In Defense of the Six-Month Release Cycle
The poor experience of many users upgrading to Jaunty has prompted calls for a less ambitious Ubuntu release cycle (for examples, see the comments on my recent post about video-driver problems). Instead of pushing out an updated version of Ubuntu with a new feature set every six months, some have argued, developers should issue new releases less frequently, or recommend that only LTS versions be used for production. I disagree. Here’s why.
In general, the free-software world is dominated by laissez-faire attitudes when it comes to deadlines and schedules. Open-source projects often fail to meet their own roadmaps; the latest stable version of Debian Linux, for example, arrived last February six months late. The proprietary world doesn’t necessarily do any better–witness the delays plaguing Vista’s release–but that’s not an excuse for open-source developers to slack off in sticking to schedules.
Regularity = reliability = professionalism
Ubuntu stands out as an impressive exception in a software ecosystem where roadmaps often have little meaning. Since Warty Warthog made its appearance in April 2004, Ubuntu has issued a new release every six months exactly on schedule, with the singular exception of version 6.06, which was deliberately postponed six weeks. And in most cases, each new release has actually been stable and ready for production use.
Ubuntu’s ability to meet deadlines provides an aura of reliability and professionalism that attracts users on both desktops and servers. Personally, I like knowing that my Hardy servers will receive security updates through 2013, and that the Intrepid kiosks I set up will patch themselves until 2010. Windows machines, in contrast, are only supported for as long as Microsoft feels like it, and few other Linux distributions offer completely predictable support life-cycles.
In addition to proffering a sense of reliability and professionalism, Ubuntu’s biannual release cycle is a good way to keep things exciting for users and the press. It gives the community something to look forward to regularly. It places Ubuntu at the top of technology headlines twice a year, generating a lot of publicity. And each new release provides an excuse for users to socialize and reaffirm the community that makes Ubuntu possible, as Guy Thouret described in a recent post.
Less frequent releases would harm the ability of the Ubuntu community and developers to maintain the momentum necessary to keep the project rolling smoothly, and would diminish the name-recognition that the operating system currently enjoys as the world’s most popular Linux distribution.
The Scylla and Charybdis of biannual releases
Of course, sticking to a roadmap can pose problems. On the one hand, Ubuntu runs the risk of producing lackluster releases that offer little innovation over previous versions. At the same time, attempts to pack each release full of new features without adequate time for testing can lead to stability problems.
So far, Ubuntu has generally done an excellent job of navigating these two extremes. Most releases offer meaningful new functionality without compromising stability. (Jaunty may be an exception, but I’m giving it a month before I declare it a total usability disaster based on the graphics issues.) There’s no reason this pace can’t be sustained into the future.
Over the course of five years and eleven releases, Ubuntu has proven its ability to maintain a six-month release cycle without compromising either innovation or stability. The release roadmaps may be demanding and lead to serious botches from time to time, but they’re also one of the features that set Ubuntu apart from other Linux distributions and proprietary operating systems.