Dethroning Ubuntu -- What Would It Take?

Stealing Ubuntu's top spot will be less about the specific distribution and more about being realistic about what new Linux users actually need from the computing experience.
Posted December 6, 2007

Matt Hartley

Matt Hartley

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Many people are looking to Ubuntu to be something that it is not: A mass market ready operating system designed to work with the same level of compatibility as Microsoft Windows.

Where people get confused is in believing that if Ubuntu, king of the Linux distros, is not able to take the marketplace by storm, then something must be broken with desktop Linux. In this article, I’ll explain what it will take to dethrone the mighty Ubuntu and gain a market share so large that it will eclipse anything seen by Ubuntu to date.

Success with geeks does not equal marketplace dominances

Despite some fantastic efforts by the folks at PCLinuxOS and the Fedora team, Ubuntu remains in the lead when you learn to look past the inconsistencies of services like Distrowatch stats. I remain firm in my belief that Ubuntu is the top dog with regard to user numbers for two simple reasons.

1. Third party resources like Envy, Automatix and Long before Ubuntu Feisty or Gutsy were on the scene, these three products allowed relative newbies a smoother migration over to their new chosen Linux distro.

2. Successfully maintaining a balancing act with both purists and casual users alike with regard to restricted firmware and codecs. I realize that Fedora 8 has come along recently with their successful CodecBuddy functionality, however I believe the PCLinuxOS team still expects users to know what they’re searching for to get their restricted codecs. Most users still prefer a simple GUI wizard.

Dethroning a Linux distribution that has yet to achieve OS dominance in the first place

Ubuntu has a long way to go before catching up to other closed source operating systems with regard to GUI usability. Understand that I am not speaking as a Windows user. I have been a Linux user for a number of years now and happen to use Ubuntu full time. Having said this, I remain practical about what most people are looking for – generally usability.

For any Linux distribution to become remotely successful in the "non-geeky" world, it will mean developers catering to people who never want to hear the words configure, tweak, alter or update ever again.

Recent efforts with products like the gOS PC, Zonbu and the Asus Eee show promise in taking an otherwise difficult market easier to penetrate, and making Linux a serious contender. The successful formula is leaning away from software politics, embracing the idea of a Green PC and – perhaps most importantly – making sure the hardware works as bundled with the software.

To me, dethroning Ubuntu is less about doing it with the specific distribution and more about being realistic about what new Linux users actually need from the overall computing experience. Most of them could care less about open source licensing. These users simply want a cheaper alternative to Vista and OS X. And because this is where Ubuntu differs in vision, Ubuntu developers will continue to be a runaway hit with computer geeks, yet a total failure in the market without some sort of realistic OEM-type intervention to get the distro onto standardized hardware.

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And no, Dell does not count. They have done nothing to promote Ubuntu whatsoever.

Ubuntu has other problems as well. For example, I grow tired of having to act as an apologist for totally avoidable bugs. Allowing easily avoidable issues to roll out into release status will not win you a mainstream market share, much less that of the enterprise market.

Imagine if the new XO notebooks (one Laptop Per Child project) were running with Ubuntu's bug list! I can see the teachers now, explaining to the students that they cannot use certain software or connect to the Wifi because the latest update broke something in the OS. Give me a break.

Ubuntu will remain an OS best suited to people like myself who are comfortable editing a config file or two until better checks and balances are put into place for newer users. This, obviously, leaves the door open for other distributions to pick up the slack. But are they up to the challenge?

Continued: Fedora 8, PCLinuxOS and other unlucky contenders

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