October 20th marked the seventh anniversary of the Ubuntu distribution. Anniversaries are times for reflection, so I've been thinking of how Ubuntu has succeeded and how it has failed in the last seven years.
To hear those involved with Ubuntu, the distro's history consists of nothing but triumph. Community manager Jono Bacon marked the anniversary with a blog entry full of nothing except praise and enthusiasm.
Founder and dictator Mark Shuttleworth did not refer specifically to the occasion, but he did blog that Ubuntu "is the #1 OS for cloud computing," and that the next release "will be the preferred desktop for many of the world’s biggest Linux desktop deployments."
Elsewhere, Ubuntu is presented as "third most popular operating system in the world," presumably after OS X and Windows.
But although such claims might be true, we have no context in which to judge them. Linux generally requires no registration or activation, and, in these days of virtualization, one machine may have three or four guest operating systems. Thanks to virtualization, someone may have Ubuntu installed for testing or information purposes, but not be a regular user.
As a result, the claims about Ubuntu's user base are largely meaningless, because we have no idea what assumptions they are based on. Estimates in the last few years have ranged from 10-14 million, a variation so wide that it indicates how little certainty actually exists.
Moreover, if you accept the figure of 1.8 million downloads from unique IP addresses for Fedora 15, then assume that Distrowatch's downloads for the last six months accurately represent the relative popularity of distributions (a large assumption admittedly, but perhaps the most unbiased available), then Ubuntu's actual user base is more like 2.7 million.
This figure would still make Ubuntu the most popular distribution, but only 200-300 thousand ahead of Linux Mint, whose surge in the last year to second place on Distrowatch might be read as a response to Ubuntu's switch to the Unity desktop. If you accept these figures, then Ubuntu’s success is far more modest than is usually claimed.
If nothing else, this example shows that any such figures are too unreliable to be used as a criteria for judging Ubuntu's success. Just as clearly, too, Ubuntu's success cannot be confused with the success of Canonical, its commercial arm, although the two are often intertwined. Instead, Ubuntu needs to be assessed by what it has tried to do, and the extent to which it has carried out its plans.
When Warty Warthog was released just over seven years ago, distributions were just starting to think of usability and desktop design. Perhaps Ubuntu's earliest accomplishment was to take that vague tendency and transform it into a priority.
Through a series of small innovations, Ubuntu quickly became a desktop leader. Its improvements included a simplified menu, automatic mounting of external devices, the use of sudo when administrative privileges were needed, and increased default support for a variety of locales and keyboards.
Ubuntu was not the first with any of these innovations (nor even the second), but it was perhaps the first to assemble all of them on a single desktop.
In addition, Ubuntu quickly established a large and active community. Part of the growth of community may have been the confusion of the distribution with the Ubuntu philosophy -- a fusion you still see today among local Ubuntu user groups. Still another part may have been founder Mark Shuttleworth himself, a space tourist and a multi-millionaire eager to spend his own money improving Linux, a charismatic outsider promising to fulfill the community's dreams.
This initial enthusiasm has been challenged in recent years, but Ubuntu literally wrote the book (and shot the videos) on community building -- Jono Bacon's The Art of Community, whose second edition is currently being prepared. Meanwhile, the first edition remains a standard guide to managing the free software community.