Monday 8 October 2012

Goodbye Ubuntu

I considered calling this blog post "I'm moving to Debian" but if I did, people would probably assume that I'm doing so in a trantrum, and just posting to rant.

But I'm not, I'm not angry, maybe just disappointed. I've had the love of Ubuntu beaten out of me over the years...

During my College and University years (2000-2005), I'd messed around with Linux. I'd tested some versions of Red Hat, Fedora, and SuSe, but I'd come away from the experience with the idea that, although some day this Linux malarchy could be something big, but it just wasn't ready.

At the tail end of 2005, a friend recommended to me that I tried Ubuntu. At the time I had OpenSuSe installed on a spare PC and I figured it would be a fun experiment. Pretty soon after I started dual-booting with XP on my main PC. I'm pretty sure the package management is what won me over, it certainly wasn't the days I spent installing ATI graphics drivers!

Back then, Ubuntu was hard work. It's no exaggeration when I say I spent literally days installing drivers. I spent most of that time on the command line tweaking xorg.conf. It was a pain in the arse, but I learned so much in that time. Even now I sometimes watch apt-get installing packages, and I near enough know what every single one does. It's really useful knowledge to have.

Anyway, I'm going off track. I configured Ubuntu with help from I'd visit the site daily, and do my fair share of answering questions for newbies. As time passed I become more enamoured with Ubuntu and the community. I'd started trying to convince family and friends to install it (in hindsight, this was a mistake - drivers were too much of a problem, and Wine wasn't anywhere near as good at running legacy software back then). I became a complete advocate. At work I managed to convince one of my bosses to let me install OpenSuSe (he himself used it) and later that install was converted to Ubuntu - which was upgraded through several releases before I left. 

So, I was using Ubuntu full time. I eventually started getting more involved in the community. I hung out in #ubuntu-uk, wrote some articles for the now defunct "Ubuntu Gamer" and I went to conferences where I knew that core Canonical people would be presenting - stocking up with free CDs as I went. I drove my friends and family mental with talk about what was coming in the next Ubuntu, how Feisty was going to have the fastest boot time ever, how Gutsy was going to have "bullet-proof X" which would be the saviour of graphics issues etc. 

It wasn't just the system I'd become addicted to, it was the idea. Here was this company (Canonical) who acted as a funnel, gathering the best open source software and bundling it for normal users. I felt they could do no wrong, and Mark Shuttleworth was a hero for funding such a noble cause.

It was when Hardy Heron was released that I noticed something wasn't quite right. Behind that glorious wallpaper was something that started niggling at the back of my mind. Hardy was the first release to ship a new sound server; PulseAudio. A consistent sound server was something that the Linux ecosystem sorely missed - so I was actually excited by its introduction. And in fact, it wasn't the idea of implementing PA that caused me to worry. It was that the PA author had specifically recommended against shipping it so early. When Ubuntu did ship it, it was him that bore the brunt of the fallout. That though could be forgiven, blamed on the eagerness of Canonical to fix what they saw as a problem. But then, in the build up to the release of Karmic I saw this.

I'm a programmer, I have to review patches every day, I read those patches and that's when it finally sunk in. Canonical isn't just taking the best of upstream, they're patching all over it and sometimes (like in the case of PA) - very badly. A bit of Googling showed the conflicts and clashes with Debian and Gnome - the very communities that make Ubuntu possible!

In the following years there were a number of events that knocked me back time after time, and caused my opinion of Canonical to lower considerably.

First there were Application Indicators, which didn't seem to have much involvement of upstream at all, and yet caused patches to lots of applications to make them support it.

Then there was the infamous window control move, where the window buttons moved from right to left. In itself this was a mild irritation, but the problem was that it made no logical sense - until you realized that this was Mr. Shuttleworth's personal preference. One of the Canonical designers actually blogged about a more logical design that I actually agreed with, but their pleas were ignored.

Then there was the development of Unity rather than working with upstream Gnome who were working on something very similar. There's too much to say about this, let's just say that Gnome Shell is easily extensible enough that Unity could have been developed as an extension.

Then the auto-hiding global menu bar which actually undoes the entire point of a global menu style system. This one was actually mocked up by Mark Shuttleworth himself, implemented and then dropped into Ubuntu before one of Canonical's designers, Matthew Paul Thomas even knew about it!

Then there were also the overlay scrollbars...

There are probably more I've forgotten, but you get the point. All of these things were seamingly done without any coherent design. And if the rumours I heard were true, they were completely dictated by Mark. These changes made Ubuntu more annoying to use. Each install I'd end up removing more and more packages to make the system usable. 

But, although I found these features annoying, they aren't the reason for me abandoning Ubuntu. The reason I am moving to Debian is every single one of those controversial features that appeared in Ubuntu only works because many numbers of applications and libraries have been patched by Canonical. 

When you alter the source code of an application and distribute in this way, you make life far FAR harder for the original developers. They will be inundated with bug reports that they can't reproduce, in the case of PA they were publically slated because of Canonical's poor patching and distribution downstream. 

But even more, these patches hurt the users. I decided a long time ago that Unity wasn't for me, but I do love Gnome Shell. Fortunately I can install the gnome-shell in Ubuntu. Unfortunately, what I get is mismatched versions of Gnome packages, applications that don't work (Gnome Contacts and LibreOffice - admittedly a beta bug), pointless duplication (Gnome Online Accounts vs Ubuntu Online Accounts) and customized applications (Appearance settings). This was the final straw.

It's not possible for me to use my desktop of choice on Ubuntu, not in its entirety.  So this weekend I'm moving my main desktop to Debian unstable (my laptop is already running it), the only thing I will miss is the Software Center.

I'm sure I'll be back now and again. But the love for Ubuntu is gone. 


  1. I did move to debian recently. You have covered my agony too :) lovely blog post :)

  2. Try apt-get install software-center in debian ;)

  3. I dumped Ubuntu back at Jaunty, and I've been using Debian since Lenny made Stable. I'm much, much happier with Debian.

  4. I am happy with fedora and gnome 3 :-)

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