's because those are the development branches. There's a good reason for the fact that they aren't compatible–it's called progress.

But also said:


I see no similar technical reason behind Ubuntu's decision to introduce incompatibility. The only rationale I can come up is business related.

According to this, Charles assertions aren't as sensless as one may think. I don't believe all of this has anything to do with any anti-ubuntu propaganda or whatever. Ubuntu is a great distribution in any case, but to keep certain things in the blur wouldn't be a good idea.

Why wouldn't we at least get a satisfactory answer as to *why* wouldn't the Ubuntu Foundation join DCC and why wouldn't it keep full and official binary compatibility? What is the reason behind that?

That has nothing to do with conspiracy theories. It has to do with keeping the community appraised of the real goals and motivations of Ubuntu, whatever they are.

Those who can't accept this open inquiry and discussion don't need to voice themselves openly either.

Thank you

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?

Oh, didn't see your post Bruno before writing the above.. Thank you for posting those links..

Certainly, there is room for both, but the issue isn't so much of Ubuntu being a fork being a bad thing as it's about that being clearly established. There's plenty of sites outthere which mention Ubuntu side by side with other Debian based distros in listings of distros fully compatible with Debian. If it is not fully compatible and if it further continues to diverge from Debian, I think it should be a wide known fact and those listings should be removed.

People should know what Ubuntu is or isn't, it's as simple as that. And from what we see, it doesn't seem to be the same as other Debian variations. It is a "new" Debian, not a variation - in other words, a fork.


Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


I guess I'm not understanding what the problem is.

As has been noted several other places, Ubuntu has put a lot of time and energy into improvements that have gone straight into Debian. Canonical has a bunch of paid developers that are actively improving all of the common linux modules (especially GNOME, Debian, and

There's no way Ubuntu could keep 100% binary compatibility and still have bleeding-edge packages, and you can't drive development if you're hacking on stuff that's three years old.

PS. Maybe because English isn't Charles' native language, I didn't understand a good number of his points (No 2.0 release? What?) But "parasite" is a nasty term in English, and it's entirely unfair. Ubuntu isn't gaining share at the expense of Debian, it's gaining it from distros like Red Hat and Mandrake. It's bringing people INTO the debian fold, not out of it.

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


As has been noted several other places, Ubuntu has put a lot of time and energy into improvements that have gone straight into Debian. Canonical has a bunch of paid developers that are actively improving all of the common linux modules (especially GNOME, Debian, and



There's no way Ubuntu could keep 100% binary compatibility and still have bleeding-edge packages, and you can't drive development if you're hacking on stuff that's three years old.

Maybe.. I'm not a developer so I can't offer first hand opinion on that, but how come then that other Debian based distros are able to keep the compatibility and Ubuntu isn't?
Also, it is not the three years old stuff that Ubuntu is "hacking", it is sid, the unstable repository from which it takes. Even refurbishing packs from sid to be stabler (maybe patching or so) doesn't essentially result in incompatibility (i.e. can be used on Debian and other variations as well). So, why it does? Some say it doesn't, but not everyone agrees and Ubuntu itself doesn't officially state that it supports full compatibility.


PS. Maybe because English isn't Charles' native language, I didn't understand a good number of his points (No 2.0 release? What?)

He's french actually. His point was that maybe noone would care if the distro was either or all of these points, but he stated that all three points are wrong (it's actually opposite) and that Ubuntu actually is thus very influential and important for the GNU/Linux and Debian world which also makes the whole compatibility and state of Ubuntu an important issue. Ian Murdoch has well stated that it is exactly interoperability and compatibility which allowed the whole Debian sphere to avoid the mess RPM based distros are in (i.e Mandriva, RedHat, SuSE etc.) They only keep the lineage, but you would be risking to use RPM from RedHat in say Mandriva. Ubuntu seems to be going the same road.. something he doesn't approve as well as good deal of the Debian community. What we want to know is why does Ubuntu do that? And also we need to determine for once if Ubuntu is really Debian or is it becoming something new.

As I posted on LXer; Is Ubuntu Debian or not?


Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


Yeah, I agree. It's probably bringing more to a debian base than away from it. I used Mandrake for a long time, on servers and desktop. While what I really wanted was the "debian system" the packages were older than Jesus, and that didn't work well when I wanted to develop apps that take use of new features in PHP, Mysql, Apache, etc... Unless I wanted to recompile all those apps myself, which I didn't. Or to use it on my desktop with a new laptop and wanted it to support my newer hardware out of the box rather than spend hours searching and compiling and configuring drivers.

Then I found Ubuntu, it was a debian system that had packages that didn't pre-date the Amiga! And I was happy.

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


knoppix is not any more compatible with debian than ubuntu is, on the contrary, knoppix mixes packages from different debian tracks and makes custom changes, that make installing or upgrading packages from debian an excercise that should only be attempted by expert debian users.

each ubuntu release on the other hand is a clean rebuild of a debian unstable snapshot, and the incompatibility of ubuntu and debian in reality is not more then the incompatibility between different debian versions. as such ubuntu releases are just additional sets of debian versions.

as long as ubuntu changes are contributed back to debian, this is no fork. i am happily using both, while on the other hand i stay away from using knoppix for anything else but a livecd.

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