Ubuntu update policy change is probably a good thing
Despite some premature reports on the net, Canonical isn’t moving to a rolling release schedule for Ubuntu. However, the organisation is open to making some changes to the way that some software packages are updated. It’s seems likely that a mechanism that supports the adding of up to date application packages outside of the normal software repository updates is probably on the cards, and I’d say that it’s about time.
Ubuntu's six month release schedule allows Canonical to ensure stability and means that organisations know that they are getting a reliable and predictable system. The snag is that updates to software applications tend to be mere bug fixes and security updates. This means that users who only use the official method to update their system have been left stuck with outdated software. Sometimes this is a big deal, as having to make do with a six month old version of Firefox, for example, makes the Linux desktop seem unwieldy compared to Windows.
It’s not just Ubuntu that suffers from this problem either. The current Debian stable release, Lenny, only offers KDE 4.1 in its repository. As KDE SC 4 users will recall, 4.1 was almost unusable. The solution, in this case, is to switch from Debian stable to unstable, but obviously, not everyone is comfortable making such a fundamental move, but you don’t have much choice if you want to use KDE 4 on Debian.
People with a bit more expertise can add the software that they need by compiling from source, installing a binary or by adding a PPA. However, the point is that Ubuntu is supposed to offer a good Linux experience for non experts, and these other methods (and backing out of them) are fiddly.
Visiting the Firefox website illustrates the problem. The front page correctly identifies the system that the user is running and offers a “Download Firefox!” icon. However, this icon links to a .tar.bz containing the binary files, with no explanation of how to install it, or for that matter, how to keep the new version constantly updated. Things get even worse when the hypothetical “average computer user” wants to try out Firefox 4 beta for a quick look.
In contrast, a competent Windows user could probably handle the upgrade. To that user, Windows will seem like the better system, and in all fairness, and from their perspective, they may have a point. Windows does allow you to easily add anything you want to your system, and it's hardly unreasonable to want to try out the latest version of Firefox, Chrome or Open Office, for example.
So what is the solution? Could Linux switch to the Windows application installation method, in which every application installed from a downloaded file and has its own unique method of monitoring updates? I certainly hope not. Package managers on major distributions are now so dependable that they have become a genuine selling point in favour of Linux.
The ideal solution probably lies with an automated, user friendly system that interfaces with the PPA system or a GUI package manager that can handle downloaded .deb or .rpm packages. The ability to back out of something that isn’t working and revert to an earlier version is also important.
I suspect that what Canonical will eventually offer in this area will be based around its Software Centre application. Hopefully it will add a feature to select the version of a software package and mark one version as the standard, stable release and another as the latest release.
The question is, how far will they take it? Will they have a definite split between base packages and software ports like the FreeBSD system, or will they highlight the 40 or so most important packages and add a system for adding bleeding edge versions for people who want them?