Ubuntu is probably the most popular Linux distribution ever. According to the 2007 Desktop Linux Survey, over 30% of Linux users run Ubuntu, and, if anything, the numbers have increased since then.
In June 2009, Ubuntu's users were estimated as 13 million, and the distro was described as "growing faster than any other distribution." When Dell began to preload laptops with Linux, it chose Ubuntu, and Ubuntu is the first and only distribution to have a print magazine dedicated to it. By any measure, Ubuntu is a major player in free software.
Yet this popularity has a flip side. If Ubuntu is the most popular distribution, it is also the most hated. Last year, a survey on the Linux Hater's blog listed Ubuntu as "the most hated community distro." Search Google for "why I hate Ubuntu," and 9260 hits are returned -- compared to 376 for the equivalent phrase for Debian, and 11 for Fedora.
What is happening here? How can Ubuntu be both so successful and so determinedly attacked? The attacks, like so much that is negative in the free software community, are likely from a minority whose obsessiveness gives them the illusion of numbers. Yet, if so, it still seems a larger minority than usual.
The explanation seems to be that Ubuntu is attacked from several perspectives. Partly, the attacks may be simply a consequence of business as usual. But other grievances also seem to be aired when Ubuntu is attacked. They range from a perception that Ubuntu is stealing from Debian or is an upstart in free software in general to accusations that the distro is not a member in good standing of the community. But perhaps the largest reason is that Ubuntu is a victim of its own success, and has created expectations that it has yet to fill completely.
Asked to explain the phenomenon, Jono Bacon, Ubuntu's community manager, opines that the negative view of Ubuntu is due to the way that free software is developed.
Quoting Eric Raymond, Bacon comments, "This harks back to one of the cornerstones of open source: given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. When we kicked out a new release of arguably the world's most popular desktop distribution, there were more eyeballs, more hardware, more networks, more devices, more configurations, more expectations and therefore more opportunities for things to go awry inside these attributes, Bacon says. If we then combine this with the natural inclination for human beings to communicate complaints as opposed to share praise, it is not surprising to see reports of things not working."
In particular, Bacon comments on some of the reactions to the recently released Karmic Koala release, which has been heavily criticized for numerous problems.
Calling the Karmic release "adventurous," Bacon says, "All software ships with bugs; that is just the nature of how software works. Linux distributions face additional risk in this area as we pull in thousands of independent upstream projects, and we inherit their bugs, too."
In other words, more people using Ubuntu means that it is being used in more situations, so more problems come to light, especially when the distribution is adding so many innovations. Implicit in Bacon's comments is the idea that, in the long run, Ubuntu will be stronger for the complaints, especially since the distribution's members are working to improve its quality assurance and, presumably to improve their responses to such feedback.
To a large extent, Bacon is right about the causes of the complaints. If you follow the links, many lead to complaints about bugs or features. But many of the attacks on Ubuntu have less to do with technology than with the politics of the free software community.
Of these political complaints, the oldest is that Ubuntu borrows from Debian without giving enough back. Ubuntu not only uses packages from Debian's testing repository for its releases, but Canonical, Ubuntu's commercial arm, has hired many Debian developers. Although these developers often continue to work with Debian packages, over the years Debian mailing-lists have been full of accusations that they give priority to Ubuntu's packages while neglecting Debian ones.