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Why? Simply put, it keeps things easy to manage. I am able to use a LTS release on any of my daily use boxes while still being free to take the latest Ubuntu releases for a test drive should I wish to from a LiveCD.
So despite Ubuntu being deemed as "too bleeding edge" by some, Ubuntu has proven to be a practical choice for myself personally.
There is also another reason I rely so heavily on Ubuntu. It's where the bulk of the community support is. Add this to the fact that my PCs will run perfectly with the peripherals of my choosing and that having to configure anything out of the ordinary is highly unlikely and Ubuntu becomes the path of least resistance when opting for a Linux lifestyle.
Now consider for a moment: where would users such as myself be if Ubuntu ceased to exist?
Yes, I realize a number of you are quite happy with Debian, OpenSuSE or in some cases, Slackware and Gentoo. But for those of us who are used to what Ubuntu provides, I imagine itd be quite a shocking switch.
Thinking about this today, I forced myself to ponder what I would end up migrating to should Ubuntu suddenly cease to be available. The results of said pondering were not as predictable as I had initially expected.
Taking stock of available Linux alternatives
Despite the belief by some Linux enthusiasts that Debian remains a potential contender as an Ubuntu alternative, there are other distros available that have taken the same Debian core and have done wonderful things with it. Xandros
Distros such as Simply Mepis, for instance. Another option might be Linux Mint. Even though Mint currently uses an Ubuntu base for each release, something tells me that, in a sudden absence of Ubuntu from which to draw from, Mint would find itself moving over to a Debian core in order to continue with future releases.
Xandros is basically Debian, with a pretty looking wrapper. PCLinuxOS and Mandriva are both great RPM-based distros that provide solid alternatives for those who are just not satisfied with what a Debian-based distribution can provide.
In each individual case, most people who are already used to using desktop Linux would find the switch to be a reasonable experience overall.
Which distro is best for the more experienced Linux user?
Speaking for myself, selecting an Ubuntu alternative is a close tie between Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS.
This is not to say that Simply Mepis or Mandriva should be ignored. Rather, I have found that Mint and PCLinuxOS have the most accessible communities when compatibility or installation issues arise. That, and I can easily reach the developers for each distribution without having to field my concerns through a ton of middlemen. I realize this is not a priority for everyone, but it definitely matters a great deal to me.
Another reason I might be inclined to select PCLinuxOS or Linux Mint is the fact that each distro provides its users with community-based solutions to any distro shortcomings. For instance, let's say that theres an issue with getting proprietary drivers installed. Linux Mint was the first distro to provide a third party installer tool called "Envy" included by default with the initial installation.
Early on, Linux Mint was ahead of the pack when it came to making the installation of proprietary video drivers as simple as possible. Still, both Linux Mint and PCLinuxOS maintain a strong record of providing access to restricted software such as Flash player, out of the box. And small niceties such as this matter to a lot of people who use Linux today, regardless of what you might hear otherwise.
So where does this place the absolute newbie? Depending how little these users are willing to tackle early on, it very well might be best to turn them over to a totally "managed" Linux solution.
After all, some users are simply interested in the cost savings and not the perceived learning experience that switching to Linux can provide.
Which distribution is best for the totally "new to Linux" user?
If you're fine with being limited by your software installation options out of the box, you could try a distribution called Zonbu. For individuals who simply want their computers to work without having to worry about configuration, backing up, restricted codecs and so on, Zonbu is likely to be the best match overall.
Now the undeniable downside to selecting Zonbu is that you are very limited in the applications this distro happens to come with. Last time I checked, Zonbu still does not even provide the ability to use a document scanner.
In addition, there is also a complete lack of Bluetooth support as well. If you are willing to forgo the missing functionality, then perhaps Zonbu is a good alternative to trying to setup your own Linux box by yourself.
Filling in the gap for two distinctive groups of Linux users
Clearly, with the varying needs of individual users, there is no silver bullet that is going to meet everyone's needs completely. So selecting a single alternative distro might be the wrong approach to compensating for any potential Ubuntu vacuum.
Perhaps instead, we as a collective need to take the approach of supporting multiple distributions to make sure that no matter what the proprietary world might throw at us as Linux users, we will always have the freedom to choose.
And as we have seen from the proprietary operating systems, when things go badly with a single OS, your options are to switch platforms or worse, roll back to an older release of the problem OS.
Speaking for myself, I find this to be unacceptable. To that end, I am hopeful that desktop Linux users will continue to seek out new distributions for discovery and not become overly comfortable with the distros that theyre already familiar with.