Ted Ts'o: Debian Can Learn from Ubuntu

Dec 29, 2008

Newly appointed CTO of the Linux Foundation and kernel developer Ted Ts'o is appealing to the Debian project to adopt a more pragmatic attitude about its Linux distro. The provocation for his advice is the current controversy over Debian's next 5.0 "Lenny" release.

The debate over the free and proprietary aspects of the Debian GNU/Linux has been whirling up for a while and with each new update to the OS. It peaked recently with the call for votes to determine the course of the Lenny release and Debian's social contract, which ended in the resignation of the project's secretary, Manoj Srivastava. The prominent Linux developer and CTO of the Linux Foundation, Ted Ts'o, responded to the debate in a recent blog, using a quote from Gordon Dickson's Tactics of Mistakes. The book treats of philosophers and how their militant followers pursue their ideas uncompromisingly. Ts'o writes, "The conflict between idealism and pragmatism is a very old one in the Free and Open Source Software Movement." He gives Richard Stallman as an example of someone "who has never compromised on issues regarding his vision of Software Freedom."

Particularly offensive to some Debian developers might be Ts'o's assertion that the Debian derivative Ubuntu could provide a positive model. Despite not always agreeing with Mark Shuttleworth on all matters or on his leadership of Canonical and the Ubuntu Linux variant, Ts'o is nonetheless sympathetic with the rules Shuttleworth instituted for Ubuntu, its Code of Conduct. He suggests that Debian developers should take "some kind of Code of Conduct at least as seriously as the Social Contract" and believes that the Debian project "would be far more efficient... and far more successful." He goes on say, "This may, however, require lessening the importance of philosophical constructs such as Free Speech and Free Software, and perhaps becoming more pragmatic and more considerate towards one another."

The wording of Debian's Social Contract is part of the problem, says Ts'o. He quotes the first paragraph, which reads, "Debian will remain 100% free... We will never make the system require the use of a non-free component." Ts'o finds fault with the expressions "100% free" and "never" in that they hardly allow for compromise: "In addition, the Debian Social Contract tends to be interpreted by computer programmers, who view such imperatives as constraints that must never be violated, under any circumstances." Ts'o cites numerous examples, relevant to the current Holiday season, where rules such as "Though shalt not kill" or "Though shalt not steal" have been broken justifiably and relativized due to war, hunger or other life conditions. He asks, "So if even the sixth and eighth commandments admit to exceptions, why is it that some Debian developers approach the first clause of the Debian Social Contract with a take-no-prisoners, no-exceptions policy?" He points to the particular fourth clause that states "We will be guided by the needs of our users and the free software community. We will place their interests first in our priorities." For him, that presupposes exceptions and flexibility.

Ts'o asserts his own feelings with "I personally believe that '100% free software' is a wonderful aspirational goal, but in particular with regards to standards documents and firmware, there are other considerations that should be taken into account." As to the vehemence and tone of the recent debate, Ts'o finds a further example in the Biblical rule "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" and adds the words, "Even for those who do not claim Christianity as their religious tradition, most moral and ethical frameworks have some variant on the Golden Rule: 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'." He warns against moving Free Software "dangerously close" to a form of idolatry. "Ultimately," he say, "I consider people to be more important than computers, hardware or software."

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  • great post

    Thanks a lot for sharing the article on cash. That's a awesome article. I enjoyed the article a lot while reading. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article.I want to say very thank you for this great informations. now i understand about it. Thank you !
  • Love Debian Squeeze - Pragmatic or otherwise

    Great to see many positive messages about the Debian project.

    Now is a great time to demonstrate your commitment and help the final
    preparations for Debian Squeeze.

    If you have some spare time and quite like the idea of a bit of beta testing then
    do download Debian Squeeze from here:

    Just to be double clear Squeeze installer is today labelled Alpha1 but you should
    expect to find the occasional bug perhaps and help the effort by reporting it [ nicely happy ]

    For the benefit of kb0hae, my version of OpenOffice on Debian Squeeze is 3.2
    It is not entirely free from bugs just yet, and really probably does deserve to be "held up"
    a little longer, whilst those bugs are (a) reported and (b) triaged into critical and minor and
    (c) fixed as appropriate

    MattW: "Debian has the guts to do this right: Remain 100% Free"

  • debian.. slow good?

