Go ahead and try a Google search for “Linux” in the news feeds. In fact, try looking up “Linux” in any news search engine and see what you come up with.
Notice a pattern yet? For some reason that seems to escape most people, Ubuntu “owns” the Linux headlines with very few exceptions. Obviously Chrome OS and Android are in the top news headlines as well, however generally it’s Ubuntu that shows up as most popular in open source news these days.
This trend is even more severe among blogs and forum sites. Clearly the Ubuntu way of offering Linux to the masses has caught on to such a degree that it’s amazing when new users even realize other distributions exist.
At the risk of sounding like I’m bashing on Ubuntu here, I’ve seen numerous incidents where poor experiences with the distribution have colored opinions of other Linux distributions without any cause. This trend reflects something that I’ve been concerned about for sometime now: people perceiving Ubuntu as “the” Linux desktop operating system.
Not enough Ubuntu users appear to realize that not every distribution of Linux out there is doing things the “Ubuntu way” with regard to buggy releases and a need to look like OS X, among other issues. Many other Linux distributions out there have varying release schedules and some Linux distributions even wait until their releases are stable before releasing them. Clearly a bold move, as much of Ubuntu’s success might be attributed to the “release no matter what mentality” we see these days.
Newbie friendly non-Ubuntu distributions
Need some of the niceties of a new user friendly distribution but would rather avoid Ubuntu’s way of doing things? Nothing to fear, alternative distributions are indeed available.
Two that come to my mind that offer a strong alternative to what Ubuntu and its derivatives are providing include Simply Mepis and PCLinuxOS.
I hold these two examples up for newer Linux hobbyists simply because those who are already comfortable with the non-Ubuntu Linux desktop are likely already using Fedora, OpenSuSE or something Debian based. It’s a moot issue for those folks.
New Linux users however, will find that using either Simply Mepis or PCLinuxOS translates into a simple, yet stable alternative that will not leave you shaking your fists at the screen because of an avoidable bug ruining your day.
Both distributions have strong communities while still maintaining a stable, predictable experience followed by a brain-dead simple installation process. Plus, Simply Mepis has utilities that Ubuntu hasn’t matched yet. They are Mepis exclusive to the best of my knowledge.
Competing for an audience
Remember back when people used to claim that we lived within a Windows world? Well for many Linux enthusiasts, it feels like we live within an Ubuntu world. At least from the media’s perspective.
Now I have a number of theories as to why this might be happening. The first thought would have to be the strong reception from OEMs like Dell, among others, offering Ubuntu. (However, this trend seems to be slowing on Dell’s part – it’s only showing a single computer with Ubuntu on it at the moment.) However others, such as System76 and Zareason, have made sure that Ubuntu Linux is featured and well supported for their customers.
In addition to that, there are the local Ubuntu teams aka “LoCo Teams” which promote and introduce Ubuntu to potential converts when the opportunity arises. Teams are generally broken up by State/Region, to make membership more manageable.
Ubuntu also has a strong leadership within the community with active participant(s) who work for the supporting company, Canonical. The main person who comes to mind would be the always approachable, Jono Bacon. Despite the fact that I do not always see eye to eye with his views on the subject of Ubuntu, he’s a stand up guy in my opinion. And as a result, I think Ubuntu is able to put on a great public face through Jono’s outreach efforts.
Sadly other distributions, despite boasting some great communities, lack the kind of community focus that seems to translate well from the virtual world into the real one. PCLinuxOS is pretty close with their PDF-based magazine publication, yet Ubuntu still seems to maintain the larger reach.
The final assumption here is that Ubuntu’s international embrace gives it the biggest lead of all. The above-mentioned Linux distributions are very much U.S.-based in their target user base. In recent years it has come out that language packs are available, but generally speaking there is something unifying about how Ubuntu presents itself to the world at large.
Maybe it’s due to the fact that it’s not based here in the States and targets other regions actively? Needless to say there are a number of schools of thought on this.
