It’s been my observation that Ubuntu fans are thrilled that the distribution is seeing adoption not only with end users, but also from companies like Valve in the gaming space. Bundle this with the rumor that Microsoft Office could make a Ubuntu version in 2014, and you find that Ubuntu seems unstoppable.
Sadly though, some in the Linux community are less than impressed with the distro. Some Linux enthusiasts find themselves rehashing old arguments in that Ubuntu is spreading itself too thin. While others simply dislike the distribution for their own personal reasons. Regardless of how any of us feel, the fact is that Ubuntu is succeeding in areas where the Linux desktop has failed previously.
In this article, we’ll explore why Ubuntu is succeeding, why some folks dislike Ubuntu and how this affects (or doesn’t affect) other Linux distributions.
Ubuntu Learned from Others
Anyone who is a student of Linux desktop history can’t deny that the early Ubuntu releases were based on avoiding mistakes made by other newbie friendly distributions at the time. I know for a fact that Linspire was one company that Canonical (the company that supports Ubuntu) studied closely. Besides the fact that they hired one of Linspire’s key Click-n-run software store developers, Canonical also focused on Ubuntu’s adoption before monetization. These key decisions, along with Ubuntu’s Debian distribution roots, helped propel Ubuntu into the hearts of countless users worldwide.
Another area where Ubuntu nailed it early on was attracting power users and newbies alike into the fold of Ubuntu’s development. This meant that existing users would remain satisfied with what Ubuntu had to offer, while newer users wouldn’t be intimidated by confusing menus and extras that are better suited for enterprise admins than casual end users.
It’s interesting to note that early versions of Ubuntu dating as far back as Ubuntu 5.04 offered tools like the network manager, which made connecting to your local network a snap. At that time, other distributions were all over the map, with some of them using control panel-centric settings for this basic functionality. Very early on, Ubuntu was focused on bringing forth needed functionality to the end user without making them to dig for it. This is where Ubuntu was able to differentiate itself from the other distributions. Even the other newbie-friendly options relied too heavily on convoluted desktop environments and settings tucked away out of easy reach at the time.
Desktop Environments and General Usability
Bearing in mind that I will receive a bucket of hate mail over my next statements, history agrees with my sentiment. When Ubuntu selected the Gnome desktop for its users, nearly all the other newbie-friendly distributions at the time were based on KDE. Now I agree that both desktop environments have evolved a lot over the years. However, at the time, the Ubuntu developers felt that Gnome was the least convoluted desktop out there. KDE was complete overkill for the casual user who didn’t need fifteen ways to access the same thing on their desktop. Back then, KDE was better suited for power users and Gnome, with some tweaking, offered a far simpler experience.
There is no denying that KDE had two things going for it back then. First, it looked a little bit like Windows. So some thought this would make the transition easier.
Second, KDE was — and still is — vastly more attractive to look at upon initial installation. One doesn’t need to tweak KDE to make it pretty.
Where Gnome shined, however, was that it was brain-dead simple to navigate. Application and menu navigation were very straightforward, and at no time would users be presented with choices that they might not understand. Again, I believe this was the reason behind the decision to use Gnome over KDE for early revisions of Ubuntu.
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.
Unity and the Dash Controversy
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.