    It's good to have Debian as a slowly progressing stable base, but...

    The world moves much faster than Debian does. New hardware is released that need new drivers. New processors (e.g. Nehalem) may have useful (and non-useful) features/tweaks. I can't get Debian install CDs to work on some of our new hardware because it doesn't seem to recognize it!

    Ubuntu seems a reasonable compromise: built on a stable base but keeping pace with the more rapid change of environments. (Not every runs Linux on a hand-me-down machine with mature/old-enough hardware for public-domain drivers to exist!) For me Ubuntu is about making Linux ACCESSIBLE!
  • I strongly disagree with the author...

    and stand by the Debian community's present dedication to a "100% free" policy. For the same reasons others wiser than myself, have already posted. This, from an Ubuntu user, newly migrated from Windoze to Linux.

    I might add that, comparing Debian's philosophy to any of the ten commandments (especially MURDER) is not only overly dramatic and pathetically obtuse...it implies a certain desperation on Mr. Ts'o's part, and smacks of a hidden agenda (likely, commercial).
  • "Debian+" ?

    I'm a beginner Linux user. I like the idea of free/open source software, but I'm pragmatic. I like the fact that many distributions make it more convenient for users by including proprietary software, etc.

    Having said that, I think that the standard Debian distribution should stay "100% free". I probably wouldn't use it, but Debian has its purposes.

    I don't know much about it, but it seems that Debian serves the purposes of a group of users very well, and the non-use of proprietary software is probably part of that.

    People who are talking about 'business models' and popularity are looking at this the wrong way, IMO. Debian is not a business product, and not every distribution needs to be popular. Debian is filling a niche, and that seems like a good thing.

    HOWEVER, there are clearly some people who want Debian to have the added convenience of some proprietary software. I suggest that a (hopefully) viable solution would be to collect all of the most useful proprietary stuff, and:
    (A) Make it easy for users to add that software all-at-once.
    (B) Release a "Debian+" version of the distribution with the proprietary stuff included. (note: I don't mean a fork! I mean use the standard distribution 'bundled' with the proprietary stuff)

    To me, the above proposal would provide the greatest freedom of choice for users, while not compromising on the principles of Debian.

    Not that my opinion really matters. (I don't really know much about it anyway)
  • It is a religion!

    All this is just a repetition of the debate between St. Augustin and Pelagius about the ten commandments.
    It is well explaind here: Alan Watts podcast "85-SpiritualAuthority2.mp3" (from 1:55 to 3:11)
    In short, Debian stays with the heretic teaching of Pelagius.
    And Ubuntu follows the tradition of the Catholic Church.

    In a word, "catholic" means universal, that is, for all the human beings - Greek adjective καθολικός (katholikos), meaning "universal". - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic
    See also:
    Pelagius and the doctrine of free will

  • YES

    Yes Debian have to remain free. No proprietary stuff !!!
    So if ever some folks change the some laws
    Debian can be were we can turn into again.

    Ubuntu must persuade his users to go and buy only supported hardware not proprietary stuff
    Like Microsoft does the other way around on it's users.
    if it is true that ubuntu has many users , they should convince them to buy only non-proprietary firmwares(hardware)
    Tha'ts a real useful strategy for open-source spreading faster.
    open source firmwares are for human-beings
    proprietary firmwares are for human victims!!!

    Spread open source and secondly spread ubuntu or whatever flavor you may want

  • Debian and Ubuntu

    If Debian can "learn from" Ubuntu then Debian will, eventually, become Ubuntu. We need Debian to remain Debian. If people need proprietary code/drivers, they can always download and do installs themselves.
  • I agree

    I agree with what said, I would like to "keep base Linux distros pure" and free from propriety codes.

    Just in case a future copywrite law suit files against Linux. we still have safe distro we can fell back to.

    but allow an easy way for the users to add if they please a propriety codecs/drivers to there installation.

    PS. its not like there is lack of many forks already provide ready out of the box installation,
  • Debian has the guts to do this right: Remain 100% Free

    The commercial world really wants to break in to the Linux world and is trying many approaches to keep a tight grip on the technologies that they want to control.

    Its a slippery slope - if Distros start relying on Commercial/Non-Free stuff, then they lose their freedom. They put commercial interests in the driving seat and they take a backseat.

