Why I'm Leaving Ubuntu for Debian

Posted January 27, 2013 in linux

I decided to switch to Debian.

I’ve been using Ubuntu as my primary operating system since 2005. Back then it was truly amazing. Before I started using Ubuntu I tried out Red Hat, Mandrake (and later Mandriva), Slackware, Gentoo, and even Debian. In all of them, something didn’t work. Usually it was wifi, but sometimes it was audio or video, or weird X config problems. But when I switched to Ubuntu, all of that went away. Rather than being frusturated that I was still a Linux noob and couldn’t even connect to the internet, Ubuntu helped me get past the initial barriers so I could really dive in. I’m eternally grateful to Ubuntu for this, and I’m very impressed at how successful they’ve has been at fixing bug #1 (though there’s still a long way to go).

However, a lot of Ubuntu’s recent decisions have been turning me off. It started a couple years ago when they changed the default desktop environment from GNOME to Unity. I had played with Unity when it was called “Ubuntu Netbook Remix” and I thought it was a fun toy, and might be easier to use on a touchscreen device than GNOME. But they made it the default before it was ready. Still, I saw where they were going with it and respected them for being so ambitious.

Another thing that started to annoy me was Ubuntu One, their cloud service. I could immediately see that if I were to use and rely on Ubuntu One, I would be locked in. It would be like needing iCloud or something, and I didn’t like that idea. I was also noticing that my OS was starting to want me to buy stuff. Cloud storage space, music from the Ubuntu One music store straight from rhythmbox. It didn’t bother me all that much, but it was definitely a new direction for my OS that I wasn’t a huge fan of.

Around the same time came the Ubuntu Software Center. At first I was impressed. They managed to make something way more usable than Synaptic Package Manager for finding programs to install. It wasn’t always clear which packages were programs themselves or just dependencies of other programs, but Ubuntu added ratings, reviews, screenshots, and a nicer interface. But then they started integrating the Ubuntu Software Center with Ubuntu One. Then they started selling proprietary software through it. Then they started calling programs “apps”, and featuring them with big graphical banners. I don’t know how they decide what programs to feature, but whenever I open it, it always seems to feature a proprietary video game that costs money.

I talked to my friend and colleague Seth Schoen about the Ubuntu Software Center selling proprietary software, and he pointed out that it goes directly against the Ubuntu Manifesto. I looked it up and read it, and it sure seemed that way to me. Only now I can’t seem to find a copy of it. The only reference to the manifesto that I can find on ubuntu.com is in some documentation on an old release:

The Ubuntu community is built on the ideas enshrined in the Ubuntu Manifesto: that software should be available free of charge, that software tools should be usable by people in their local language and despite any disabilities, and that people should have the freedom to customize and alter their software in whatever way they see fit.

Even then, I still was relatively happy with Ubuntu. Then they started adding online search lenses to Unity’s dash, specifically one that automatically searched Amazon for products to buy each time you try to open a program, and the Ubuntu community exploded in controversy.

People were offended that their free software operating system was suddently advertising to them all the time and that their search terms were getting sent to a handful of third parties. I blogged about this on EFF’s website and included a (in my opinion) completely reasonable list of requests. The most important one, with the aim of protecting the privacy of all Ubuntu users that might not dig into their settings, “Disable ‘Include online search results’ by default”, was the one that they most staunchly refused to budge on.

After watching Canonical’s announcement about the Ubuntu phone, I think I understand why. Ubuntu is pulling an Apple. They want to merge the desktop, tablet, and phone, and they want them all to have a familiar and user friendly interface. Only, sadly, Ubuntu’s interface includes sending your search terms to an undefined list of companies, every time, without the option to opt-in. Privacy is clearly not on the top of their priority list. I was looking forward to the prospect of truly open phone, but I can’t trust Ubuntu to protect my privacy anymore. Now my hopes lie in Firefox OS.

Now I’m typing this blog post on my freshly installed Debian laptop. Debian also has documents like the Ubuntu Manifesto (Debian Social Contract and Free Software Guidelines), but I doubt they’ll ever disappear from debian.org.

One of the things that’s prevented me from switching to Debian in the past is that all of the software in the stable repositories is old (one of the reasons it’s so stable). After talking to some Debian-using friends and asking in #debian on irc.oftc.net, I decided to use the testing repositories instead, which is closer to Ubuntu’s set of software anyway.

Debian is still a bit rough around the edges compared to Ubuntu. My laptop requires a proprietary wifi driver that wasn’t present in the netinst cd, but I got it working without too much trouble anyway. I’m running Iceweasel 10.0.12, but Firefox is at 18.0.1 now and I have to do some work to get the latest version. I’m sure I’ll run into other issues too, issues that don’t exist when you use Ubuntu.

But it’s totally worth it, because now I’m using an operating system that I feel that I can trust again.

Update: It looks like the Ubuntu Manifesto (I assume it’s the original, but I’m not sure) is on ubuntu.com. It’s not labeled as the Ubuntu Manifesto, and is on a page called Our Philosophy.

Update to the update: A commenter informed me that, “With the end of the 10.04 LTS support Canonical will silently remove the last traces of its former Manifesto that remained in the LTS documentation. The new marketing take concerning the ‘free of charge’ topic can be found on http://www.ubuntu.com/about/about-ubuntu/: ‘… available free of charge … funded through a portfolio of services provided by Canonical.'”