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Debian and Maven, a crash of culture

March 16th, 2012

Tim O’Brien posted his frustration about the state of Java packaging in Debian. While I’m not affiliated with Debian nor Ubuntu, I wanted to post something in defense.

I completely understand where Tim is coming from. To the eyes of Java developers, the Java packaging in Debian looks completely Sisyphean. We got all the binaries and their dependencies captured in a machine readable form (aka POM). Can’t we just take them as-is, do a bit of metadata conversion, and make all those artifacts available to the Debian world so that we can just have a single package manager on Debian? If that’s your line of reasoning, you are in for a surprise, because Debian wouldn’t like that.

The reason they don’t do it is well summarized in the Debian Social Contract. It’s the equivalent of the U.S. Constitution for the Debian project — everything they do derive from this. Binary jars are bad for Debian because they don’t give the users the freedom to modify them and create derivative works. Debian is not just a means to let you conveniently install all the programs you need. It’s a pursuit of certain kinds of freedom.

In that sense, it’s somewhat like the “Free Software” movement. They both have some pretty strong guiding principles, and at times, for outsiders they look like they are “wasting” their efforts or being impractical. But the thing is, it’s those guiding principles that attract so many people to the effort, and that’s what keeps the project going and produce all the incredible good stuff that we use everyday. Criticizing them for their principles while you enjoy the benefits of the very same principles feel bit single-handed to me.

I think a better way forward is to write a little program that takes the source jar (which most jars in the Maven central should already have) and the POM, then generate a build script that simply compiles the source jar into the binary jar. The said program should also inspect the jar file to figure out any resource files, and treat them as source files. That way, we can machine-generate Debian source packages. Granted, not all source packages produced that way would pass the requirements of the Debian Freesoftware Guideline, but I bet substantial number of Maven artifacts are simple enough that this will be actually completely satisfactory. And then humans can concentrate on harder ones.

Anyone interested in giving that a shot?

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