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Recently, many people have speculated that Ubuntu might be rethinking its current development cycle. Basically, the word is that Ubuntu might find itself evolving into a rolling release distribution.
Abandoning its current time-based distribution cycle would translate into a host of new challenges for developers and users alike.
In this article, I'll explore what would happen if Ubuntu went to a rolling release schedule, how it would affect the end user and whether or not it would be beneficial overall.
Nothing Is Confirmed – Yet
At the time of this writing, Ubuntu developers have said that Ubuntu won't be switching to a rolling release model.
If you're not a fan of the rolling release styled distribution, this is good news. However, for those who feel like that a rolling release would give Ubuntu an advantage, this could be seen as a real let down.
A rolling release would mean more readily available access to newer kernels and, in some instances, more challenges with undiscovered bugs.
According to the Ubuntu team, their existing release process is complicated. The current reliable schedule isn't without its merits with regard to stability. Both the regular releases and the long-term support releases of Ubuntu offer a certain degree of bug testing before updates go forth into the world.
Still, one has to wonder, what would happen if Ubuntu decided to go with a rolling release and then major updates for their long-term support releases? If Ubuntu was to take such an approach in the near future, despite current claims, what would this look like?
Rolling Release Fallout
When it comes to a rolling release, stability tends to take second place to a bleeding-edge experience. Some would argue that a rolling release deals with bugs and instability by offering a rapid bug fix because updates are just "released" without a set schedule. And to a degree, this is true.
But for the casual user, it still presents a problem. Most Ubuntu users aren't looking for the most up-to-date features so much as a reasonably current desktop experience that offers some stability. Going with a rolling release schedule jeopardizes this.
Another concern is whether the Ubuntu developers will be able to re-tool completely the methods they use to keep Ubuntu functional and easy to use. Instead of relying on the existing buildup of testing that works well now, a rolling release might mean releasing system-wide updates that aren't ready for prime time. Worse, it could also mean releasing updates to software that breaks already working releases. And for those who want the latest software, Ubuntu PPAs already address this nicely.
Rolling Release Benefits
Ask any Arch Linux user, and they'll be the first to tell you that the software packages in their repositories are the freshest, most up to date available. This is an area where Ubuntu lags a bit, as its software tends to be fairly stagnant by comparison.
If Ubuntu were to switch to a rolling release, I suspect Linux enthusiasts looking for the most recent release possible would give Ubuntu serious consideration. Clearly, access to the latest software is tempting and worth consideration. If not, then why are PPAs for kernel and software updates so popular on Ubuntu? Many Ubuntu users enjoy the Ubuntu experience and functionality, yet also want a bleeding-edge software experience as well.
Next, there is the convenience of a rolling release. Unlike a time-based release, a rolling release frees you from the concern of planning your next distribution upgrade. Assuming it's a full rolling release, the distribution would continuously update both the software packages for that system in addition to keeping the core system up to date with the latest fixes and functionality.
One of my favorite examples where a rolling release would be beneficial is with desktop environment updates. Imagine being able to try a brand new release of Unity on a current version of Ubuntu. No matter how you look at it, running with a rolling release does have an appealing side.
Meeting in the middle
Since there are some inherent concerns regarding switching Ubuntu to a full-on rolling release, perhaps the best approach is a "partly rolling release" distribution instead.
This would protect the system core from breakage during random updates, while keeping the software fresher than what we're seeing now.
What would this look like on a newbie friendly distribution? I'd point to PCLinuxOS as an example of a distribution that is already doing this successfully. PCLinuxOS offers a partial rolling release that provides users with a ton of great application updates, while protecting the underpinnings of the distro. Because of this, PCLinuxOS prevents the typical newbie from having a bad experience.
Another benefit to meeting in the middle with a partial rolling release would be that newbies wouldn't find themselves overwhelmed with the hassle of trying to deal with a typical Ubuntu upgrade. In my mind, this a good thing.
I know of PCLinuxOS users who have had the same install running for two years without ever needing to reinstall. Best of all, these users are running a fully updated system. As an Ubuntu user I find this concept interesting and a bit unusual, as a clean install of Ubuntu is sometimes needed due to the nature of the distribution.
The ten thousand dollar question should be, would a rolling release even work considering Ubuntu is trying to target the server, mobile and desktop markets all at once? At this point, all signs point to this being problematic. Still, for desktop users, I believe an Ubuntu rolling release may need to happen eventually.
Rolling Release Workaround
I hate to admit it, but honestly, going outside of the Ubuntu Software Center to get an up-to-date release of common software is tiresome. In the past, Linux software solutions such as Klik offered a unique way of installing software onto a Linux distro without concern over meeting dependencies. Best of all, it worked in a uniform way for users of any and all distributions.
Today Klik is no more, however PortableLinuxApps is still available for those who wish to experience a single file application installation under Ubuntu.
Despite being flawed on many levels, PortableLinuxApps does shine some light on one approach to providing new software versions regardless of the Linux distribution release. This type of approach has proved to be successful for Unix operating systems such as OS X. Unfortunately, however, the PortableLinuxApps approach does lack the ability to update to the latest software, like we enjoy with APT. Regardless, the idea of a self-contained software "image" for the Ubuntu desktop is fascinating, and I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that one day this could be part of the Ubuntu experience.
Would it work as a satisfactory alternative to a rolling distribution? It's a possibility. It could prevent users from hosing their core system-wide installation, while still being able to use non-release centric software.
Where Ubuntu will take us with regard to software availability and system stability is still foggy right now. However, one thing is for sure at this point, there are no plans on changing their existing release strategy just yet.