Towards Debian rolling: my own Debian CUT manifesto

As you might know, I’m of one the people who promote the idea of having a Constantly Usable Testing (CUT). I will post a set of articles on this topic to help me clarify my ideas and to get some early feedback of other Debian contributors. I plan to use the result of this process to kickstart a broader discussion on debian-devel (where I hope to get the release team involved).

Let’s start by defining my own objectives with Debian CUT. I won’t speak of the part of Debian CUT that plans to make regular snapshots of testing with installable media because that’s not where I will invest my time. I do hope other people will do it though. Instead I will concentrate on changes that would improve Debian testing for end-users. I consider that testing (in its current form) is largely usable already but there are two main obstacles to overcome.

Testing without freezes = rolling

The first one is that testing is no longer testing during freezes. The regular flow of new upstream versions—that makes testing so interesting for many users—is stalled because we’re using testing to finalize the next stable version. That’s why I’d like to introduce a new suite called “rolling” that would work like the current testing except that it never freezes. Testing would no longer be a permanent suite, it would only exist during the freeze and it would be branched off from rolling.

Rolling should be a supported distribution

The second obstacle is not really technical. We must advertise rolling as a distribution that ordinary people can use but we should make it clear that it’s never going to have the same level of polish that a stable release can have. And to back up this assertion, we must empower Debian developers to be able to provide good support of their software in rolling, this probably means using “rolling-proposed-updates” more often to push fixes and security updates when the natural flow of updates is blocked by transitions or other problems. Some maintainers won’t have the time required to provide the same level of support as they currently do for a stable release and that’s okay, it’s not worse than the current testing. The goal is to treat it on a best-effort basis and to try to gradually improve the situation.

My goal for wheezy

This is the the minimal implementation of CUT that I would like to target in the wheezy timeframe. Having testing as a temporary branch of rolling is not a strict requirement, although I’d argue that it’s important to not waste resources towards maintaining two separate yet very similar distributions.

Should Debian embrace those goals?

Ignoring all possible problems that will surface while trying to implement those goals, can we agree that Debian should embrace those goals because it means providing a better service to a class of users that is not satisfied by the current stable release?

I will come back to the expected problems in a subsequent post and we will have the opportunity to discuss them. Here I just want to see whether we can have broad buy-in on the principles behind Debian rolling and CUT.

Librement: a new way to help people who want to contribute to free software

Find your way in the free software worldI have this project in my head, I want to work on it but I always lack the time. In order to go forward, I thought I could write about it, at least it would let me clarify my ideas and the core goals. So here I am, I will present you Librement (I have registered the alioth project but it’s empty).

The core goal is to make it easy for every user to contribute to free software in some way. I will now present the main features that I envision.

Defining skills and interests

In order to propose tasks that the user can do, we must have an idea of his skills. So on the first run (and later through a preferences menu) the user will be invited to define his skills:

  • his native languages (multiple allowed)
  • other languages he can understand
  • programming languages he knows
  • version control systems he can use
  • markup language he knows (HTML, DocBook, Wiki-like formats, etc.)
  • etc.

Maybe we can also ask which skills he would like to learn. Because contributing to free software is a nice opportunity to learn new skills!

We should also find out what the user is interested in. What are his favorite free software projects? What kind of contributions would he like to do (documentation, translation, coding, bug fixing, bug triaging, creating artwork, donations, etc.)?

Choose activities and pick concrete tasks

Based on the user’s skills and his interests, the software shows a list of possible activities. The user can then sort that list, from the most interesting one to those that he doesn’t want to do.

Each activity can generate concrete tasks. For example, the activity “Do translation for Debian” could generate a task “Translate strings in debconf/fr.po” or “Review translations in partman/fr.po”.

Work on tasks

When the user decides to work on a task, a step-by-step assistant helps him/her. It can automate some steps and provide explanations for the remaining ones, for example in the case of a translation for Debian:

  • grab the PO file (from a VCS, from an HTTP URL, from a translation server, etc.);
  • select and install a software to work with PO file (if not already done);
  • edit the PO file with the preferred program;
  • check the PO file (is it complete? is there no mistakes like missing substitutions?);
  • send back the completed PO file in a mail to the Debian bugtracking system.

If the tasks is not completed in one go, the user can resume it the next time.

Each free software project must provide some meta-information describing the various workflows involved for contributing to the different parts of the project. If necessary the project can also provide new plugins to support new operations that are not available in the default library.

Setting goals

In order to keep the user motivated, the software could track how much time he spent contributing to free software and it could verify if the user reached the goals he picked up for himself. Maybe it can also hook into the OMG Trophy Awarding System.

The sky is the limit

I hope that you now have a clearer idea of what this desktop application is supposed to be. There are literally hundreds of ways to contribute to free software and I like the idea that we can streamline the process for most users.

All the plugins implementing activities can use local information (list of packages installed with their versions, configuration settings, etc.) to propose tasks targetted to the user and highly beneficial for the corresponding free software projects. For example, a bug tagged unreproducible might benefit from a few more users trying to reproduce it. The software could direct the user to this bug report if it detects that he/she runs the same version on the same architecture and that this software is regularly run on the system.

Many projects have created “operations” or “events” to encourage people to contribute, they could all be implemented as dedicated activities in Librement. I’m thinking of stuff like Gnome Love, Ubuntu’s 5-a-day, Ubuntu’s 100 papercuts, etc.

Even for people who have no time to contribute, the application can still be useful by referencing the various ways to donate money (or material) to projects that they are using.

Feedback welcome

I’m excited by the potential of such an application, but it’s normal since it’s my idea. Do you believe it can be useful and popular? Do you have ideas of exciting activities that such a framework can offer?

PS: If you wonder how I came up with the name “Librement”, here’s the explanation. It’s a French word which means “freely”. And users who want to give back are trying to live up to the principles of free software, which I sum up by “they are trying to live freely”.

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