February 9, 2007

Linspire to be based on Ubuntu

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Yesterday, Linspire and Canonical issued a joint announcement that Linspire would begin to base its distributions on Ubuntu rather than Debian, and that Ubuntu users would be able to use CNR to install proprietary applications and drivers, starting with the Feisty Fawn release.

Linspire will begin basing the Linspire and Freespire distributions on Ubuntu beginning with Freespire 2.0, which will be based on the next release of Ubuntu, Feisty Fawn. Feisty is expected in April, and Freespire users will start seeing preview releases based on it sometime in the first quarter of the year, with a final release in the second quarter after the release of Feisty.

Kevin Carmony, CEO of Linspire, says that this move is not sudden development. Carmony says that he met with Ubuntu founder and Canonical CEO Mark Shuttleworth "three years ago or something" and started the process of thinking about collaboration. In the meantime, Linspire had joined the DCC Alliance (DCCA) (originally "Debian Common Core Alliance") and had announced that it would base its distribution on a DCC release.

However, that never happened, and Carmony acknowledges that the DCCA is not really relevant at this point. "It's never been formally addressed, but there hasn't been a lot of momentum there." Carmony also says he's "more of a fan" of letting the marketplace create standards, which Ubuntu has done, where the DCCA failed to take off.

Linspire is just the latest distro to switch from Debian to Ubuntu, though it may be the highest-profile distribution to do so. Ubuntu has become popular for derivative distributions, and a number of projects that were originally based on Debian have moved to Ubuntu. The first high-profile switch was MEPIS, which announced a switch almost one year ago to the day.

Since MEPIS has already gone down this path, I asked MEPIS founder Warren Woodford about his experience making the switch, and whether moving to Ubuntu presented any drawbacks. Woodford seems pleased with the switch.

"Using Ubuntu has worked well for us, primarily due to the package pools remaining stable and the new releases coming quickly.... There have been no disadvantages from using Ubuntu instead of Debian, except perhaps that the public perception in some circles seems to pigeonhole us as just a knockoff of Ubuntu, not worth looking at, because we must be the same as Ubuntu, which is, of course, 1,000% wrong."

Are other distros in talks with Canonical? Steve George, Canonical's director of support and services, says that Canonical is in talks with other vendors, and says, "I think you'll see some announcements next week about other people using us as a platform."

Effect on Debian?

One might wonder whether this is having any adverse effect on Debian, with Ubuntu gaining additional downstream users that (at least theoretically) may channel energy into Ubuntu rather than Debian. I tried to get Debian Project Leader Anthony Towns to comment on the announcement, but Towns did not reply to requests for comment in time for this story.

Woodford's comments suggest that Ubuntu is eclipsing Debian. "I think Mark has done a masterful job of nudging the community into a more pragmatic point of view. More and more the Debian community is becoming the Ubuntu community. New people coming in are allowed to have diverse opinions about open source software. The hardcore purists are sticking with Debian, but five years from now, they may be about as plentiful as 1970s MIT hackers."

Carmony says that it's "hard to say" whether the trend favoring Ubuntu will have a downside for Debian. "Even with Ubuntu, a lot of work with Ubuntu still starts at Debian.... I think it's just a matter of where developers put their emphasis, and now there's a lot of good work with Ubuntu. It's good for open source and good for Linux.... No matter where that focal point is, it's good that there's a focal point."

Shuttleworth says that there's "always been a slight tension between Debian and its derivatives," but says that Canonical invests "a lot of time and effort in collaboration with Debian, which many other derivatives just don't have the resources to do.

"Of course, that interface is never friction-free, but it exists, and we constantly work to maintain and improve it. My hope is that folks that derive from Ubuntu will benefit from that effort, because work they do in collaboration with us stands a reasonable chance of making it into Debian if it is of general interest."

CNR in Ubuntu

Linspire opened up CNR last month, but Ubuntu is the first distro to announce support for it. The CNR component will not replace Ubuntu's standard package management utilities, but will instead be an additive component to the distro, according to George.

Shuttleworth says that there has been demand for CNR from the Ubuntu community. "We've watched the discussion in the Ubuntu Forums and it's clear many people want the CNR service, so I'm thrilled that Linspire is making it available to Ubuntu users now."

Carmony says that users will have two options. One will be to use the customized CNR software provided by Ubuntu, and the other will be to download a "plugin" from Linspire which will provide a "pure CNR experience." The customized version is unlikely to be available by the Feisty release, so users will have to start with the "pure" CNR version from Linspire.

According to Carmony, Linspire isn't paying Canonical support or engineering fees for building Linspire and Freespire on Ubuntu. However, he says there will be revenue sharing when Ubuntu users buy software through the CNR Warehouse. "With CNR users can buy DVD players, CrossOver Office ... the margin in that [sale] we share with the vendor."

Shuttleworth says that the terms are confidential. "There are some distributions with which we do have a commercial relationship, and others where we do not. We do work hard to be open to work with noncommercial partners, and of course Canonical is only a small part of the overall Ubuntu community now. Nevertheless, some distributions that derive from Ubuntu do tap into our expertise and technology on straight commercial terms."

It will be interesting to see how beneficial the switch is for Linspire. Woodford called the decision "a big leap of faith for Linspire."

"They have to let go of their old business mentality and go with the flow of open source. With a Debian base, they used to repackage everything to be incompatible with Debian. I suspect that Mark insisted that they stop doing that. With CNR they are opening up their code, which means that anyone can potentially use it to compete with them. That takes some cojones, or maybe it's an act of desperation. I am not in position to say which it is."

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