Interview On Thursday, the Ubuntu 8.04 magic happens. The operating system - called Hardy Heron at playgrounds around Silicon Valley - goes up for download in its various forms, most notably Server and Desktop.
Like most open source jobs, these Ubuntu OS releases are protracted affairs. Canonical, the corporate body behind Ubuntu, has already told everyone what to expect with the OS during the beta process. We covered most of the major new features last month and won't bore you with the details again.
Thankfully, we can move away from the marketing fluff and head to Shuttleworth country for the real meat behind 8.04 - Canonical's second Long Term Support release to date.
We caught up with Canonical chief Mark Shuttleworth in London to talk software and whatever else came up. Shuttleworth, clad in Nike running gear, had jogged into work before our interview. He hardly smelled at all, which is unusual for your typical Linux developer let alone one who has known of exercise. [Can you still make lame jokes like that nowadays with Intel, IBM, Google and other corporate types funding most of the Linux work? - Ed.]
Anyway, Shuttleworth was in good spirits as usual and particularly proud that Canonical hit the LTS mark on schedule.
"We are now confident that we can narrow the window for the next LTS down to two years," he told us. "Previously, we had said 18 months to 36 months.
"We know when the next LTS will be probably with better confidence than we know when Windows 7 will ship. I would take that bet."
Now that Canonical has its own house in order, Shuttleworth would like to see all of the Linux heavies synchronize the major releases of their operating systems.
We would be quite willing to revisit the elements of our release schedule in order to make that synchronicity possible, if the fact that we happen to do April and October wouldn't work for the majority of the distros. We would be flexible in that regard.
Timing your releases drives a whole bunch of things. It means a greater ability to collaborate on bug fixes. If we are on the same versions of the Linux kernel, it is a lot easier for us to say, 'Hey, here is this patch to make this device work. Do you know any reason why we shouldn't put it in?'
You could just get so much more done at an engineering level between the teams. My engineers regularly collaborate with Novell and Red Hat and, of course, Debian. Barriers to that sort of collaboration are sometimes ideological but, in most cases, are just practical things. We are just on a different version so someone else's patch isn't going to apply. There's a bit of friction there.
You can understand the isolationist stance of Red Hat and Novell - well, at least of Red Hat. Why should the big daddy distro go to any lengths to help out an upstart like Canonical, even if it means saving a bit on bug patching and the like. But, hey, who are we to stop Shuttleworth from dreaming.
While the major Linux makers fail to agree on some of these basics, they are continuing to prove that open source and free software can trump the proprietary model, according to Shuttleworth.
For example, the executive is giddy about the inclusion of the Wubi installer with Hardy Heron. This software package lets you run Ubuntu on a Windows machine without bothering to set up a dedicated partition. So, you can play with Ubuntu and see if you like it while avoiding a major disk commitment.
What I really like is that Canonical didn't invent it. It was a community guy decided this was possible, and he worked through the community process and got it in. And it is a major feature for this release.
The harshest criticism that we have heard from the proprietary companies about open source and free software was that it couldn't innovate - that it was just about copying what they have done. I felt that very keenly that, 'Gee, they are missing the point here.'
Yes, there is a race to parity. Once you are at parity, though, there is much more innovation that happens in the open source space than in the proprietary space because you don't have a linear decision making process. In a proprietary company, any guy at any level can nuke a good idea.
Shuttleworth is also moved by Canonical's support of Magnatune - a kind of pick-your-own-price online music distributor.
"I am particularly glad that we are supporting Magnatune, which has articulated a really good future for the music industry," Shuttleworth said. "The problem with the music industry has not been the musicians; it has not been the music; and it has not been downloads. It has been the record companies.
"So to have a record company that says, 'Well, there is a better way to do this' feels like a good thing for us to support. So, that's groovy."
Groovy it may be, but some very faithful Ubuntu users think that support for Magnatune and the like represents a lack of focus on Canonical's part.
Meet Martin Owens, the Ubuntu Massachusetts LoCo leader.
Owens spotted our story on the Hardy Heron beta and claimed that all was not as well as it seemed with the release.
For example, Canonical touted the inclusion of the PulseAudio sound server with the desktop OS. Canonical hoped the PulseAudio support would help Linux get past some very annoying and archaic audio issues with Linux.
Owens, however, noted that the Pulse dump brings some problems.
"The inclusion of PulseAudio is much coveted mainly because the geeks with the biggest voice see the features of being able to control each application's volume levels as very attractive," he told us. "What we're moving from is Alsa, but that's not quite true because it's really more of a case of adding another sound system to the existing set.
"So far, Ubuntu comes with Alsa as its main audio system but also needs to support OSS (Open Sound System) because there are plenty of proprietary apps that still use it. It also includes EDS - the sound system developed by Gnome - which was still being used for Gnome system sounds. The combination of all these sound systems creates a lot of work for testers, and you have to wonder if PulseAudio fixes the real problems people have with audio such as the ability to record simple audio without having to reroute their sound system."
When we peppered Shuttleworth with this line of thinking, he remarked, "I am glad you are not into video editing because the story there is worse."
After we shared a good chuckle, he then confessed that the audio situation is not where he would like it.
Audio editing is in this messy situation where, if you know what you are doing, you can get it to work, but it shouldn't be that way.
This is the sort of thing where being able to sit around the table with the other distros and say, 'We are all going to ship Polypaudio makes sense.'
There would be pain associated with that with people saying, 'How dare the distros tell us what we should do.' But, at least there would be clear guidance to the application writers as to what would be good to support.
This is a messy situation. I don't want to abdicate by saying that no one else has a better solution. Primarily, we need to do better by collaborating with other distros.
Back to Owens' larger point about a lack of focus, the developer said the big dogs at Canonical and within the Ubunutu community may have too much sway over feature creep. He pointed to rather maniacal virtualization support as one troubling example.
"Team Canonical bought into the virtualization hype by slotting KVM into the Ubuntu kernel," he told us. "I have to wonder whether or not this move caters more to Canonical's business needs than the suggested larger goals for Ubuntu of mass adoption.
"Much of Ubuntu's success to date has been tied to a maniacal focus on the desktop. But now we're seeing that focus whittled away by the rise of more platform projects that manage to gain prominent billing as well as proprietary enterprise solutions that the community might see as eating into developer time."
Similar issues are cropping up on the developer front as well, according to Owens.
"Well-known developers can flag up issues and have them dealt with in an expedient manner," he said. "This is in part due to their good standing but also because they know how to navigate the system.
"Unfortunately, many developers will find that their bug reports are ignored and their contributions are deemed a nuisance simply because they don't know the ways of the bureaucracy. All FOSS projects face similar issues, but it's time for Ubuntu fans to realize that agile bug fixing will fade as the size of the project increases."
Shuttleworth takes such gripes very seriously or at least he said as much.
"It is cutting criticism because Martin is in the know," Shuttleworth said. "He is not a fringe guy. I would very much like to address his concerns."
"I am very conscious of the real stresses that happen when there is sort of universal expectations that a particular platform or piece of software will meet everyone's needs. The thing that I hope is that free software is the answer here - that folks will take Ubunutu and fork it to meet the needs of the people we are failing in a particular way. To me, that is healthy and the source of some relief."
Looking forward, Shuttleworth would like to see Ubuntu expand its reach on a couple of fronts.
For one, Canonical expects to open an office in Asia at some point and perhaps one in Silicon Valley as well.
In addition, Canonical wants to bring more server makers on board with Ubuntu.
Sun will certify Hardy Heron with some of its x86 gear, and Shuttleworth hopes HP, IBM and Dell will follow this lead.
We'll have more from Shuttleworth later this week. ®