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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 ?


Sorry for the sloppy editing on my comment.

The second sentence in the paragraph after the quotation from the DCC FAC should read:

Ubuntu is just the kind of "cutting-edge" distro given by DCC itself as not being an adopter of DCC.

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

Unfortunately the situation is not quite that simple. Mark Shuttleworth first started Ubuntu because he wanted more power to influence the way Debian is developed but with all his money he couldn't get that kind of power. Debian is the one GNU/Linux distribution that no money in the world can buy. Ever.

Now, if Debian accepted all the code that Ubuntu contributes, then this would in fact mean that Shuttleworth gets to decide the direction that Debian's development will take. In other words, Ubuntu takes the lead and provides Debian with patches that allow it to follow Ubuntu's trail. But it doesn't actually work this way. Many of the patches that Ubuntu contributes to Debian fix Ubuntu-specific bugs that don't exist in Debian, while at the same time breaking things in Debian.

So Debian chooses which patches it finds useful, ignoring others. Binary compatibility between Ubuntu and Debian would obviously benefit both parties but it's not really Debian's responsibility to make changes to keep that compatibility -- it's Ubuntu that has to make changes if they deem such compatibility desirable. Shuttleworth/Canonical/Ubuntu still has no power at all to dictate how Debian is developed. The developers of both Ubuntu and Debian understand this situation quite clearly but not all users seem to understand it.

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?

Some things said in comments to this article clear up some things about Ubuntu and Debian in my mind, at least to some extent.

Although I can't say I am 100% without doubt. I think it would be a good idea to write a followup article that'll take into account all that has been said in reaction to this one and attempt to "clear up" some things about this issue and maybe an issue as a whole.

I made a poll, in order to see what everybody finally thinks about Ubuntu being a derivate or a fork. Please take it and vote here:

Thank you

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


Now, if Debian accepted all the code that Ubuntu contributes, then this would in fact mean that Shuttleworth gets to decide the direction that Debian's development will take. In other words, Ubuntu takes the lead and provides Debian with patches that allow it to follow Ubuntu's trail. But it doesn't actually work this way. Many of the patches that Ubuntu contributes to Debian fix Ubuntu-specific bugs that don't exist in Debian, while at the same time breaking things in Debian.

And sometimes DDs are blind on patches/cooperation that UDs send/provide them. Of course not all Ubuntu patches will be applyed in Debian. That would create Ubuntu = Debian situation. And don't be mean. Patches aren't only to fix bugs. You can't say most of gcc4 patches won't work on Debian. Maybe 10 of few hunderts won't, but that's 2% (so it isn't many).

Ubuntu took one direction (wich is tied to Debian), and Debian is on it's own direction. What is important is that there is colaboration and that each side helps other.

Binary compatibility will stay impossible if Debian would have 2-3 years release cycle. It is foolish to expect that desktop distribution could be build on top of 2-3 years old base system. Not that it isn't good, but it's old, and desktop on Linux is developing rapidly.

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


I made a poll, in order to see what everybody finally thinks about Ubuntu being a derivate or a fork.

Eh... You can't say it's derivate, but you can't say it's fork. You said that this debate cleared some things, but you are asking same question as the one on the begining Smiling

Ubuntu is derivate and fork. Definition of fork is that at one moment, development splits and creates new branch without any ties to main branch. So, Ubuntu can't be fork, since it creates system from Debian. It doesn't develop it's last version, but it takes Debians Sid. And it doesn't even take it every 6 months. It does that all the time! Even today, just 2 weeks from releasing new version.

Only few parts of system are developet without Debian (Gnome, Xorg, etc...) and these systems are then ready for Debian to implement. Couse of this few parts, it isn't a derivate.

Benjamin Hill exaplained this well in his presentation:

Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


Eh... You can't say it's derivate, but you can't say it's fork. You said that this debate cleared some things, but you are asking same question as the one on the begining Smiling

I set up a poll merely to sample the communities general opinion on this, not neccesserily because I don't have an opinion. :-)

As for what the debate helped clear up, I'm no longer inclined to believe that the binary compatibility issue neccesserily was something Ubuntu could have avoided, because apparently it was built on sid, unlike other Debian derivates and since sid needs polishing to be usable as a stable distro it could have resulted in slight incompatibility. It is possible this will be resolved in future releases, maybe already with breezy.

And furthermore, your comment in itself explains why I still wouldn't be too sure to believe if Ubuntu is either a fork or derivate. Maybe it is neither. This is why I just added a new option to the poll (before many votes come in), being "neither".


Re: Ubuntu: derivative or fork ?


The more I read blogs such as this, the more I tire of the poor quality of writing. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors abound. And for me, they detract from the image the writers seem to wish to portray as some form of competent journalist, whether amateur or otherwise.

This may also contribute to my main problem with this article. That I am not at all sure I understand, to use the current vernacular, where the writer is "coming from". I fail to see any of the apparent issues raised as being at all significant and cannot imagine how this article moves foward the discussion of the nature of Linux distributions.

In my view, one can choose whether or not to use Ubuntu. There are no shortage of other distributions. One can decide whether one agrees with whatever motives one may choose to attribute to Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical or any of those involved with Ubuntu.

But I find it hard to see in what way Ubuntu in particular, as compared with other available distributions, causes any harm to the "cause" of GNU/Linux, FOSS, and so on.

The fact that Ubuntu has succeeding in drawing new users to the Linux community (community in general) can only be, in my opinion, to its credit.

The author of this piece even states in his own view that Ubuntu is intended "primarily for Linux newbies who use it mainly as a desktop". So if any form of undesirable motive lies behind Ubuntu, which I am inclined, though not immutably, to doubt, there is every likelihood that, once more familiar with the Linux landscape, such users would move on to alternative offerings.

The hints of paranoia and cynicism which taint this article strike me as more the motive behind the writing of it, than any stated desire to "be the starting point of a healthy discussion". Discussion yes, perhaps, but healthy? I am not so sure.




Consider changing wether to whether. Although in the light of recent discussion of Ubuntu naming it was a bit amusing to spot that mistake.

Re: Personally, Ubuntu is better than Debian.


Ubuntu to my mind is a malicious entity as far as Debian is concerned. They draw away developers and users, all the while moving further away from Debian, until eventually it won't be possible to talk about compatibility. It isn't just ABI differences, packages in Ubuntu have different dependencies than the same package in Sid.

I'd love to see Debian deliberately not follow a precedent set by Ubuntu, see how Ubuntu would fare without their base to leech off of. Unfortunately this seems increasingly unlikely, as Ubuntu will have captured enough of debian's developers to be able to continue, leaving debian a husk. One need only look at the slow speed at which the GCC4 transition is proceeding. It's already been done in Ubuntu, it seems no one cares about making sure it finishes with Sid.


I have not used Debian yet, but I am sure Ubuntu is better.

Typically braindead reply. So is your bit about how all distros should use .deb instead of .rpm. I bet what you are impressed by is dependency resolution, not by the format in which software happens to be packaged.. apt-get whatever is just as possible with rpm.

Re: Personally, Ubuntu is better than Debian.


To suggest that Ubuntu "leeches" off of Debian demonstrates a real lack of understanding of the GPL.

If indeed Debian collapses (I really doubt that!), then Ubuntu ... or some other entity ... will continue on. It will work out as it should. Nothing nefarious going on here.


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