    The pollution of Linux Distributions with proprietary/non-free elements is enevitable, but should be resisted and alternatives built whereever possible. These BLOB's hold back the state of the art and should be avoided at all costs.

    Yes, its annoying to have "Icedove" instead of firefox... but it illustrates a very important point about freedom and copyright. Someone has to hold the line. There are many users out there who love Linux, but dont understand the blood sweat and tears that went in to building an open system in a climate where none existed before.

    There will always be those who want to enjoy the fruits of other's labor - but the folks that are doing the work really need to help those folks understand what is at stake for developers.

    We should keep an eye on this Ted Ts'o character - he could be under a lot of corporate pressure to soften the important open-source hard line position that Linux has taken over the years.

    This argument that "philosophers are ruthless people" is ridiculous and I would look for big corporate interests behind any push to weaken/relax open source/free rules and behind any effort to discredit folks like Richard Stallman - who is an eccentric guy, but has all the right ideas about how Free software needs to be done. Read him.


    What happens if Canonical gets a majority share of them bought out by sun microsystems and they start releasing a non-free version of the distro with the Solaris Kernel ? I bet people will be happy that Debian stayd the course and remained 100% free.


  • ownership

    Most of us, we have sometimes more than one Windows computer anyway, we pay for hardware and, as idea of free Open source is very romantic, we do have the right to use our property: the drivers and programs that we own. I sympathize with those who do release varies variants of the main distributions of linux, with instructions and sources how to make system work... with and without proprietary software.
    I am only end-user but where is my freedom of choice and why should I trash things I already paid for?

    PS. Till now all of you - you did most wonderful job developing Linux and I will always be very grateful to you all for it! No matter how much you argue and will disagree...
  • Why rivalry?

    I'm always puzzled at the Debian vs. Ubuntu comparisons.

    I can't write well, so I will throw a question to start you thinking: would Debian become a foundation for Ubuntu (and many other distros) if it had the free vs. proprietary compromises implemented?

    Something tells me that Debian is great in its own way. Debian serves different purpose and pretty much unique in the way it deals of OSS community. Debian sets its own standard and the fact that it still exists (and internal flamewars just confirm that there are lots of people committed) says to me that the standard works.

    Compromise on inclusion of single piece of proprietary software, would open road to more pressure (from people willing to monetize) to include more proprietary software what would eventually lead to divide in the community and slow death of Debian. That would also mean slow death of many distributions which depend on it: few can pull trick of building and packaging whole system from scratch by themselves. Big distros like Ubuntu backed by business would survive, but the universal distro "for all of us" would be gone.

    As Debian Sid (Sidux) user I can only attest that Debian as a whole works and is extremely useful.
  • oops

    ...The last partial paragraph was hiding at the bottom of my text box :P

    the thought was that absolute democracy rarely works, and is incapable of strategy... this explains the the success of the "benevolent dictator" approach to Ubuntu.

  • where ubuntu gets it right

    If pushing (making incremental improvements) the envelope of the user experience is key, regular releases are the way to go. My observation thus far with Ubuntu Vs Debian is that regular releases bring more functional features than instability. This is in turn yields a net improvement in the overall experience incrementally, and progressively. keeping "not perfect" code hidden in development or unstable branches ignores the massive feedback loop that Linux is so dependent on for continuous improvement. Forcing users to go find and get their own non-free code when there are significant benefits making it simple and streamlines, is just a downer... A textbook example of inflexible purist sentiment, that while perhaps philosophically valid, is rarely useful or constructive. Shuttleworth seems to get that...

    Coming to Linux from windows about about a year and a half ago, Ubuntu drew me in with enough stuff that "just worked" to get me started... To be honest... Compiz and other X eye candy and the fact that Ubuntu made it *easy* for new-to-linux people to jump into the 3d Desktop love-fest was a huge attraction. The "bad press" from the uber free software types served a purpose... just not the one they intended. It clearly telegraphed to people like myself that there was at least one distribution that was focusing on building a rich experience, and take the fight to commercial OS(es) at the consumer level. I bit, and am really satisfied with my experience thus far.