Open community vs closed community distributions
Now here is where things get interesting. Ubuntu is, by and large, considered to be an “open community distribution” of Linux. This means that there’s opportunity for newcomers to join in and contribute to the project where needed. Simply Mepis and PCLinuxOS are considered to be, by some people, “closed community distributions” because of who is involved with the direct development.
Understand this is not saying anything negative or positive about either approach. Rather I’m pointing out their apparent differences and how they may be playing a part in why Ubuntu is able to maintain its hold over other Linux solutions.
Remember that in theory, anyone can “contribute” to the Ubuntu project at some level. So there is immediately a vested interest for all who choose to participate with the Ubuntu project.
Software and services
Based on Debian, Ubuntu has more access to software packages than many other decent Linux distributions available. This is not calling into question a matter of quality, rather pointing out that availability of the latest applications does matter to a great many users. Stuff like this colors their perception of desktop choices.
The fact is that Debian users enjoy tremendous software access. Ubuntu users aren’t strangers to this side benefit of running a distribution based on Debian’s efforts. Where Ubuntu differs with regard to software, however, is that Ubuntu’s applications may be tweaked variants of Debian-compatible software from what is known as “Debian Unstable.” Not in all cases, but in enough instances to warrant concern for some people.
Regardless of the potential for headache, many Ubuntu enthusiasts have come to expect the latest and greatest advancements even with their perceived bug-related risks. And sometimes this means using buggy application releases that are known to have issues on the Ubuntu desktop. This might be no problem for advanced Ubuntu users, yet it’s unfortunate that not all Ubuntu users are aware of this coming out of the gate.
Then there are the newly formed services that Ubuntu’s main supporter Canonical is presenting to the world. Canonical’s new “cloud” services for file storage and music management have proven to be a strong concepts. They ensure that Ubuntu remains in the headlines even when things may still be very much under heavy development and not quite as end-user ready as Canonical wants you to think. Ubuntu’s music service, for instance, has a long way to go in my opinion.
Going forward for competing distributions
By now it should be clear that we don’t, in fact, live in an Ubuntu-only Linux community. Companies like Red Hat and IBM, among countless others, have made contributions along side of Canonical to help ensure that Linux for the masses is a great experience for all enthusiasts.
And while I accept that Simply Mepis and PCLinuxOS have little to no interest in taking Ubuntu head on, I would like to see more OEM adoption effort coming from the Fedora project and perhaps even OpenSuSE. Out of the two, I have seen Fedora come out swinging fairly hard with each of the last three releases. These releases are clearly supported by dedicated, hardcore developers who honestly care deeply about the product they’re releasing.
The latest release of Fedora is surprisingly excellent. Despite not being a big fan of RPM-based distributions in years past, Fedora changed my view completely — it seems to work well without much trouble at all.
I also appreciate that Fedora has made an effort to be more engaging to the casual user. Their new project home page reflects this intent clearly. Fedora also supports software freedom, presenting progress with each release and, of course, stability in the user experience.
As Ubuntu pushes on, they will be releasing their next version with a new shell based on GNOME, called Unity. Advocates are quick to point out that it’s “easy” to change this over to a regular GNOME desktop shell, yet I have yet to find the big round “easy button” that will make this possible for users of all skill levels.
Perhaps it’s filed under an Ubuntu wish list someplace? Fedora, however, will continue in the tradition of software freedom first and newbie adoption second. This means that the GNOME desktop will remain, as it always has.
As of right now, I’m someone who uses Ubuntu, Debian and a few other distributions of Linux in my daily routine. My main desktop happens to be running Ubuntu right now. So to say that I dislike Ubuntu would be inaccurate. No, my concerns with Ubuntu stem from the distribution becoming so big and mainstream that we see it losing focus on what is truly important – their existing user base.
Even though it can be said that the user is free to undo anything that is not preferred out of the box, the list continues to get longer with each release. When Ubuntu first started out, I was all on board. These days, however, I’m beginning to waver.
Making matters worse is the brand confusion taking place within the Linux community, as new users are mistaking one single distribution of Linux as its whole. And that, my friends, should be of great cause for alarm.
Love Ubuntu? No problem. But please stop worshiping it. Ubuntu is merely a member of a much larger community. And it’s high time we remember that.
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