Is Ubuntu broken?

Posted on Thursday, November 12, 2009 by Erlik

There seems to be quite a few concerns and complains about recent Ubuntu releases. Are there really that many regressions and instabilities with the latest releases of Ubuntu? Probably! Should we accept that in a production OS? No, but there is something that a many people tend to forget: the primary objective of these interim releases is not stability. I think that a lot of people tend to dismiss the Ubuntu release cycle, and for a good reason: that cycle is not a perfect solution. Lets look at the problem in detail:

Ubuntu 9.04 and 9.10 regressions

No one can argue that the two most recent releases of Ubuntu have been full of problems. The 9.04 release brought a lot of regressions and instabilities with the Intel video driver, which unfortunately is the most common graphic adapter in use. The 9.10 version seems to have it's own share of problems with a lot of people reporting troubles after upgrading in the Ubuntu forums. This certainly discredit Ubuntu as a consumer ready OS, but the problem is that Ubuntu 9.04 and 9.10 do not aim to be consumer ready but merely a rehearsal for the next LTS version of Ubuntu!

Ubuntu's misunderstood release cycle

Let's look in more detail at the Ubuntu release cycle. Every two year we get a Long term support (or LTS) release. That release is supposed to be stable, consumer ready and widely used. Currently the LTS release is version 8.04 and there are very little issues with it as long as you install it on supported hardware. In addition every 6 month you get an interim Ubuntu release. That release is not intended for mainstream users but rather for people who want (or need) the bleeding edge in Linux packages, drivers and kernel. They are not meant to used for extended period of time, so they have a short support cycle of only 18 months. The long term releases on the other hand is supported for a much more comfortable 3 years, and you can upgrade from LTS to LTS without ever having to touch an interim release.

LTS releases are the true consumer Ubuntu

If you take the time to think about it the message is clear: if you just want to use your Ubuntu computer without having to muck around too much with the OS, just install the LTS release and skip the interims! My MSI wind running Ubuntu 8.04 is still working fine, but Ubuntu 9.10 would not work with it. Interim releases don't focus on stability and reliability, that's the job of the LTS release, they focus on new features. You are probably wondering then why so many people install interim releases and complain about stability then? Well, it is part ignorance, but also part of a far more sinister issue with LTS.

The problem of Long Term Support releases

There is a major problem with LTS though: If you just bought a brand new computer, there are chances that some of the hardware won't work with Ubuntu 8.04. After all, the OS was released more than 18 months ago, in the meantime new hardware has appeared, and it was not possible at the time to included drivers for devices that did not even exist. As an example I recently purchased an Acer Aspire One for my wife and wanted to replace Linpus Linux by a newer version of Ubuntu or Linux Mint. In the end I used Linux Mint 7 (based on Ubuntu 9.04) because there were too many driver issues with Ubuntu 8.04. In the end it was easier to fix the problems with the Intel display driver in 9.04 than to sort out all the other issues with 8.04. Note that I won't upgrade the machine OS anytime soon, maybe I will reinstall when the next LTS release is available if it solves the few remaining issues.

The problem with interim releases

Interim releases have the opposite problem: they include bleeding edges software and drivers, but these have not been tested by a large amount of users, and as a result regressions and breakages are fairly common. Canonical started working on Ubuntu 9.10 six months ago, while Ubuntu 8.04 probably has 2 years worth of troubleshooting and patching behind it. It is not difficult to guess which release will be the best as far as stability is concerned. In 3 to 6 months Ubuntu 9.10 will be a lot better as the biggest issues are fixed by patches, but when that happens people will only talk about Ubuntu 10.04, and most of them will say that it is not as stable as 9.10. In my opinion it takes 3 to 6 months after initial release for an Ubuntu version to be ready for mainstream users. The problem is that by that date most users consider it outdated.

So is Ubuntu broken

I don't think so, at least not more than most other Linux distributions. The problem is that we have two kinds of Linux desktops with their own problems. On one side you have the sedate LTS releases that are stable and ready for the average user, but may be incompatible with newer hardware and software. On the other side you have the bleeding edge interim releases with all the their problems and breakneck 6 month release cycles. Most problems arise when someone wanting a long term solution (a LTS) is forced to use an interim release instead because of hardware compatibility. Is there a solution to this? Ubuntu could make LTS releases every year, reducing the problem. They could invest more in backporting drivers and applications to the current LTS (although this can be problematic since drivers are part of the kernel). Better driver support from hardware manufacturers could probably help too. In the end there is probably no perfect solution.

