Happy 10th Birthday, Ubuntu

20th October 2004, ten years ago today, Ubuntu 4.10 (Warty Warthog) was released. While the user community celebrates the decade anniversary today, for me and those of us who worked on it, it was the result of almost eight months of work.

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My story, in common with the majority of the original group, really begins with the Debian Project. I had taken a year off full-time work and had been concentrating on involving myself more with the Linux community in general, and Debian in particular.

By early 2004, the then Debian Project Leader, Martin Michlmayr had asked me to step in and take over the maintenance of Dpkg, the central package management software of the operating system. I was invited to attend the Open Source World Conference in Málaga, Spain and meet with other developers there, in particular Colin Watson and Tollef Fog Heen, to figure out the details of how we’d go about that.

Since this conference was organized by the Spanish Government, meals were something of an extraordinary affair with three or four courses, many pieces of cutlery, rich seafood, and multiple wines. On the last day Bdale Garbee took us all to a restaurant where he ordered large plates of steak, and potatoes, and mugs of beer. The resulting food coma took out everybody.

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Mark Shuttleworth infamously vacationed to Antartica in early 2004. He took, as light reading material, the Debian mailing list archives, and pored through them, putting together a short list of the people he would want to work on his new project idea.

On the way back he stopped off in Sydney to meet with Robert Collins, who then suggested he meet Jeff Waugh. I’d been working with Jeff on the Planet blog aggregator for a while and I’d chatted to Robert on IRC too, since he had been helping me learn Arch to work with Jeff.

After he returned to London he met with Martin Michlmayr, who helped him weed through the list and suggest a few names of his own.

Those of us on the list had begun to receive emails from Mark while at OSWC, and sometimes a subtle suggestion from Martin to look in our Spam folders just in case we had missed anything. I usually joke that I never kept that mail, and instead recite it from “memory”, the text of which is a riff of a Nigerian scam e-mail—I’m told Canonical still includes the joke version in their “welcome” presentation.

But since this is an important anniversary, and I do really still have a copy of the real e-mail, I figured I would quote the real thing just this once:

I’m putting a team of Debian developers together to work full time on a
derivative distribution of Debian. The idea is to provide a high-quality
regular release based on Debian unstable, ensuring that all patches are
given back to Debian, and ensuring that the install disk of our
distribution consists entirely of Free software.

Martin and I spoke at length about the project and he seemed to like the
idea very much. I’m sure he’d be happy to let you know his thoughts
directly.

If you’re interested I’d like to give you a call to discuss it further
with you. I’m based in the UK so we’re roughly in the same timezone,
just let me know when and what number to reach you on.

The resulting phone call, and outline of the project, ended up being very much waiting for him to stop describing everything so I could say “yes”. Within seconds of hanging up the phone, I had a message on IRC from Jeff inviting me to the super-secret channel for those signing up, #weirdos on FreeNode. Already there were Jeff and Robert, and another Debian friend, Thom May; the topic of the channel—"my boss is a cosmonaut".

Over the coming weeks more and more names we knew from the Debian world would join this IRC channel, which we renamed #warthogs after the description Mark gave for a first release. We added a mailing list and a wiki, and an all-important Quotes page.

“We’ll get it out in just six months, so it’ll be a bit of a warty warthog.”

To this day Ubuntu releases have similar names. I once made the mistake of ridiculing the system, sarcastically suggesting that “bendy badger” should be the next release. Unfortunately Mark rather liked that, and it took a lot of persuading from everyone else to change it to “breezy”.

While we were all to work from home, much of the really interesting stuff happened at the various company meetings that began with a first in London, over the Easter weekend. The hotel picked was somewhat interesting, with a decent-sized labyrinth to negotiate to find your way from your room to the meeting room.

As we congregated in Mark’s flat in advance of this meeting, other Debian people became very aware that there was a significant group growing, partly because we were deliberately all signing in to #debian-devel from the same IP address. We became known as the “Super Secret Debian Startup” (SSDS). For some reason Mark disappeared part way through the first evening, leaving his partner to walk in and find a dozen free software developers hanging around in her home.

If memory serves, it was that evening when Mark first wrote the name Ubuntu on a flip chart, along with the other names people had proposed, and told us what it meant. Very few people argued for the other names after that, but it took a while for enough to be worked out for this to become our official name.

I think it might have been me that proposed registering no-name-yet.com and using it as our temporary home—in my previous job at an ISP, customers always got their own subdomain, and until the DNS was updated they would instead see the fallback no-dns-yet.demon.co.uk.

