SimplyMEPIS 3.4-3, which is scheduled for release today, has been quite a challenge to build, according to Woodford. "It's taking up all my time, fighting the Etch pool.... We've had a lot of trouble, because the Debian community has become so active, it's been difficult to get this out, so I'm looking at alternatives to getting out stable releases."
For example, Woodford noted that udev support has been slow to stabilize throughout Etch, which has caused problems in building a stable MEPIS distro based on Etch. "There's not anything to fault, it's simply the fact that Debian is more engineering conscious, and has a more methodical approach to getting a release out every year and a half.... It's not that Etch is broken, but just that Etch is changing a lot."
While Woodford stressed that the rapid change going on in Debian is good for the Debian project itself, he noted that it does make it more difficult for those who might want to base a distribution on Debian Etch.
In the past, the Debian project moved more slowly. Woodford started working on MEPIS in November 2002. Debian Sarge had been in development for a few months after the release of Debian Woody in July 2002, and would stay in development for nearly three years. Companies such as Xandros, Linspire, and MEPIS built distros off of Sarge with relatively few problems because it was less difficult to keep up with the pace of development.
Ubuntu, on the other hand, has a predictable release cycle and roadmap that may make it more suitable as a base distro.
MEPIS is also a member of the Debian Common Core Alliance, and Woodford is involved in that project. However, Woodford said that he isn't ready to build the MEPIS distribution on top of the DCCA because "it's unclear where the DCC is going."
Building a distribution from scratch is out of the question, according to Woodford. "We'd probably need 10, 15, 20 people who are building packages to really duplicate the effort of what Debian and Ubuntu and Fedora do."
According to Woodford, MEPIS has only three part-time people who help with marketing, support, and filling orders. Woodford does all of the actual development for MEPIS, and that means that MEPIS needs to have a foundation like Debian or Ubuntu.
Ubuntu developer Jeff Waugh seemed receptive to the idea of MEPIS building on Ubuntu. "Ubuntu is a great platform and community to work with, and it's awesome to see more developers getting involved, fashioning Ubuntu to their own needs and the needs of their users." Waugh also noted that Guadalinex, Impi Linux, MoLinux, VMware's browser appliance, and a number of live CDs are also based on Ubuntu.
MEPIS will remain MEPIS
Woodford has already polled MEPIS users about the possibility of basing the distro's kernel off of Ubuntu, and found that about half of MEPIS users were in favor of whatever direction he wished to take the project. The other users, he said, "are split between 'I love Debian' and 'I hate Ubuntu.'" However, Woodford acknowledged that the results may be skewed by the fact that it's unlikely many Ubuntu fans were visiting the site to participate in the poll.
He also noted that there seems to be some misunderstanding about what it would mean for MEPIS if it were to be based on Ubuntu. If the distribution becomes an Ubuntu derivative rather than a Debian derivative, Woodford said that end users would see little impact. The tools that users are used to, the installer, and other features unique to MEPIS would not change. "MEPIS is not a tweaked Debian, inside it's Debian, but the part that people touch, people who like graphical user interfaces, are not going to know it's Debian underneath."
Instead, MEPIS would simply begin using Ubuntu's package repositories in the way that MEPIS now uses Debian's. In some ways, MEPIS would have the same relationship to Ubuntu that Ubuntu has with Debian.
What the future holds
One bonus to considering Ubuntu is that it may make it easier for MEPIS to provide an AMD64 version in addition to the x86 version that is available now. Woodford said that he did consider an AMD64 version previously, but at the time "Debian was still shaking out how to handle 32-bit applications in a 64-bit environment." If MEPIS moves to Ubuntu, however, Woodford predicted it would be possible to provide an AMD64 version "right away."
In addition, MEPIS users could look forward to more regular releases. Woodford said he'd like to move to a six month development cycle, like the one employed by Ubuntu now.
MEPIS is frequently criticized by some in the Linux community over the licensing of its scripts and installer. Woodford said that he has committed to releasing the installer under the GPL by the time for the next version, and that "it's news to me that the scripts were not GPLed already. I don't consider any scripts to be proprietary." He said he would make an effort to make sure that any scripts without a clear licensing statement would be modified to include one by the next release as well.
At this time, Woodford is ready to evaluate Ubuntu as an option, but not ready to commit completely. "I'm not committed 100 percent to Ubuntu yet, I'm looking at Ubuntu.... I need to vet it before I can say that absolutely."
However, if the tests pan out, Woodford said that MEPIS users can probably expect a new release of MEPIS in the May timeframe, about 30 days after the Dapper Drake release of Ubuntu.
In the end, Woodford said he's going to try to do what's right for MEPIS users. "I am trying to be sensitive to the needs of the MEPIS community and MEPIS users, and will be considering their input while making a decision on this.