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40 Responses to "Is Ubuntu broken?":

eklem says:

Canonical also add to the problem by only communicate the latest release. If you go to you find only the latest release mentioned. Even when you press the "download"-button they only tell you about Karmic Koala. To get to the latest LTS you need to press the link "Alternative download options, including Ubuntu installer for Windows" instead of the big, green, inviting Download-button. Conclusion: They tell you the reality in small print, but they don't communicate it.

Why? They need the fuzz and buzz every six months, and they don't get that by telling you "Hey, we got this semi-old OS without the latest drivers, you want to give it a spin?". So I think it would be wise to make every second release, at least for the desktop, into a LTS-release.

Don Birdsall says:

There seems to be a consensus that Ubuntu LTS releases will be more "stable" and have fewer bugs than interim releases. Where does Canonical actually make that commitment? And how will they accomplish this feat? Will developers take shorter coffee breaks and work weekends? Will they get their sloppy acts together and do a better job?

I can find only two commitments from Ubuntu. You can read them yourself in the 'About' option in the 'System' menu. Canonical promises to provide support for 36 months instead of 18. Users of the last LTS release can upgrade to the next without going through the interim releases. That is all.

I would really like to be wrong about this and truly hope that bugs affecting me in 9.10 will be fixed in 10.4. Can someone actually point me to a statement from Canonical that that will happen?

Anonymous says:

I got a chuckle from this article.
If you are going to go with Ubuntu
LTS releases which are 2 years apart, then you are right back to Debian.

Every livecd i've tried always
had boot problems. No thanks, I'll stick with Debian.

What good is a 6 month
release schedule when you tarnish
your brand (and by extension the linux desktop reputation) by releasing unready crap.

They're still providing a valuable service, but they should stop calling them releases and instead call it an Ubuntu BM (for bowel movement).

Anonymous says:

@anonymouse debian lover

YMMV definitely applies here.
I never had luck installing debian and keeping it which is why I like Ubuntu so much. I've never had a major problem with installs. Recently I tried sidux b/c I really wanted to try out debian (and it's supposed to be easy with the livecd). Well, all I got was a black screen on my laptop, an HP v5000.

Again, YMMV.

Zona de Slumbergod says:

Ubuntu is not "broken" but they're definitely lost the way with the last two releases.

We keep hearing about how great Ubuntu is and suggestions that it might even be an alternative to Windows. Then along came 9.04 and 9.10 which have had so many issues the experience sux for the first month or two!

SLOW down. We don't care about whether it is an LTS release or not! We just stability and I think that should happen with all "final" releases.

Anonymous says:

Actually what you said about the LTS versions being for people how want stability is not entirely accurate. You mentioned ubuntu 8.04. When released it included a beta version of firefox 3 and an early version of pulseaudio which gave many problems to users. I would understand the inclusion of these packages in an interim version of ubuntu but not in an LTS release! Ubuntu 8.04 development was handled like a regular ubuntu release. Ubuntu 6.06 was handled like a proper LTS (the only version to be delayed by a month or so). Ubuntu 10.04 is on the right track (fewer alpha releases, more beta releases, pulling packages from debian testing)

Will says:

So why isn't the LTS version the top link on the download page?

Carl D says:

I've reviewed every Ubuntu release since 8.10 on my blog, and have found that 9.10 is the best release so far. I must be lucky or something but I've done two upgrades and one fresh install without any problems. the only thing I don't like about 9.10 is the login screen, but that's a minor point really. i did an upgrade on an Acer SFF L320 the other day from 8.10 --> 9.0.4 --> 9.10 and it went very smoothly. it even fixed the problem I had on 8.10 where the login screen was at the wrong resolution. My other upgrade was on my own-build desktop and my fresh install was on my HP6120 laptop (originally Suse certified hardware)

lefty.crupps says:

I too stick with Debian; its been so much more stable for me even when running Testing or Sid releases, and the KDE is much better IMHO than what Kubuntu offers.

