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I don't like it when people yell at me for no reason at all

26 March 2010 21:50

Ubuntu always gets a lot of coverage in blogs, and the recent controvesy realisation that it isn't a 100% community-made distribution has triggered yet another round of this.

A lot of the controvesy, coverage, and attention can be laid at the feet of Canonical themselves; I think it is fair to say that the visibility, hype, advertising, and the goal of trying to be all things to all men means that even relatively trivial issues can easily get blown out of proportion, and to a certain extent this is a self-inflicted. Live by the sword media & etc ...

I think it is fair to say that Ubuntu has attracted a huge swathe of non-technical users. They want something "easy", "free", and "sexy", but more than that they want to use their computer, not develop the operating system.

When a particular bug report, with 400+ comments, hits the press we're primarily seeing a marketing-fail rather than technical-fail. The realisation that yes bugs are reported, but no the community (of users) doesn't get input into every single thing is as it should be. If you look back over "controvesy" in the past you'll see comments from the non-technical users which are tantamoint to blackmail:

This should be fixed ... or I'm gonna .. install .. gentoo. yeah. really.

(Similarly you see many comments of the form "I agree", "oh noes", or "Please revert ASAP", rather than technical arguments.)

This non-technical nature of the userbase is also readily apparent if you browse through the answers to problems posted in forums for example "Delete this file, I don't know why it works but it fixes it for me!!2!". (I've seen some truly horrific advice upon Ubuntu forums, even so far as chmodding various parts of the system to allow users to write binaries to /bin.)

Similarly you'll see that the launchpad is full of generic linux misunderstandings and bugs that aren't "real". The unfortunate fact is that the Ubuntu bug tracker is a wasteland in many places:

  • Lots and lots and lots of users reporting bugs.
  • Those bugs being ignored for huge periods of time
    • Except for "Hey is this still present in $pending-release?"
  • The issue isn't that Ubuntu developers don't care, the issue is one of manpower.

The tight timescale of releases combined with the sheer number of incoming bug reports means that often issues are overlooked. (For example one bug that bit a colleague is #402188 - on the one hand it is a trivial bug, on the other hand its readily apparent to users. If something like that can be missed it makes you wonder ..?) ObRandom: Ubuntu has 100 bugs open against its Vim package, some of which have been marked as NEW since 2009 (ie. untouched, ignored). By contrast the Debian vim package has way fewer bugs. I'm sure there are packages where the situation is reversed but I think is not an unusual comparison.

Finally in addition to sheer numbers of bugs, and tight timescales, it has to be noted that the relative number of developers to users is miniscule, and this in turn has lead to some interesting solutions. The Ubuntu PPA system (personal package archive) should be a good thing. It should allow people to submit new packages for testing, for bugfixes, and for more visibility. Instead downloading a PPA file is no different than going to download.com and downloading a random binary - sure it might be legit, but there's no oversight, no quality control, and most likely no future updates.

Ubuntu as a distribution is interesting, and I'm not trying to be overly critical - A year or two ago had somebody thrown money at me I might have been inclined to accept it.

I think most of the perceived problems stem from a single common source, which is largely the issue of scale. (e.g. bug reports to bug handlers. developer numbers to user numbers.)

There are many good things to be said about Ubuntu (& Canonical) in addition to the negative ones that we see in the press or that I've perceived and mentioned above. The truth is it works for a lot of people, and the growing pains will continue until it either dies or both its audience and itself matures.

Either way I don't hate Ubuntu, in the same way that I don't hate Microsoft, Oracle, Fedora, Gentoo, or other mass-entities. There are pros and cons to be made for most of them, (and of course Debian itself is no different).

However I will say that every time I see people write "If you want a sexy/shiny/easy to use Linux desktop then install Ubuntu" I glance over at my Debian Lenny desktop, marvel at how sexy, shiny and easy to use it is, and get a little bit disappointed at our own marketing failure(s).

ObFilm: Day of the Woman



Comments on this entry

icon someone at 09:50 on 26 March 2010

About the Ubuntu bugs; as a Debian maintainer I've found some of them to be useful. I like to repay that usefulness by triaging the other, less useful, ones.

icon Charles Darke at 09:53 on 26 March 2010

I have to agree on the marketing failures but also on some massive own-goals which were never fixed.

