The Ubuntu Developer Summit once again played home to discussion of whether Ubuntu should move from a 700MB sized CD ISO to something larger and more accommodating of growing package requirements.

‘Law of physics’

So far the 700MB CD limit has proved a useful guide in keeping Ubuntu, and its shipped packages, in slim shape and free of needless cruft. But this ‘hard limit’ has resulted in equally hard choices having to be made regarding what applications, documentation and system libraries stay on the CD and what – as we’ve seen in  successive Ubuntu releases – is removed.

Big DVD-sized image

One option is to move from CD-sized images to DVD-sized images.

Whilst blank DVDs and DVD-writing hardware are somewhat ubiquitous for many of us, making the idea of a DVD-sized release no massive hassle,  it could prove problematic to others for numerous reasons.

Firstly, not everyone has access to a DVD burner or an USB thumb drive large enough to accommodate such a large live image. Secondly, some people could be put off by the rather weighty size of the image, not to mention the time it would take to download, and the significant hit on any ‘download cap’ they may be subject to.

It also has to be asked whether the relative ‘freedom’ a larger image would provide would keep developers conscientious in saving space; would bloat creep in thanks to a lax amount of room, etc?

And lastly the the bigger the size of the distro, the slower the install will be. And that, some developers in the session felt, could prove a detriment to causal users’ adopting Ubuntu.

Smaller DVD-sized image

An iterative, but not less dramatic, switch could be to stay in the world of DVDs but with a much more managable ~1GB sized image  instead.

Whilst these would be too big to burn to a CD-r they would be ample enough to squeeze on to the most basic USB thumb drives knocking around, as well as remaining relatively light enough to not impede on the performance of a live session.

Again this idea has plus points – more ISO space could equal more opportunity; wider selection of apps/documentation/etc – but also drawbacks – what about people stuck without DVD writers or systems that can’t boot from USB, such as iMacs? What kind of impact would a larger image have on installation time? What about WUBI users – would it put them off?

Other options 20MB images

Also mooted was the potential for raising the current CD image by 20MB from 700MB, as is currently used, to 720MB. Doubts were raised as to whether a 720MB image would burn correctly on some hardware. The current 700MB limit used for the Ubuntu CD exists as a result of this doubt.

Alongside this was the idea of two separate CD-sized ISO images – one with the “core” Ubuntu applications, the other with extra applications.

Personally this latter option reminds me of  the old days of “Please insert floppy disc 14” when installing Windows. Keeping something as “alien” as an OS installation as simple as possible has, so far for Ubuntu, paid dividends, and I’m sure the same approach would continue to do so.

Why optical media at all?

What about not promoting optical media as the preferred distribution method at all? Many popular Netbook operating systems – such as MeeGo and Jolicloud – promote the use of USB installers over optical formats.

Freeing space

Regardless of the chosen route, space will still need to be freed from Ubuntu to fit in all of the intended features and additions that Ubuntu 11.10 will see (such as Deja Dup, Unity-2D on the disc, etc)

Amongst packages mooted for removal include the GNOME Icon theme, when was the last time you used it?; application ‘man pages’ (these are terminal-based help documents), and even parts of LibreOffice (LibreOffce Draw anyone?)!

The debate is likely to continue for a while yet. And rightly so. Changing the default size of the distribution’s own major distribution method is an important move and one that can’t be gambled with.

What footprint would you choose for the Oneiric Ocelot?