    The notion of Debian being a pure democracy that only releases "ready" code (which is a subjective evaluation) sounds a lot like classic waterfall SDLC... a home for idealists and purists... but not the place where things get done. it's a good comparison, and ultimately explains how and why Ubuntu has managed to take Debian, and do something special with it. I think the entry is right on, and that Ubuntu already has eclipsed Debian in the coming "mainstreaming" of Linux.

    $.02 (x2)

    pure democracy is farcical, and lack cohesion of thought and therefore has no inherent strategy. When I look at Ubuntu, I see a rapidly maturing distribution that actually stands a good chance of bringing significantly
  • Defining Values Cannot Be Compromised

    I disagree.

    Several years ago, after having test-driven several GNU+Linux distributions, I decided that I would stick with but one distribution. I chose Debian.

    The primary reason for which I chose the Debian distribution was the idealism surrounding the ebian Social Contract. To me, Debian is not concerned with pumping out a new version every standard-generic-time-period. Debian's release of new stable versions happens when it happens, like all good things, in the fullness of time.

    It seems to me that Debian subscribes to a different "business" model than some other distributions, and it is this particular "business" model that, in my mind, defines Debian. While other GNU+Linux distributions may have a different release model than Debian, there is, as in all things, a trade-off involved in such different models. The regular release model, it seems to me, in some cases, has resulted in some less-than-perfect releases in the past few years. That is the part of the price for a regular release cycle, and some people are willing to pay that price.

    The Debian model of releasing new stable releases when they are ready, is something that I can live with, and is a part of the trade-off that I am willing to deal with. And I am sure that some other Debian users are willing to accept that trade-off.

    Now, I have been using the testing branch of Debian for years. Thus, I have been running "Lenny" for quite a while, now, as have many other Debian users. I run the testing branch because that is part of eth trade-off involved with using Debian.

    I'm just an unimportant user of Debian, and my opinion is, in the larger scheme of things, irrelevant. But I would rather see the Debian project be unflexible in its principles, and add the non-free blobs to my particular installations of Debian, myself.

    For example, I use the proprietary Nvidia drivers <gasp>. While I suspect that Richard Stallman may get a shiver up his spine everytime someone reads that, it is my decision as an end user to use such the non-free driver. But I believe quite strongly that the Debian project should not compromise one iota on its principals.

    Principals that are compromised, for whatever reason, lack substance.
  • Debian is a democracy

    DFSG are what the name suggests, guidelines. The only thing that matters in the end of the day is the will of the many. If the many so choose, the constitution may be circumvented, ignored, rephrased or overthrown entirely. If the many so choose, Debian can also stop be a democracy. When the author complains about absolutes in Debian, I'm not sure he understands how Debian works. One only has to look in the history of Debian, to see that all major and minor decisions have been the result of voting processes, often in disagreement with the constitution. The author's argument is as pointless as arguing that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" should be reworded to "Thou shalt not kill except under special circumstances". If the author cares about making a difference in Debian there is only one way to do it and that is being part of Debian himself. On the other hand, if he disagrees about the democratic structure of Debian that's another matter entirely.

    kb0hae, when testing is frozen so is unstable. Expect all newer packages including KDE4 after the Lenny release.
  • Ubuntu needs to learn from sidux and Mepis!

    The developers of sidux amd Mepis seem to put a lot more effort into fixing bugs and problems than the developers of Ubuntu. Ubuntu (and Kubuntu) are also missing a couple of administrative tools that sidux and Mepis have, and are very useful. The Debian team needs to get it together as to wheather Lenny (and future releases) will have any proprietary stuff or not. If not, thos who want that type of stuff will find ways to add it themselves. I think that they should not include anything proprietary that is not absolutely necessary, but give instructions and make it easy for users to add what they want.need.

    Just my thoughts on the matter.

    PS. Debian team: STOP HOLDING OpenOffice.org 3 and other new versions of software in Experimental, and let them progress to Unstable , Testing, etc!!!!!!!!
  • Debian code

    To have the 4th amendment state that the needs of the user will be paramount (paraphrasing) and placed first is a paradoxical statement. You have just made a statement and 3 amendments. Then you follow that with a "we will place first" statement. That says to me that there needs to be further thought to what was just stated. It may be best for Debian to finally define itself properly rather than a rethinking of positions or of alterations to current positions. Say what you mean and mean what you say, but make sense in what you say.
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