Reader's Questions to the Debian Project Leader
Debian Projekt Leader Anthony Towns and his deputy Steve McIntyre give answers about the Debian project, the tasks of the Project Leader and future directions. The questions have been selected by Pro-Linux from the proposed questions of the readership.
Last month Pro-Linux asked its readers to propose questions to ask the Debian Project Leader (DPL). Many readers took part and posted their questions to our forum. The topic was apparently interesting enough so that many comments, critical remarks, and questions were posted. From all proposals we chose ten questions for the Debian project. After DPL Anthony Towns, Steve McIntyre, one of his deputies, also volunteered to answer the questions. Therefore we got not only one answer for most of the questions, but two.
Question: Some time ago Martin "Joey" Schulze abruptly retired from his position as the release manager of Debian stable. Did his criticism of the management of the Debian FTP masters, the very reason for his final retirement, have any visible effects on how Debian handles problems like these nowadays?
Anthony: Since the criticism was partly directed at me, I'll leave this one to Steve, as a more independent party.
Steve: In that particular case - stable release management - we have now established a team to keep the day-to-day work going. More generally, we are working on the communication problems that were the root cause of the problem. It may take a while for things to visibly change, but expect some progress.
Question: The DPL may largely be entangled in daily business to keep the project going, i.e. bureaucracy, politics and related issues. Do you have a personal dream or vision on what Debian should be like in a distant future?
Steve: In the near future, I'd like to see us solve some of the issues that we've had in the recent past - things like over-long release cycles. Further ahead, I'd like us to continue on with our current goals - making the best possible free operating system, complete with all the applications that people need.
Anthony: I like seeing how Debian develops on its own, personally - the surprises are often much more fun than just seeing the things you've been expecting or hoping for come to pass. But one thing I am looking forward to is seeing us come up with ways of achieving increased assurance for our users, whether that be extended security support, better uptime guarantees, or feature development in a commercially reliable fashion - within the context of the volunteer, community, collaborative approaches that have made Debian the success it is.
Question: Should the term of the Debian project leader be prolonged? Does the current rule of holding this position for a reasonable short period of managing release dates within a scheduled period of time?
Anthony: I don't think the annual elections are a problem; more of a problem is the seems excessive (all the candidates this year nominated themselves in the last week), and three weeks for voting, rather than the usual two seems like it could be reduced too. I think it's worked fairly well; and a much longer term would likely lead to serious burnout - none of our elected DPLs have continued for more than two years so far.
Steve: I believe the 12-month term is quite reasonable: it should be long enough for a project leader to get things done, but not so long that the project leader will burn out. Previous DPLs have shown that being an effective leader is a very time-consuming job, so having quite a short term makes it possible for people to be able to devote that feelings may have changed! :-)
Question: The increasing popularity of Ubuntu Linux seems to successively rule out Debian. Some hypothetical reasons for this ongoing process may be seen in the availability of a graphical installer, stable and newer packages, faster release cycles to rely on and a more aggressive marketing of Ubuntu, just to name a few. Do you have any strategies to strengthen Debian's position against Ubuntu? Some of our readers fear that the increasing popularity of Ubuntu may turn out to be a great disadvantage for Debian in the long run!
Anthony: That's a fair concern - Debian's found it difficult to establish a good relationship with derivatives in the past, and that's generally meant that people either have to join Debian and work on it directly, or their contributions don't make their way back into Debian at all. That's worked okay for us up until this point, but as a community distribution that values freedom, it just doesn't make sense to say that if you use our software in this way, we'll accept your contributions, but if you try to contribute in this other way, then that's no good.
Our challenge is to take a broader view to heart - that Ubuntu and other derived distributions, their developers and their users are all contributing to the Debian community, indirectly or directly, and that we appreciate their work and want to find ways to include it and promote it, rather than taking the zero-sum view that any win for someone else is a loss for us.
Steve: I'm not sure that Debian has a position against Ubuntu. We have quite an overlap of people working on the two distributions, and there is also a lot of work shared between them. Ubuntu can build on the solid base that Debian provides, and in return we have already benefited from some of their work in packages like X.org and our installer. In most of the areas where we collaborate well, that is because of individual maintainers on both sides working together to build a relationship.
Some areas are less successful, however, and the packages in Debian and Ubuntu diverge due to lack of communication. It would be nice to see more useful effort from the Ubuntu side in some areas, for example pushing back patches and bug reports routinely rather than leaving it up to the Debian maintainer to poll for any changes. The Utnubu project  was started last year in an attempt to help here, but unfortunately things seem to have gone quiet on that front.
Of course, regardless of how the relationship between Debian and Ubuntu works, there are some positive points: more users are being introduced to Free Software, and we have also have more developers working on that software. Both of these can only be good for all of us!
Question: Could you please describe how the cooperation between Debian and Ubuntu is evolving at the moment? What areas of development are covered, where do you see any space for improvements? Do you think that Ubuntu's contributed enhancements are flowing back to the Debian project in terms of a true mutuality? Could you name a few contributions from Ubuntu that actually helped the Debian project emerging directly from this joint work?
Anthony: Individual developers have cooperated closely ever since Ubuntu began, and a number of Ubuntu developers are personally committed to ensuring Debian remains a successful distribution in its own right. This form of cooperation has had a pretty large impact on the installer and X packaging for both distributions, and a smaller impact on various individual packages.
One of the technical difficulties we face in cooperating is that Ubuntu makes a number of decisions to make things work in a quick, but short term fashion, that's suitable for Ubuntu's target audience and semi-centralised development environment, but that aren't general enough to meet the broader expectations of Debian's userbase. Coming up with a better solution that works for both of us, and allows Ubuntu users to upgrade seamlessly, and doesn't cause problems for Debian users is difficult, and something we're both learning how to do on issues including Xorg or python.
We've begun doing a little work together on combining our publicity efforts, and I'm hopefully that we'll see some results from that over the next few months as the new debian-publicity team gets up to steam.