June 28, 2006

Ubuntu Developer Summit Paris: New alliances, new horizons

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

Last week, more than 60 Ubuntu developers met in Paris to plan Ubuntu's next release, codenamed Edgy Eft. Officially, the meeting was billed as a developer summit and not a conference. Each day, groups of two to 10 attendees brainstormed, drafted, and advanced specifications in more than 60 sessions in up to 10 parallel tracks. These specifications, which will stabilize in the next week, will then be prioritized and approved by Canonical staff and will serve as the feature goals for the next release.

My previous report from the conference gave a brief tour of some of the specifications discussed. While specifications provide a window into the feature goals of each Ubuntu release, each developer summit also attempts to initiate conversations, introduce new ideas and partners, and sow the seeds for major Ubuntu initiatives in the future. Through explicit invitations and use of sponsorship funds to bring "outsiders" to the conference, new faces and topics at the developer summits can give clues to Canonical's priorities and to Ubuntu's future.

For example, in Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (Dapper Drake), developers tried to highlight the capability of Ubuntu to run on servers. Accordingly, several members of the then-less-advanced server term were in Montreal for the previous Ubuntu conference.

The following projects each had representatives at the most recent summit in Paris and may represent people, groups, or technologies to watch in Edgy or in future Ubuntu releases.

KDE

Ubuntu has quickly become many GNOME developers' distribution of choice, and Ubuntu CDs are frequently given out at GNOME booths at trade shows. The same can hardly be said for KDE and the Kubuntu project. There is a persistent sense by many in the KDE community that their desktop is a second-class citizen in Ubuntu. Canonical seemed to be trying to address this feeling by bringing a number of new faces from KDE to the conference. As a result, KDE was more strongly represented at UDS-Paris than at any previous Ubuntu conference. Klaus Knopper, author of the famous KDE-based Knoppix live CD, was also in attendance.

Canonical employs one developer to do full-time work on KDE packages -- roughly the same as its GNOME packages. However, the number of core Ubuntu developers that use GNOME and assume its presence during testing and feature development remains vastly skewed in favor of GNOME. It is unclear if Canonical will be able to change feelings about Kubuntu's role in the community in the next development cycle or has committed or marshaled funding, or encouraged the necessary community resources, to make any meaningful change.

Ubuntu Forums

Ubuntu was launched without Web forums of any kind. Ryan Troy filled this gap by creating and initially sponsoring the Ubuntu Forums on his own. Rather than creating competing forums, Ubuntu blessed Ryan's forums as "official" and then later shifted hosting of the forums onto hardware in Canonical's data center. However, for a number of reasons, a palpable gap has remained between the forums community and the rest of the Ubuntu community.

To discuss and address a closer relationship between the forums and the rest of the project, Canonical invited several forum staffers to UDS Paris -- although only forums moderator Roald "Ubuntu-Demon" Hopman was able to attend. On the technical front, the groups discussed a common authentication scheme. On the political front, they discussed the possibility of integrating the current forums staff and resolution procedures into the existing Ubuntu governance and membership system.

rPath

One of most intriguing groups present was rPath, a company made up largely of ex-Red Hat employees. Its business centers around building custom GNU/Linux distributions for computing appliances, and it maintains its own distribution, rPath Linux.

Perhaps more interestingly, rPath build its system using Conary, an application built on top of a distribution revision control that bears similarities to Canonical's Launchpad-based Soyuz archive manager. Similarly, both companies have built their own distributed version control systems.

As both use distributed revision control to offer services and support around the construction and maintenance of custom distributions, rPath and Canonical seem like obvious competitors. As a result, it was surprising to see a significant portion of the rPath development team present in Paris. Public conversations were casual; the two teams seemed primarily interested in sharing information and experience and learning about each other. It was clear that their systems are each quite advanced and have diverged around important technical difference. It was unclear what, if anything, the future holds for the relationship between the two groups.

Guadalinex

Guadalinex, the distribution created by the government of Andalusia in Spain, became Ubuntu's first derivative in 2004. While still the most widely used and high-profile derivative, Guadalinex has not used Canonical's Launchpad as fully as some in Canonical might have liked. Additionally, it built its own live CD installer, which was largely rewritten by Canonical. Canonical clearly wants others to follow in Guadalinex's footsteps, but it seems essential that it build closer relationships between Ubuntu developers and its derivatives if Canonical is to achieve its goal of a thriving ecosystem of Ubuntu-based distributions.

One Laptop Per Child

Finally, several people interested in or working on One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), formerly the $100 laptop project, were in attendance at the conference. Among these were myself -- a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab and participant on the laptop project -- and Ivan Krstic, who will begin work with OLPC this month. Both Ivan and I were in attendance in other capacities (Ivan is an Ubuntu Server Team administrator and I serve on the Ubuntu Community Council). However, several other individuals interested in the project were in attendance and ran sessions to discuss OLPC and Ubuntu.

It was clear from the conference that both Canonical and members of the community are interested in doing something with OLPC -- mostly likely under the umbrella of the Edubuntu project. What remains unclear is what exactly this will be or how they will position this project in relation to the work being done by OLPC partner Red Hat.

Launchpad

One group was conspicuous by its relative absence. In every previous Ubuntu conference, nearly half of the attendees were Canonical's employees who work on Launchpad. This time, only a small fraction of the Launchpad team was in attendance. Certainly, Launchpad is beginning to mature, but the project still has plenty of rough edges. Perhaps the lack of direct collaboration between Ubuntu and Launchpad developers on specifications at the conference signals a move away from new functionality and toward bug-fixing and usability -- something that would be welcomed by many in the Ubuntu community.

A partial list of attendees at the conference can be found on the Ubuntu wiki.

Benjamin Mako Hill serves on the Ubuntu Community Council and was an employee of Canonical employee between May 2004 and September 2005. He currently works at the MIT Media Lab and contributes to the One Laptop Per Child Project.

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