How Ubuntu Plays Nicely With Others: The Sponsorship ProcessHow Ubuntu Plays Nicely With Others: The Sponsorship Process
September 8, 2010
Ubuntu developers have been busy in recent days discussing improvements to the package sponsorship process. Though this might seem at first glance like an esoteric technical topic that matters only to geeks, it fits into the larger picture of Ubuntu in important ways. Here’s why you should care.
If you’re not an Ubuntu developer or some other kind of geek, chances are good that you don’t even know what sponsorship means in the context of Linux development. As the Ubuntu wiki explains, however, sponsorship is the process by which Ubuntu developers work with other programmers to upload their applications into the Ubuntu repositories, and to make sure they’re maintained properly once they’re there.
Without the ability to seek sponsorship, third-party developers would likely find it more difficult to make their applications available to Ubuntu users–meaning the huge diversity of software available in the repositories and installable on Ubuntu in one click, which is one of the distribution’s greatest strengths, might not exist. In addition, it would be harder to ensure that upstream bugs affecting Ubuntu end-users are addressed efficiently.
Improving Sponsorship Tools
Ubuntu developer Daniel Holbach began a discussion last week regarding the improvement of tools for sponsoring packages. As he noted, there’s a sizable list of bugs waiting to be addressed by Ubuntu sponsors, but the utilities for automating the process could be improved.
Other developers pointed out that some of the tools that Holbach has in mind already exist, although not everyone seems to be aware of them, and some of the utilities are not as accessible as they could be. But we’ll leave our coverage of the actual discussion at that, because…
Why It Matters
The actual tools for improving the sponsorship process are geeky and esoteric, and most normal Ubuntu users have little reason to understand or care. But the larger stakes of the discourse do matter, and that’s the key to this discussion.
In particular, the concern with improving sponsorship informs the larger debate over where Ubuntu fits into the Linux ecosystem, and how well it cooperates with third-party developers. That debate has intensified in recent months, in the wake of Greg DeKoenigsberg’s blog post charging that Canonical doesn’t carry its weight when it comes to development.
Many of the grievances expressed by DeKoenigsberg and others are fair: Canonical makes fewer contributions to upstream projects than other Linux companies (though Canonical is also much smaller and younger than Red Hat), and a huge proportion of the code that constitutes Ubuntu is borrowed from the Debian distribution virtually unchanged.
But a focus on sponsoring upstream developers paints a different image of Ubuntu’s relationship with the larger open-source ecosystem, one in which third-parties benefit at least as much as Ubuntu.
The sponsorship process makes it easier for programmers to expose their work to users of the world’s most popular Linux distribution, making their applications more popular. It also helps ensure that those users have the best experience possible with the software they use, while at the same time generating bug reports to help upstream developers improve their code.
This isn’t to say that sponsorship, or the recent focus on making it more efficient via better automation, can be taken alone as evidence of Ubuntu’s commitment to play nicely with other distributions and with upstream developers. But amidst a discourse that has become increasingly anti-Ubuntu, it’s a sign that Ubuntu’s developers have hardly shut out the needs of third-party programmers.
At the same time, at the end of the day, efficient sponsorship also clearly benefits end-users, who get more and better software packages as a result. And as many other Linux distributions would do well to note, the end-user, not the geeky developer, has to be the ultimate priority if you want anyone to use your operating system.
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