Daylight savings just began, which means it's the time of year to start looking forward to the spring release of Ubuntu. But could this year's version, 13.04, be the last one in the biannual release cycle that Canonical has stalwartly maintained for almost a decade? For the moment, that remains uncertain, but the issue, which has produced a stunning amount of debate, could have ramifications well beyond the Ubuntu ecosystem.
Rumors of changes to the Ubuntu release policy have circulated for several months, but Ubuntu developers initially rejected them. The issue re-emerged a couple of weeks ago, however, when Rick Spencer, vice president of Engineering at Canonical, launched a wide public discussion by suggesting on the Ubuntu developers' email list that a "rolling release" cycle might better serve the Ubuntu community. That would be a major shift away from the current model, under which Canonical introduces a new version of Ubuntu every six months. It designates one out of every four of those releases for "longterm support" (LTS), meaning they receive support and updates for five years.
Spencer has proposed keeping the LTS releases, but doing away with the other ones (which he calls "interim releases," though that term can be a bit confusing out of context). Under the new system he outlines, users of the non-LTS edition of Ubuntu would receive updates on either a continuous basis or once per month, depending on which option they choose.
The reaction to Spencer's proposal has been huge--much greater, at least, than the discussion around most of the geeky topics that arise on the Ubuntu developers' list. And although the bulk of the objections center around technical concerns, such as the difficulty of applying security updates efficiently on a rolling-release cycle, the issue has generated enough debate in the Ubuntu community at large that Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the project and "Benevolent Dictator for Life," weighed in publicly a few days ago. Portraying Canonical's focus as having "shifted gear to leadership rather than integration" within the channel, Shuttleworth expressed his own opposition to rolling releases, but also urged everyone to take a breath and calm down: Come what may, he observed, "the sky is not falling in."
Rolling Releases and the Channel
So far, the release debate has not extended much beyond the Ubuntu community, and Canonical's partners have taken little apparent notice. That makes sense, since a change might not affect them very directly. Few OEMs, ISVs, enterprises or other stakeholders base their work around interim Ubuntu releases anyway.
Still, a potential decision by Ubuntu to modify the release cycle could reverberate throughout the open source world. Above all, it could slow the rate at which open source software reaches many end users by 400 percent, if a change pushed most of them to stick to LTS releases. It would also significantly impact the lifecycles of third-party projects that depend on Ubuntu, such as Linux Mint, although most of them could probably adapt easily enough.
But what might be the most important change is the shift away from Canonical's focus on traditional computing that rolling releases would push even further along. The company has already moved in this direction by investing in Ubuntu for phones, TVs and tablets--which are exactly the kind of devices where users are accustomed to receiving rolling updates without noticing them. No one deliberately upgrades the OS on his TV, and very few of us do on phones or tablets.
In this way, rolling releases could signal a yet stronger commitment by Canonical to reconfiguring its role in the channel in radical ways. The company that became famous by making desktop Linux work for millions of people is paying less and less attention to desktop Linux, and rolling releases are but one change that could emanate from that shift.