February 13, 2007

Ubuntu says no to non-free video drivers for Feisty

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Ubuntu CTO Matt Zimmerman has announced two Ubuntu Technical Board decisions that will affect the upcoming Feisty Fawn release, due out in April of this year. For the Feisty release, proprietary video drivers are out of the default install, and the PowerPC port of Ubuntu is being downgraded to an unofficial release.

The Ubuntu Technical Board comprises Zimmerman, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth, and Ubuntu developers Scott James Remnant and Matthew Garrett. I chatted with Zimmerman to fill in a few details that weren't in today's announcement.

According to the release, Feisty will "preserve the status quo with respect to proprietary video drivers." This doesn't mean that Ubuntu will be completely clean of proprietary software. Ubuntu still includes closed source drivers "where necessary to provide sufficient hardware support" for wireless network cards and other devices.

However, the board decided that some of the software required for deploying Composite support, which was the impetus driving consideration of closed source video drivers, is not mature enough for inclusion by default in the next Ubuntu release.

That doesn't mean closed source drivers are off the table entirely. Zimmerman says that "the winds aren't right yet. We will continue to track development and will revisit the decision if things change significantly."

What will be included is a way for users to enable proprietary drivers and Composite support easily. Zimmerman says that the "infrastructure" for setting up proprietary drivers and 3-D support should be in the Feisty release.

Ubuntu will also be tracking the progress of the Nouveau driver, which is being developed as a replacement for the proprietary Nvidia drivers. However, that project is unlikely to produce workable drivers in 2007, much less before the Feisty release.

PowerPC downgraded

Since the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) last November, the project has considered dropping PowerPC as a fully supported architecture. The board has now made its decision, and PowerPC will be downgraded to an unofficial architecture. This means that PowerPC packages and ISOs will still be produced, but it will not be a priority, and problems with PowerPC will not delay Ubuntu releases.

After the summit, Ubuntu pursued "a number of sources for funding" to continue supporting PowerPC as a priority architecture, but "those resources have not been obtained, and we cannot make the necessary commitments to continue official support for this architecture," according to today's announcement.

This probably won't affect many Ubuntu users anyway. According to the specification produced for UDS, only 0.8% of the downloads from archive.ubuntu.com as of November 2006 were for PowerPC, which is down from 1.95% in July 2005.

However, it isn't all gloom and doom for PowerPC users. A team has been formed to work on the PowerPC, and if community support for the port is strong enough, there's no reason Ubuntu won't continue to be perfectly usable for PowerPC owners, even in its "unofficial" status.

The technical board is also leaving the door open to re-evaluating PowerPC's status in the future. "It is possible that PowerPC will once again become a fully supported architecture in the future, if the resources needed to guarantee its quality are found. The architecture is certainly gaining large numbers of users in embedded and console devices, and there are many reasons to continue to work with the platform. These uses are outside of the core Ubuntu mandate, however, so resources cannot be diverted from our server and desktop efforts just to address their needs."

Existing Ubuntu PowerPC users are in good shape, too. While upcoming releases of Ubuntu will not have official PowerPC releases, Ubuntu will continue to support the existing PowerPC Long Term Support (LTS) release through 2011 for PowerPC servers, and through 2009 for PowerPC desktops.

I asked Zimmerman about Ubuntu's 6.06 LTS release, code-named Dapper Drake, which came out last June. Since LTS was released, there have been plenty of package updates, which means a fresh install of Dapper will require many updates immediately after the install. A maintenance release, 6.06.1, came out in August and included all of the updated packages to that point, but that release is also getting long in the tooth. Zimmerman says that they are planning a 6.06.2 release, but that they have not announced a date for its release.


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