Ubuntu has had problems with its release that just don't exist in Debian, which souldbe be the case if Ubuntu is just a recompile of Debian, or whatever it is supposed to represent.

I do wish Debian would get some more GUI admin tools and a working remastering program, so that Debian remixes could be as common as the *buntu remixes.

Ryan says:

Another problem with the LTS stems from the fact linux uses a package manager, even for standard programs. Eg. I have 8.04, but I want to upgrade to Firefox 3.5. I either have to leave the package manager and get Firefox from the website, or I have to add in a third-party repo for that. Same goes for, and just about any other app. I would like to keep the OS at the LTS release, but be able to use new apps. That is almost impossible to do.

Raj says:

Would be better if you admitted that Ubuntu goofed on a second consecutive release. People reacted a lot worse when Mandrake was in the same boat. Today Mandriva's 2010 release is the best face for Linux on the desktop.

Anonymous says:

LTS is too stretched and intrim is just short.

Keep the 6 month cycle but alternate...

9.04 should have been experimental
9.10 should have been bug fix

10.04 experiment
10.10 bug fix... etc

Anonymous says:

WE MUST DO BETTER. Abolish the old confusing system and adopt something that works. (x)Ubuntu by name and nature is for non-technical users! Any side projects should be, just that.

Make ONE type of release and about every year! Slow down; if it's not rock solid stable enough. Speed up, the consistent stability.

LTS has become a laughing stock and an excuse. It's "correct" explanation is thrown out; every time Ubuntu drops the ball.

Look, nothings perfect an broken is, well, broken, That's that. We can be more excellent! We can be the best! To many people are far to comfortable with unfriendly, geeky and broken. The general public will NEVER be.

littlenoodles says:

>Ryan says:
>I would like to keep the OS at the LTS >release, but be able to use new apps. >That is almost impossible to do.

You hit the nail on the head. Applications aren't part of the Linux OS, but because of all the distro incompatibilities, the only reliable way to get most applications is from the distro's repositories. So, unless Ubuntu is willing to commit to keeping the major apps (especially Firefox and OOo) current in their LTS repositories, those releases aren't really LTS. If there is no practical, easy way to keep your applications current (and secure), then what's 'long term' about it?

There's a problem out there in Linux land that nobody wants to talk about. There is no 'Linux'. Not even if you stick with Ubuntu, the provider of the 'most popular' distro. The major desktops are still in phase of rapid development that is incompatible with widespread desktop adoption. Linux really needs to get to a state of 'good enough' and stay there a while. I think it's close, but then again, I'm sure 11.0.4 will have lots of goodies that break lots of stuff all over again.

Don't get me wrong. I use Linux exclusively at home. I also install a whole new release several times a year (and fix it when updates leave me without a working system). But I am not a mainstream user, and I want to be able to comfortably recommend Linux to the mainstream, if only to make sure that the distros survive for me.

Anonymous says:

I think, it is time to define "Linux certificated PC" and test it well. Apple has wonderful OS working on wonderful HW; Linux can have something similar. Just define HW for PC, test Linux on it well. I expect several systems will be avaible including Virtual Machines (VMware, VirtualBox). HW should cover Wi-Fi cards, modems, 3D graphic, TV cards, video grab cards, DVD player, sound cards, card readers, etc.

Microsoft has simlar program too, HW manufacturer can buy certifivate that his device is 100% comaptible with MS Windows OS. I think we need something similar for Linux desktop. I am looking formward for labels "100% Ubuntu compatible" or "Ubuntu Certificated Hardware".

It is easier to write and test system for small set of HW than to "all HW available".

Linerd says:

Like eklem said above, everything on the Ubuntu home page is about version 9.10 and that's the default on the download page. You have to know what you're looking for to even find the LTS release.

8.04 was no picnic either. A lot of things were broken/beta when it first came out. The LTS download version is up to 8.04.3 now. It's already been through 8.04, 8.04.1, and 8.04.2.

jelabarre says:

I'm not sure if the problem is in Ubuntu itself, or if it's in the DeviceKit replacement for udev. I installed the pre-release versions of udev and the 2.6.31-15 kernel, and problems like a broken automounting have mostly gone away.

