Why Open Bug Tracking Fails
Unlike proprietary platforms, Ubuntu allows end users to interact directly with developers through Launchpad’s bug-reporting system. In some cases, this approach allows bugs to be discovered and resolved quickly. In most situations, however, open bug tracking is a fiasco that Ubuntu would be better off without. Here’s why.
Open bug reporting policies, which allow anyone to file bug reports that developers are expected to address, operate under the principle, famously decreed by Eric S. Raymond, that “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, the more people you have searching for and reporting problems, the faster they can be fixed.
In the best of all possible worlds, where end users are also professional programmers, Raymond’s logic may hold true. But in real life, only a fraction of the people using a given software product have any idea how to read code or troubleshoot problems.
Distracted developers and frustrated users
When only 0.1% of your users know how to write code, but you give the other 99.9% equal access to your bug-tracking system, you end up with a lot of problems. Developers whose time is best spent fixing bugs are instead forced to walk end users through the tedious process of providing backtraces, and bug reports are left cluttered by redundant or off-topic information posted by users who don’t know any better.
More dangerously, too many end users are given the impression that the bug tracker is a support system whose chief goal is to fix individual problems. In reality, the tracker is a tool for developers, not users. By allowing anyone to file bug reports easily, Ubuntu discourages use of support channels like the forums, where end users stand a much better chance of having their issues addressed satisfactorily.
Ubuntu’s approach to bug tracking is also flawed in that the vast majority of reported bugs ultimately need to be fixed by upstream programmers, not Ubuntu’s developers. Yet Ubuntu, as Mark Shuttleworth wrote a while back, handles the lion’s share of bug reports. This makes Ubuntu an extraneous and redundant middleman, hampering efficiency.
Instead of encouraging everyone and his grandmother to file bug reports when something goes wrong, users should be made to understand that just because they can file reports doesn’t mean they should. They should also be required to provide backtraces before they submit reports, which would effectively discourage filings from people who are not–and should not be expected to be–qualified to assist developers.
In addition, better use should be made of apport, Ubuntu’s tool for automatically providing feedback to developers when a program crashes. Most normal users lack the technical skill to submit effective bug reports directly to Launchpad, but apport requires only a few clicks to send developers useful information about a problem.
Development is for developers
As of right now, Ubuntu has 56725 bug reports open in Launchpad. This number increases by several hundred each week, and historically, only a fraction of reported bugs are ever fixed; most linger in a zombie state until they’re closed by default when their packages become obsolete. If Ubuntu doesn’t reform its bug-tracking policies, this situation will grow increasingly out of hand.
Users should be encouraged to use Ubuntu, and leave development to the developers. Trying to bastardize these two groups serves no one.