Ubuntu Pros and Cons

Is Ubuntu the last, best hope of Linux? Or the betrayer of everything that open source stands for?
Posted February 19, 2013

Bruce Byfield

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Whether more people love Ubuntu or loathe it is an impossible question to answer. I know people who spend most of their free time promoting it as volunteers — and just as many who denounce it as a betrayal of everything free and open source software (FOSS) represents.

The trouble is, so many hopes have been invested in Ubuntu over the years that it invites extremes. While some still hope that it will live up to its initial promise and bring Linux to the mainstream, others find the compromises for the sake of business a betrayal of those same promises.

There is ample evidence for both these reactions — and, no doubt, for those in between.


In the first few years of its existence, Ubuntu was widely praised as a welcome addition to the community. The main dissenting voices were from members of Debian, who foresaw that Ubuntu's success would mean the decline of Debian.

However, throughout the years, Ubuntu has stumbled enough times that it has attracted serious criticism. Here are some of the reasons for reservations about Ubuntu:

1. Increasing Insularity of Development

Traditionally, distributions have relied on so-called upstream projects like GNOME for many of their features. However, while Ubuntu continues to focus on GNOME technology, over the past few years it has increasingly distanced itself from the GNOME project.

The original dispute is complicated. On Ubuntu's part, it seems to have involved an impatience about the pace at which GNOME integrated new contributions, as well as disagreements about the direction of the project.

Briefly, Ubuntu maintained its own version of GNOME. Then it began development of Unity, its own interface. This move began the fragmentation of GNOME that accelerated when many users proved hostile to GNOME 3. Unity, of course, is free software, but few other distributions have shown much hurry to include it in their repositories.

Ubuntu is also criticized for not contributing enough to projects like the Linux kernel. Defenders claim that Ubuntu contributes to the larger community in other ways, but the perception remains widespread that Ubuntu is a maverick — more interested in its success than that of FOSS in general.

2. The Commercial Controlling the Community

Several community-based distributions, including Fedora and openSUSE, are associated with commercial companies, just as Ubuntu is associated with Canonical. However, in most cases, the relationship is kept in the background. The corporate sponsors are well represented on the governing board, and key community figures are employed by the sponsor, but otherwise the company generally avoids direct interference with the distribution.

In Ubuntu's case, the development of Unity involved numerous cases where design decisions were made by Canonical, rather than through the usual community processes. To many, Unity's design team appeared out of nowhere, with a sudden veto over decisions. In fact, they frequently even stifled discussion.

Some of the controversy was probably due to inexperience and the apparent rush to make Unity one of Canonical's distinguishing features. But whatever the reason, it evoked the community's fear of corporate motives, and the impression has yet to diminish altogether.

3. Designing for Mobile Devices

Mark Shuttleworth describes his goal in the coming year as, "Shaping Unity to provide the things we’ve learned are most important across all form factors, beautifully."

Judging from the prototype of Ubuntu Phone, this comment is a slight exaggeration, because modifications must be made for some form factors.

However, the design of Unity suggests that, as far as possible, Shuttleworth's intention is use the same code as much as possible for every form factor. Although intended as a desktop interface, Unity is obviously heavily influenced by mobile devices.

Unfortunately, mobile computing primarily involves consumption — leisure activities, or tasks quickly accomplished. On the other hand, desktop computing also includes productivity — serious tasks that may take some time to accomplish.

Consequently, the frequent taps and changes of screens that mobile users will endure quickly add up to inefficiency on the desktop. The same can be said of opening most applications full-screen. Unity is simply not designed for anything except the simplest of productivity — especially if more than two windows need to be open at the same time.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Ubuntu, Canonical

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