September 1, 2006

Maintainer's resignation highlights problems in Debian project

Author: Bruce Byfield

The resignation of Matthew Garrett, one of the most active developers in Debian, has drawn attention to some ongoing issues about how the project operates. Specifically, Garrett's announcement on his blog cites a lack of civility and a slowness in decision-making, and compares Debian unfavorably to Ubuntu, the Debian-derived distribution which is increasingly attracting the efforts of many Debian maintainers.

Garrett did not hold any office in Debian, although he was a candidate for project leader in 2005. However, he has been consistently active in policy discussions and an active poster on the debian-devel and debian-legal mailing lists. In addition, he has been one of four members of Ubuntu's technical board, and doing work on laptop support for Ubuntu. He is described as "high-profile" by Benjamin Mako Hill, another active Debian maintainer. Steve McIntyre, who is currently acting as assistant to the Debian Leader says, "Most of the Debian Developers are sorry to see Matthew leave." Some, like McIntyre himself, have blogged about it.

The criticisms

In his own blog, Garrett relates his gradual discovery that Debian's free-for-all discussions were making him intensely irritable and unhappy with other members of the community. He contrasts Debian's organization with Ubuntu's more formal structure. In particular, he mentions Ubuntu's code of conduct, which is enforced on the distribution's mailing lists, suggesting that it "helps a great deal in ensuring that discussions mostly remain technical." He also approves of Ubuntu's more formal structure as "a pretty explicit acknowledgment that not all developers are equal and some are possibly more worth listening to than others." Then, in reference to Mark Shuttleworth, the founder and funder of Ubuntu, Garrett says, "At the end of the day, having one person who can make arbitrary decisions and whose word is effectively law probably helps in many cases."

Expanding on these remarks to NewsForge, Garrett said, "The biggest problem with Debian is probably the idea that every developer's voice is equal. It's clear that this isn't really true -- people tend to end up in positions to make decisions due to merit rather than popular acclaim, and there's no obligation on the people in these positions to listen to everyone. It tends to lead to prolonged discussion as the developers fight amongst themselves because everyone feels that they need to make their opinion clear in case it's ignored."

Even more seriously, he claims, many Debian developers no longer participate in public discussions, and such decision-making as occurs goes on in private in "poorly advertised (or even secret) IRC channels used by smaller groups in order to be able to get work done." He concludes that "Debian's online communication shows little sign of being a real, functional community."

"There's a balance to be struck between organisational freedom and organisational effectiveness," he concludes in his blog. "I'm not convinced that Debian has that balance right as far as forming a working community goes. In that respect, Ubuntu's an experiment -- does a more rigid structure and a greater willingness to enforce certain social standards result in a more workable community?"


Debian developers are restrained about discussing their reactions to Garrett's comments publicly. Many prefer to confine their comments to the debian-private mailing list, away from the eyes of the media. However, from both what is said and not said, it is clear that Garrett's resignation has caused a stir.

The reaction is not due to Garrett saying anything new. Lack of civility and frustration with the slowness of Debian's decision-making are frequently mentioned on Debian's mailing lists, and solutions have been part of the platforms for many candidates for Debian Leader in the past few years. Rather, Garrett's comments, to say nothing of his decision to remain active in Ubuntu while resigning from Debian, have re-emphasized these issues -- especially since his decision is the same as that of several other Debian developers, notably Scott James Remnant, another current member of Ubuntu's technical board. Hill, who also works on Ubuntu, may speak for many when he expresses surprise at such decisions, explaining, "I've always felt my allegiance very much to the old project -- to Debian first."

If anything, those who are willing to speak publicly take Garrett's comments as a given. Asked if the comments are true, McIntyre replied simply, "Of course," then goes on to say that frustration with the way that Debian operates is "not uncommon." As examples of the slowness in decision-making, McIntyre cites the decisions needed to ensure that etch, the next release of Debian, is ready in December. Another example that McIntyre offers is the debate over non-free software that remains in Debian's main repository, which many developers would prefer to reserve only for software that meets the Debian Free Software Guidelines.

"There are issues in trying to push 1,000 developers in the same direction," McIntyre says. Because of strong differences in opinion by leading developers, he adds, "We've been finding it difficult to get consensus on some of the proposals suggested."

McIntyre acknowledges that civility has been a problem in the past, but considers it "a minor one recently." However, Hill, who wrote Ubuntu's code of conduct, would disagree. In the past, Hill says, the reaction from much of the community to complaints about civility has been, "This is the Debian project. We run on fear. Grow a skin or get out."

As a result of such attitudes, Hill says,"There's a lot of frustration in the Debian community. There's a real culture of flame wars, and there's real inertia and frustration." He hopes that Garrett's resignation will give the Debian community an added impetus to adapt its own code of conduct, like the one proposed by Enrico Zini.

Debian's future

Hill suggests that while Ubuntu's more structured approach may allow for quicker progress and an atmosphere that some developers prefer, Debian continues to have a unique role in the free software community. Debian, Hill suggests, is "the ultimate in institutional independence. This is a place where anyone can come, and it's not controlled by a single institution or corporation. That's still an incredibly valuable thing that's going to attract lots of people."

Summing up the impact of Garrett's announcement, Hill concludes, "This isn't Debian's death throes or anything. I just hope that it wakes people up."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, and IT Manager's Journal.


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