Is Ubuntu the Barack Obama of Linux?

Although Ubuntu exists in a very different sphere than Barack Obama, it employs a strategy that is remarkably similar.
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Oh, the unfairness of it. Take a look at the list of the most popular Linux distributions. Topping the user rankings? Ubuntu, of course. Based on the DesktopLinux survey (from 2007) or the current Distrowatch list, it runs easily ahead of the other options.

The unfairness arises when you look at the Linux distros that Ubuntu is topping. Debian, for instance, has been around far longer than upstart Ubuntu. For goodness sake, no one even heard of Ubuntu until 2004 – because it didn’t exist before then. Meanwhile, Debian has served the Linux faithful since way back in 1993. (Indeed, Ubuntu was a fork from Debian). Yet the Linux Foundation surveys from ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07 all put Ubuntu ahead of Debian.

And take a look at gNewSense, the Linux distro that touts its absolute Free software purity. GNewSense, which is based on Ubuntu, removes every last line of proprietary code – it includes not a scintilla of help with pesky closed source drivers. (Unlike Ubuntu, which acknowledges that the world is full of closed source drivers.) The Distrowatch ranking parks gNewSense all the way down at No. 51.

But wait. Isn’t the low ranking of the hyper-pure gNewSense counterintuitive? After all, there’s a deep strain of ideological purity in the Linux community. The night I interviewed Richard Stallman – the very heart and soul of GNU/Linux – he described being on a speaking engagement in Spain. His host offered him a CD of local music. But Stallman wouldn’t accept it – because the tunes were copy-protected. Wow, that’s purity. Thank goodness someone is standing up for the spirit of GNU/Linux freedom. If we start listening to Flamenco guitar on copy-restricted discs, what’s next? The downfall of Western Civilization?

So what’s up? Why is Ubuntu’s popularity demolishing gNewSense’s, even though gNewSense’s purity reflects a Stallmanesque fondness for ideological strictness? And why is Ubuntu also so clearly topping Debian, given that Debian had more than a decade head start?

To understand Ubuntu’s rapid climb, it helps to look at another relative newcomer who has enjoyed a rapid ascent, Senator Barack Obama. The paths to popular success for both Obama and Ubuntu, despite respective fields as different as politics and software, are remarkably similar.

Just as Ubuntu surpassed the established Debian (and other popular distros) Obama zipped rapidly ahead of longstanding political figures. The Clinton team, like Debian, was the entrenched choice from the 1990s. But the Clintons’ association with the past sunk them in the Democratic primaries as the public demanded a new direction. Seniority, it turns out, doesn’t always win the day.

But reaching out to a larger audience does. Barack Obama, while grounded in the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, has always emphasized an appeal to the other side.

Obama’s popularity stems from his ability to inspire both a smaller group of ideological partisans – what Howard Dean calls “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” – and a broad mass of mainstream voters. This is in contrast to a figure like, say, Congressman Dennis Kucinich. As an ideological purist, Kucinich’s liberal bona fides are unquestioned. He introduced a resolution to impeach George W. Bush, supports phasing out all nuclear and coal-based power, and wants to withdraw from NAFTA. (For extra points, he’s also a vegan and he claimed he saw a UFO.) Kucinich might be called the gNewSense of politics; ideologically he’s all the way to one side, so in the Democratic primary he received something like 14 votes.

(On an related side note, Richard Stallman endorsed Kucinich for U.S. president.)

Obama’s policies, in contrast, are essentially centrist. Tax cuts for the middle class, a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, more regulation of financial institutions, help with healthcare – it’s all right down the middle of the road. In Virginia, for instance, he runs TV ads touting his support for gun owner’s rights and clean coal. These latter two positions don’t thrill Democratic partisans, but, again, Obama’s platform is about reaching out to the other side.

Which, when you think about it, is oddly similar to how Ubuntu has achieved its leading position.

Continued: Newbies swarm to Ubuntu

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Tags: Ubuntu, Debian, GNU/Linux desktop, politics

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