That first meeting nailed down much of the basics of what would become Ubuntu, and what would become Launchpad (then known as Soyuz). The initial set of packages that would compromise the desktop edition was taken by looking at what was installed on Matt Zimmerman’s laptop, and figuring it out from there.

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The next big trip was to DebConf in Brazil, notable for some because it was where the project was officially announced to the rest of Debian, and the developers working on it introduced. Probably more key though was the introduction of the card game Mao to the company, which would become an important social activity for many years to come. For years, no conference had really started until you heard the words:

The name of the game is Cambridge Standard Five Card Mao.
The only things I am allowed to tell you are this, and that any card
not found in a standard fifty-two card deck is a spare Nine of Diamonds.

GUADEC was next on the agenda for Jeff Waugh and I, and was where we got to experience the first reactions from other people within the Linux community. Particularly those from Red Hat, who didn’t think a six monthly stable release of Debian would catch on. The confusion over names was still rife, our company name at the time was still “MRS Virtual Development”.

“MRs VD’s Warty Ubuntu? Is that some kind of creme?”

“Yes, it cures Red Hat.”

We couldn’t just rely on other group’s conferences though, so by August we had another company meeting in Oxford to which we also invited a number of other Debian and free software developers. The prototype for the Ubuntu Developer Summit (UDS) that would come later.

Even without the name, some traditions were set this early on. The crazy pace, the excessive drinking, the tearing out of the hotel’s own WiFi network and replacing it with our own. Fortunately some events did not become traditions, the theft of people’s laptops by the hotel staff, for one.

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It was at Oxford that the governance of the open side of Ubuntu was debated, discussed, argued and agreed upon. The bicameral split between the Community Council and the Technical Board seems to have stood the test of time. It certainly worked for its first test: “The Naked People”.

To this day I’m not really sure what Mark’s intent was here. I believe that he truly didn’t see the problem with the planned artwork, if he had he wouldn’t have had so much effort put into the model shots, and pushing for the work to allow for a monthly “calendar” background, etc. To his credit he allowed the community to have its voice heard, and abided by their decision. Future CD artwork retained the humanity theme, but the humans also retained their clothes.

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At the very least, it gained the distribution a lot of publicity around the time of our first Beta release. And fortunately, aside from the default wallpaper, people liked what they saw.

It’s hard to remember the state of Linux when we started. During the Oxford conference Jeff and I gave a talk about the, then still in development, Ubuntu at the South Birmingham LUG. We just talked over a laptop, hooked up to a projector, installing Ubuntu. Something so simple as the one-pass installer Colin put together was something they just hadn’t seen before.

The surprising thing to me now, looking back, is how modest our goals were and how lofty they seemed at the time. Our goal was to be one of the top three Linux distributions after two years. I don’t remember Ubuntu ever leaving the #1 spot for the duration that I worked on it.

I don’t think any of us really realized how popular Ubuntu was at first, since heads were back down working on fixing all the problems of 4.10 and getting 5.04 out of the door a ridiculously short six months later—the first hurdle being merging all of our changes with those made in Debian again.

For me, the moment has always been arriving at Linux.conf.au in Canberra, shortly after the release of Hoary (5.04). We’d brought some of the first printed CDs with us on the plane, and we thought we would see if we could get some put on the check-in desk for people to take with us.

I dropped them off at the desk, to be asked if we had more; when I said there were a couple of boxes in my accommodation, the LCA crew came back with me to collect them. They wanted them all. And they were gone within minutes.

Of course, this was only just the beginning of the story. The next ten years would see so much: bags of death, Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu All Stars, our first Late To Ship (LTS) release, the endless battle with the UDS Scheduler, “for the next hour we’re behaving like a real company”, ARrrrrM, “Everything will be OK”, and more.

Others can tell those stories better than me, especially the stories of the last four years that I haven’t been involved, and yet more can tell the stories of the next ten years!

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The warm-hearted Warthogs of the Warty Team are proud to present the
very first release of Ubuntu!

Now Mark, about that trip to Antartica?

Photo and video credits:
Wikipedia Commons,
Martin Michlmayr,
Jeff Waugh,
Guillaume Guérin,
Lamont Jones.

Group photo rear:
Lamont Jones (lamont),
Martin Michlmayr (DPL, guest),
Jeff Waugh (jdub),
Michael Vogt (mvo),
Colin Watson (Kamion),
Mark Shuttleworth (sabdfl),
Thom May (thom),
Robert Collins (lifeless),
Matthias Klose (doko),
Scott James Remnant (Keybuk),
Fabio Massimo Di Nitto (fabbione)

Group photo front:
Matt Zimmerman (mdz),
Dafydd Harries (daf),
James Troup (elmo)

 
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