Canonical Planning Rolling Releases for Ubuntu?
Speculation in recent days suggests Ubuntu plans to adopt a “rolling” release schedule, pushing out upgraded applications constantly rather than in six-month increments. Such a policy would mean major changes in the Ubuntu experience, for both personal and commercial users. Here are some thoughts.
First, though, we should preface those thoughts with some notes on the source of this claim, which originated solely from an article published recently in The Register. According to that post, Mark Shuttleworth mentioned in passing, while discussing the Ubuntu 10.10 release:
Today we have a six-month release cycle. In an internet-oriented world, we need to be able to release something every day.
Those words might be interpreted as an indication of a switch to rolling releases. But they could be read with equal validity to mean a variety of other things; perhaps Shuttleworth was merely alluding to the Software Center’s role in pushing out commercial applications in the middle of release cycles, for example.
This is to say not that we suspect The Register of reading too much into Shuttleworth’s statement, or of misrepresenting what he meant to imply. But we should keep in mind that Canonical’s plans for a change in the Ubuntu release policy–if such plans exist at all–remain far from clear at this time.
Rolling vs. static releases
While plenty of Linux distributions use rolling-release development cycles, most of Ubuntu’s major fellow-citizens–Red Hat, SUSE and Fedora, in particular–have static schedules, at least for their production releases. This makes sense, as regular releases help to mitigate problems associated with unstable software being pushed out to casual users before it’s ready.
By breaking with the static-release tradition, then, Ubuntu would diverge in yet another major way from other mainstream Linux distributions, building on its recent decisions to put Unity and Wayland at the center of its user experience. In that sense, such a policy wouldn’t be surprising.
On the other hand, however, a switch to rolling releases seems unlikely, given the risk that it would involve to the quality of Ubuntu. For one, non-geeky desktop users, who don’t care about having the latest-and-greatest code pushed out to their systems each morning and are happy enough with the decently up-to-date application stack provided by the current system, would become much more likely to run into bugs.
For server users, meanwhile, a rolling-release policy would probably be unconscionable, since the stability and security implications of constantly upgrading software packages would create many more worries for administrators of production systems.
Moreover, the problem that rolling releases would presumably be intended to solve–namely, the fact that the software stack on Ubuntu can become slightly dated over the course of six months while users wait for the next release–has already been effectively addressed via the many PPAs on Launchpad, which make it easy to upgrade a particular application without relying on the official Ubuntu repositories. There’s not yet a PPA for every piece of software out there, but virtually all major open-source projects now either maintain a Launchpad PPA or release Debian packages on their own websites.
If Ubuntu’s intentions weren’t the subject of pure speculation, therefore, I’d be a little worried to see the distribution adopt rolling releases. But since it seems quite plausible that Shuttleworth’s remarks were aimed at something else entirely, it seems best for the time being to wait and see what happens.
Update: according to the original post from the Register, an Ubuntu representative clarified Shuttleworth’s remarks and affirmed that Canonical does not plan to abandon the current release model, although it is open to finding ways to make it easier to push out updated software to users.