Over time, the Ubuntu team changed and tweaked their Gnome offering to make things easier for new users. Because of this, Ubuntu really began to attract new users. Even people who had tried other Linux distributions previously tried the "Ubuntu way," and many of them were falling in love with it. As the years passed, new functionality, including easy installation of proprietary codecs and video/wireless drivers, made Ubuntu even more attractive to new users.
The decision to keep proprietary codecs and video/wireless drivers out of Ubuntu by default, was widely appreciated by Ubuntu's core users, and newbies found the installation process to be almost effortless. Despite some exceptions to Ubuntu's handling of proprietary code, such as Ubuntu using proprietary firmware out of the box, offering the end user choices about what they install was a welcome experience for most people.
More recently, Ubuntu introduced its own desktop experience, which differed from the current Gnome 3 layout. The current Ubuntu desktop is called Unity, but its reception has been anything but unifying. While I've come to rely on it more than I used to, there is still a lot of debate about this sudden change. The issue at hand is that some individuals feel this is Canonical's way of making the desktop more bloated than it needs to be. Despite the ongoing speed improvements, some Linux enthusiasts continue to disapprove of Unity and the direction it's headed.
One of the big speed concerns was with Unity lenses. Recently though, Canonical has made speed improvements and addressed privacy concerns. And if that wasn't enough, now they even offer an off-switch for their lens-based cloud services, such as Amazon shopping.
Despite this recent rocky road, I think it takes a lot of courage for Canonical to go their own way and create a unified interface that can be used on the desktop, tablets and smartphones. While it's difficult to see how successful the unified approach to user interface will be in the long run, I think that Ubuntu is definitely setting itself apart from other distributions.
One of the biggest strengths that Ubuntu enjoys, along with a strong community, is its derivative distributions. Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, Linux Mint, and a few others all have one thing in common — Ubuntu made their success possible thanks to its code base. Unlike Knoppix or Simply Mepis, who happen to base their distributions on Debian, the Ubuntu derivatives enjoy the benefits from tools specific to Ubuntu. One of the biggest tools that users of the Ubuntu derivatives enjoy is the ability to utilize Ubuntu PPA repositories.
Ubuntu PPAs offer Linux enthusiasts using compatible distributions the ability to run software from user managed repositories. Unlike a standalone deb package that installs a single version of an application, PPAs offer users the ability to keep their PPA software updated automatically through the Ubuntu updater. At the end of the day, Ubuntu derivatives offer you the back-end Ubuntu benefits while allowing you to enjoy the front-end experience of your choosing. Some derivatives such as Linux Mint, even take this a step further by including their own distribution-specific tools.
I have been a full-time Linux enthusiast for years. Despite starting off with early Debian derivatives, I've found that Ubuntu-based distributions offer me a solid desktop experience. And despite the fact that sometimes Ubuntu's development cycle may frustrate me, the core Ubuntu experience has been very good to me.
Now, this doesn't mean that other distributions aren't on my other computers. I've been known to tinker with various Arch Linux derivatives, Fedora and OpenSUSE when the mood strikes me. But in the end, I love using Ubuntu-based distributions. My go-to Ubuntu derivative is Xubuntu, with Ubuntu using a Unity desktop coming in at a close second.