For example, installing from the Lenny/Etch CD (can't remember which, or both) hung part way through - each time, I had to drop to a shell and kill a stuck http process to continue.

Yesterday, I installed a new desktop and decided to try Squeeze - the installation failed except that the GRUB2 install process failed. Where is the QA when the official installation ISOs fail installation in the most basic circumstances?

icon confluence at 12:02 on 26 March 2010

I think a big part of the problem is the walled garden effect. Non-technical users lack the experience to understand when a bug is distro-specific and when it's a broader upstream issue. All they know is that "something is wrong with Ubuntu", so they ask for help in the Ubuntu forums and file bugs at Launchpad.

The forums are not only full of terrible advice, but contain a small fraction of the available information about upstream problems.

Filing bugs at Launchpad wouldn't be a problem if upstream bugs were quickly identified as such, but I guess the manpower problems are preventing that from happening. I think this is a general problem with the proliferation of bug trackers at various levels (distros, apps, desktop environments, etc.). I often find the same issue reported in multiple trackers, at some of which it is completely ignored.

icon vvill at 12:39 on 26 March 2010

"100% community-made distribution has triggered yet another round of this."
wait for the update(s) to finish...

icon Debianero at 18:01 on 26 March 2010

'By contrast the Debian vim package has way fewer bugs'

Many times Debian packages has few bugs because Debian developers specifically ask to report to mainstream instead of DBS.

V.G. I've reported a lot of bugs to KDE bug system but (almost) none to kde-debian packages.

icon Marcus at 07:55 on 27 March 2010

IMO the main advantage Ubuntu has over Debian is the ease of installation. It was a real mess getting Debian Squeeze on my desktop and laptop (one took hours, one took days) while Ubuntu installed in 20 minutes. I do prefer Debian though, so I'm glad I finally got it working.

Great post btw.

icon Martin at 10:47 on 27 March 2010

As an Ubuntu user I really hope those problems can be overcome, but at the same time I don't notice any problem for myself. And Ubuntu offers some things that I still miss for Debian: It's so cool when a new printer works just by plugging it in... In Debian I had to figure out which package contains the best driver for it, and then play around with CUPS until it worked. It's great that you can set up everything manually, but you can do that in Ubuntu as well, since it is Debian internally. Kind of.

Also I like how I can have a (reasonably) stable system with reasonably recent packages.

That being said, I like Debian very much an used it for a long time. I can very well imagine to go back to it again, but for my laptop I figured I'd prefer a system that detects my hardware automatically.

icon Mike at 11:07 on 27 March 2010

I believe the reason Ubuntu has more bugs and bug commenters is the ease of the web interface. Sending mails? Who does so? except devs and some particular none-devs but still a little dev.

I had love Debian to have a web interface instead of only the mail interface! But some argue this to be a bad idea, still some wish it would be there...

But that just being me, keep rocking :-)

icon Steve Kemp at 11:12 on 27 March 2010

Thanks for all the feedback everybody!

I think that problems people might have had with the various installers are obviously very important. If you cannot even install a distribution (easily) then this is going to cause problems.

That said I've never really suffered problems installing with Debian, and my recollection is that the Ubuntu installer is very similar to that one. I guess its one of those things that is very hardware, and system, dependent though. So its not easy to judge how "good" an installer is.

As for plug and play for printers, etc, I've been pleasantly surprised with pure Lenny. Plugging in my printer, my USB-modem, and my card readers just worked. I didn't have to fight CUPS, didn't have to fight anything really.

That's a perfect example of what I mean though. In the past people had to fiddle with CUPS and other things manually, but I don't believe that is generally true these days - I've never needed to do that kind of thing, even with Lenny, and I suspect that with Squeeze all the desktop-hotplug-fu is even sexier and more comprehensive.

(Much like installer issues though, I'm sure it is the case that there is some hardware that will not work with Debian's kernel, versions of tools, etc. But that's something that will only improve with time.)

Anyway I don't really want to argue with people, so I'll cut this short now: If you like a distribution, use it. They're all good.

icon wewqeqew at 09:53 on 31 March 2010