Spoken Word ™ says:

I've been an Ubuntu user since '05. And although the last 2 versions have had their fare share of issues, so have Fedora, Mandriva, openSUSE and many others. The issue seems to be this ridiculous insistence on a 6 month release cycle. It's not needed and it doesn't give enough time for problems to be sorted out. A yearly release cycle would make more sense.

em4r1z says:

Are you serious? If LTS is the actual Ubuntu release and six months versions are betas, what's its advantage over Debian or CentOS? Any Debian release (even if it's five years old) is more stable and robust than any Ubuntu LTS (including the lastest). Why would someone pick Ubuntu, a customized snapshot of Debian Unstable, instead of Debian Stable?

Ubuntu LTS might be stable during its lifespan but it's not upon release. Debian, on the contrary, is enterprise ready when it's released. Desktop users use Testing or Unstable, update everyday and have way less problems than Ubuntu users.

choc says:

I agree with Carl D. I have been using Ubuntu since I got my DELL I9100. I am still using the same machine and Ubuntu 9.10 has finally gotten it all right for this machine. My multimedia buttons work - back button in Nautilus works - everything is working now (Just Works).

I have seen many changes and have had to add many changes over the past few years. However, the times when Ubuntu did not work was when I added something that broke the system. Updates only usually break the login process for me, not the rest of the system. Once I get past repairing grub or whatever broke if anything, it's all down-hill.

I also use pretty much all betas and release candidates, which usually always break, however that's not a problem with me as it's not the final release. I have not had any issues with final releases of Ubuntu to date.

I entertained Ubuntu Mint and Ubuntu Studio...neither gave me flexibility that Ubuntu x.xx has given me, and always returned to the base OS.

Hope everyone else with issues get resolution eventually, or at least take this time to plan for a more compatible machine to run Ubuntu. I just got lucky with my DELL I9100 it seems.

Anonymous says:

Too bad Canonical's products don't match the marketing and hype. Probably the best marketed distro in linux land. Although I install Mandriva on my friends machine because of the control center.

Arch with its rolling release gives me the latest and greatest updates so dont have to worrry about upgrades breaking my system.

Karl says:

Sorry, it's my fault, at least partially. I upgraded a month or so before the first RC, had the nvidia kernel module bug, spent a half hour or so fixing it on my system, thought "That must be something they will fix before release," and forgot all about it until I read all the articles after launch.

Yes, one person who isn't an official developer can't really be held responsible, but apparently you gather enough people who had the skills like me to fix it but assumed someone else would, and you end up with a bad experience for everyone who doesn't. I'm vowing to try never to let that happen again, and I encourage the rest of you like me out there to do the same.

Anonymous says:

Give me a break! If Ubuntu is broken... Look, have any of you even tried Windows lately? If you want to learn the definition of broken, try one of those for a while and then come back. I use Ubuntu by night and have been forced to use XP by day on multiple hardware sets, including one matching the one running Ubuntu. I have had some issues with needing to reboot my X-server, as well as being frustrated with Ubuntu abandoning the ctrl-alt-backspace convention. *HOWEVER*, just try to reboot only the graphical server in Windows! My problems with 9.10 have been minimal, at the worst, but then so have mine with BSD and Fedora.

Ubuntu may not be perfect, but it's a damned sight better than the toy OS's coming out of Redmond Washington!


Anonymous says:

Ubuntu has ALWAYS been broken! The biggest reason is Gnome!!!!!

Anonymous says:

There was a Linux Installfest recently in Holland where the organisers handed out copies of the latest Ubuntu beta to newbies instead of the stable version.

The rest of us want a stable OS with drivers for the latest hardware backported where needed. RHEL / CentOS is a good example.

Carl D says:

@Anonymous KDE fan person: are you kidding me?! Kubuntu has always been the runt of the buntu litter. I used to be a KDE fan but it just became buggier and buggier and then they gave up and started KDE 4.x. In the end I switched to Gnome for ubuntu 8.0.4, and I'm now using 9.10.

Anonymous says:

1) My experience and yours backs up your distinction on the suitability of LTS vs. Interim releases. However going to points all users to the latest Interim release, with no such discussion. So our conventional wisdom isn't Ubuntu's stated policy.

