Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 07 Dec 2007

Bug fixes? Why would we bother to ship bug fixes?

(A culture of regressions, part 2)

I've been running on Ubuntu's latest, "Gutsy gibbon", for maybe a month now. Like any release, it has its problems that I've needed to work around. Like many distros, these problems won't be fixed before the next release. But unlike other distros, it's not just lack of developer time; it turns out Ubuntu's developers point to an official policy as a reason not to fix bugs.

Take the case of the aumix bug. Aumix just plain doesn't work in gutsy. It prints, "aumix: SOUND_MIXER_READ_DEVMASK" and exits.

This turns out to be some error in the way it was compiled. If you apt-get the official ubuntu sources, build the package and install it yourself, it works fine. So somehow they got a glitch during the process of building it, and produced a bad binary.

(Minor digression -- does that make this a GPL violation? Shipping sources that don't match the distributed binary? No telling what sources were used to produce the binary in Gutsy. Not that anyone would actually want the sources for the broken aumix, of course.)

It's an easy fix, right? Just rebuild the binary from the source in the repository, and push it to the servers.

Apparently not. A few days ago, Henrik Nilsen Omma wrote in the bug:

This bug was nominated for Gutsy but does currently not qualify for a 7.10 stable release update (SRU) and the nomination is therefore declined. According the the SRU policy, the fix should already be deployed and tested in the current development version before an update to the stable releases will be considered. [ ... ] See: https://wiki.ubuntu.com/StableReleaseUpdates.

Of course, I clicked on the link to receive enlightenment. Ubuntu's Stable Release page explains

Users of the official release, in contrast, expect a high degree of stability. They use their Ubuntu system for their day-to-day work, and problems they experience with it can be extremely disruptive. Many of them are less experienced with Ubuntu and with Linux, and expect a reliable system which does not require their intervention.
by way of explaining the official Ubuntu policy on updates:
Stable release updates will, in general, only be issued in order to fix high-impact bugs. Examples of such bugs include:
  • Bugs which may, under realistic circumstances, directly cause a security vulnerability
  • Bugs which represent severe regressions from the previous release of Ubuntu
  • Bugs which may, under realistic circumstances, directly cause a loss of user data

Clearly aumix isn't a security vulnerability or a loss of user data. But I could make a good argument that a package that doesn't work ... ever ... for anyone ... constitutes a severe regression from the previous version of that package.

Ubuntu apparently thinks that users get used to packages not working, and grow to like it. I guess that if you actually fixed packages that you broke, that would be disruptive to users of the stable release.

I'm trying to picture these Ubuntu target users, who embrace regressions and get upset when something that doesn't work at all gets fixed so that it works as it did in past releases. I can't say I've ever actually met a user like that myself. But evidently the Ubuntu Updates Team knows better.

Update: I just have to pass along Dave's comment: "When an organization gets to the point where it spends more energy on institutional processes for justifying not fixing something than on just fixing it -- it's over."

Update: Carla Schroder has also written about this.

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[ 10:21 Dec 07, 2007    More linux | permalink to this entry ]