2) You gloss over Ubuntu's decision to base 10.04 off of Debian Testing as opposed to Debian Unstable (Ubuntu 9.10's base).


Anonymous says:

Everybody stop your moaning. Yes there are some bugs and yes advertises there latest release..... so what!

The LTS realease is available on there site with minimal investigation and the 6 month release cycle works for majority of people. Maybe do some research about what you installing on your systems and if you going to bitch maybe stay with windows.

Let be honest if you can't find the LTS download you should not be allowed to use a computer!

I have been a happy ubuntu user since 6.10 and have installed each version as its been released with minimal hassle... maybe I have been lucky.

SilverWave says:

The WHOLE point of Ubuntu is the six month release cycle - thats why we use it and why it is so popular. Large repositories of up to date packages all built to work against the latest Ubuntu release.

Its a trade off, if you want to play it safe go LTS, if you want all the latest toys and up to date packages you pick the latest and greatest.

If you are the administrator of your machine you have a responsibility to do your homework, to decide what is the right Linux distro for your particular set of circumstances. If you have looked into Karmic and read the reviews and release notes you would be aware that they were being very ambitious, ext4, GRUB2 new gdm etc... also that with a LTS due next anything new was going in _this_ release.

Anonymous says:

The LTS releases have nothing to do with providing home users with a stable desktop. Yes, overall LTS is more stable since it sticks with older versions and only includes critical fixes. However the real purpose is for corporate customers who can't afford to be upgrading OSes every 6 months. With LTS releases they can install the OS and know that for 3 years they can get critical updates to their software and don't have to constantly do mass reinstalls of the OS. If Ubuntu had no aspirations of getting onto the corporate desktop you would see no such thing as a LTS release as 18 months is more than enough for any home desktop user.

Anonymous says:

The answer is simple.
If you pose the question "is ubuntu broken?", then YES, Karmic is broken.

Anonymous says:

Nice article. Based on the fact that nobody tolerates unstable software and nobody tolerates outdated software, it proofs that:

1. Any Ubuntu is broken.
2. Any "consumer Linux" is doomed.
3. The way to go is to train users so that they like/want Slackware or Gentoo, not to create "consumer Linux".

Anonymous says:

The first step to fixing a problem is to recognize you have a problem.

Unfortunately this article and many people haven't made it to step 1.

Yes as commentators mention, Canonical wants to have its corporate cake and eat it too. It markets its regular Beta (non LTS) software as finished at every turn, then if you have problems, it's your fault for using it instead of the LTS. And if you criticize too much, the supporters (who are probably just more ideologically invested in Ubuntu success than anything rational) ask for your cash receipt for service support, otherwise you have no real 'right to complain' etc etc. It's the same thing over and over.

Anyway the real question here is why does Canonical have so few employees relative to its revenue? Why is there so little apparent human resources going into QA and development given the routine problems? More and more it seems apparent that the company is using the enthusiasts as unpaid Beta Testers for the benefit of its corporate clients without as much attention paid to the mutual benefits of such a relationship.

I mean it's great that Ubuntu was able to become #1 by following the AOL standard of marketing (free CDs for all) and be able to put up a clean business friendly face for marketing in order to help advance Desktop Linux in general. But I'm just wondering when the community of users can get more of an equal reciprocation for their efforts (if all they wanted was a $ free OS, there are a million distributions out there). And time after time I fail to see at the least the acknowledgement that the desktop experience as Canonical presents it and markets it has issues that are still not even being acknowledged, much less addressed.

Anonymous says:

I'm a long time Windows user and developer (since it came on floppy disks) who finally decided to take the plunge on Linux, on my laptop and home HTPC, and reserved a week to do it.

I went with Ubuntu as it seemed to be the most resourced, visible and used, so it should work, right? And its website pointed me right at 9.04, without mentioning anything about alternative "better" releases. For the HTPC, Mythbuntu for similar reasons.

Both of these systems have worked flawlessly on all Windows since 2000. The HTPC has been running fine under MediaPortal and GB-PVR on XP.

Laptop (year old Dell Latitude E6500) - disaster. It only runs at 800mhz due to power management not working properly, and fan is on all the time. It wont send audio through the docking station. Hibernation only works if it's self-triggered. It won't automatically connect to the access point's 802.11a but will to its 802.11g. Despite low CPU freq, laptop gets much hotter than it did under XP and soon slows to a crawl due to presumed CPU thermal throttling (I suspect this is IGP - Nvidia Quadro - related, since Powermizer seems stuck at max. performance). And lots of other things.

HTPC (generic AMD X2 Asus with Nvidia IGP) - even worse. Monitor (newish Samsung 40" LCD TV connected on DVI) driven out of range at splash screen and full bootup, can't see anything. Nebula card not working - driver message advises "I'm broke please fix me". Sound not output to SP/DIF except in VLC. MythTV locks up playing VOBs. Unlocking of admin apps doesn't work due to missing component. etc. etc. etc.

After two weeks of frustration, trying all sorts of different versions and typing long cryptic commands, I've gone back to Windows.

Please someone prod me when Ubuntu works as well as the propaganda says.

Anonymous says:

Oh and one more thing - despite having extremely open eyes and ears leading up to this Ubuntu adventure, I had no idea about the relationship between version numbers and quality.

It isn't exactly obvious to me that, when 9.10 is out, 8.04 is the one I should pick if I want stuff that works.

Why can't the use a more sensible numbering scheme to make this obvious, like say:

9.0 - official release. It works. It has LTS.

9.n (where 1 <= n <= 9) interim releases. As n gets higher, quality gets better.

10.0 - next official release, presumably 2 years after last.

man wai says:

I think Ubuntu should separate the kernel update from the rest of the distribution. The kernel, which contains drivers, must be updated as frequently as possible....

Anonymous says:

I really don't understand what the complaining is all about. I replaced Jaunty with Karmic, and yes, Jaunty sucked royally considering the fact I have Intel graphics in my 3 year old Gateway laptop. The upgrade was painful - but again, not because of Karmic "instabilities" but Jaunty X freeze problem - the whole damn thing just locked up half way through so I ended up with a damaged system. I copied the files out of my laptop using Karmic Alternate CD and did a clean install. So far all I can tell it's just perfect. It's kick-butt fast and rock stable.
I put Karmic Moblin Remix on my Acer Aspire One and after installing fwcutter to enable my wifi and adding all codecs for multimedia it's really sweet. One thing only - bundled firefox doesn't work, but did a tarball install from and I'm good.
Seems I'm the only person on Earth who likes Karmic :-)

Anonymous says:

I can't completely agree with the arguments you gave in this post. First of all this story of Stable and polished LTS releases and dirty and unstable "interim" releases only came out after the fiasco with Ubuntu 9.04. And we wouldn't have to upgrade every 6 months if ubuntu-backports repository was used more often and at least for some basic Programs like OpenOffice or Firefox. Don't expect me to Use Firefox 3.0 or something when Firefox 3.5 comes out and Mozilla recommends you to upgrade. And Canonical is behaving unserious with hiding the release notes about Ubuntu 9.10. Up till Ubuntu 9.04 we had a "What's new in this release" (or something like that) page that at the end of it had a link to the release notes where you could read about some of the glitches or more serious problems you can encounter when installing the new version so you can prepare for them on time. Can you easily reach the release notes for Ubuntu 9.10? I've even wrote to their web master telling him that this might be a problem for some less experienced people. Did they do anything about it? No sir, they did not. I personally had no problems with this release and find it very stable, refreshing and cool. But it's obvious that some users do not share that same experience with me. So let's stop behaving that there is no problem. Let's face all the problems and find a good solution for it. Because Mark Shuttleworth has set some very high standards and goals for Ubuntu. It's time to see if the they can be delivered as promised.

Guy says:

I have been using the LTS Ubuntu ever since the first one & get fed up of "boy racers" telling me I should upgrade every six months. On a production computer that is disruptive & as we have seen, risky.

I just wish the LTS was better supported so that we could be updated to things, like the newer Open Office for example. Once the version after an LTS release comes out the LTS is just left behind.

Anonymous says:

The problem here is that although the article makes a good argument, the actions of Canonical do not support it. Where on the page does it say "If you're concerned with stability, download 8.04"?

Instead, the splash page graphics almost FORCE someone to download the newest version.

If what the author says is true, then the people who make the non-programming decisions at Canonical are certified morons.