Ubuntu Ten

Retrospective on 10 years of Ubuntu (LWN discussion). I ran Ubuntu on my main computer from 2005 to 2011. I was happy to see Ubuntu become a “juggernaut” and I think like many hoped for it to become mainstream, largely indicated by major vendor preinstallation. The high point for me, which I seem to have never blogged about, was in 2007 purchasing a very well priced Dell 1420n with Ubuntu preinstalled.

But the juggernaut stalled at the top of the desktop GNU/Linux distribution heap, which isn’t very high. Although people have had various complaints about Ubuntu and Canonical Ltd., as I’ve written before my overriding disappointment is that they haven’t been much more successful. There are a couple tiny vendors that focus exclusively or primarily on shipping Ubuntu-preinstalled consumer hardware, and Dell or another major vendor occasionally offers something — Dell has had a developer edition Ubuntu preinstall for a couple years, usually substantially out of date, as the current offering is now.

Canonical seems to have followed Red Hat and others in largely becoming an enterprise/cloud servicing company, though apparently they’re still working on an Ubuntu flavor for mobile devices (and I haven’t followed, but I imagine that Red Hat still does some valuable engineering for the desktop). I wish both companies ever more success in these ventures — more huge companies doing only or almost only open source are badly needed, even imperfect ones.

For Ubuntu fans, this seems like a fine time to ask why it hasn’t been even more successful. Why hasn’t it achieved consistent and competitive mainstream vendor distribution? How much, if any blame can be laid at Canonical’s stumbles with respect to free/open source software? It seems to me that a number of Canonical products would have been much more likely to be dominante had they been open source from the beginning (Launchpad, Ubuntu One) or not required a Contributor License Agreement (bzr, Upstart, Mir), would not have alienated a portion of the free/open source software community, and that the world would overall be a better place had most of those products won — the categories of the first two remain dominated by proprietary services, and the latter three might have gained widespread adoption sooner than the things that eventually did or will probably win (git, systemd, wayland). But taking a step back, it’s really hard to see how these stumbles (that’s again from an outsider free/open source perspective; maybe they are still seen as having been the right moves at the time inside Canonical; I just don’t know) might have contributed in a major way to lack of mainstream success. Had the stumbles been avoided, perhaps some engineering resources would have been better allocated or increased, but unless reallocated with perfect hindsight as to what the technical obstacles to mainstream adoption were — an impossibility — I doubt they made much of a difference. What about alientation of a portion of the free/open source community? Conceivably had they (we) been more enthusiastic, more consumer lobbying/demand for Ubuntu preinstalls would have occurred, and tipped a balance — but that seems like wishful thinking, requiring a level of perfect organizing of GNU/Linux fan consumer demand that nobody has achieved. I’d love to believe that had Canonical stuck closer to a pure free/open source software path, it’d have achieved greater mainstream success, but I just don’t see much of a causal link. What are the more likely causes? I’d love to read an informed analysis.

For Ubuntu detractors, this seems like a fine time to ask why Ubuntu has been a juggernaut relative to your preferred GNU/Linux distribution. If you’re angry at Canonical, I suggest your anger is misdirected — you should be angry instead that your preferred distribution hasn’t managed to do marketing and distribution as well as it needed to, on its own terms — and figure out why that is. Better yet, form and execute on a plan to achieve the mainstream success that Ubuntu hasn’t. Otherwise in all likelihood it’s an Android and ChromeOS (and huge Windows legacy, with some Apple stuff in between) world for a long time to come. I’d love to read a feasible plan!

5 Responses

  1. maiki says:

    How does Ubuntu fare in China? Maybe it is more mainstream than it appears. That would be neat.

    When I think about how people get their OS, most people get whatever is on their computer (mobile devices included). I’d guess Canonical knew that, but since Apple products are out, that meant it went toe to toe with Microsoft, ne? I don’t pay attention to how they promote Windows, but it has always been rather horrible in keeping its monopoly. It could be a “legacy”, but I’d like to think that the web makes it irrelevant…

    And maybe that is why Ubuntu didn’t rise higher, because the thing sitting on your disk just isn’t as important anymore. Windows practically gives it away, and Apple specifically does. But people spend a lot on websites, either in money or metrics.

    This is obviously not the detailed analysis you are looking for, but maybe it would have been better in the long run for Canonical to be more aligned with the free side, so it could lead in the movement that doesn’t want to be completely cloud-based and controlled by government/commercial interests. I am not convinced, because I tend to think that we are doing alright, and that there shouldn’t be a dominating OS. I use Ubuntu GNOME because I like GNOME and I like the Ubuntu repos. But from the peeps I talk to (and I talk to everyone that I meet about their computer usage), they are mostly using the web for their stuff. I tend to think that if push comes to shove, it will be easier to move over to Ubuntu or something else. Maybe the compromises I think Canonical has made will pay off for them. ^_^

  2. I don’t care if one OS is dominant in the Free Software world, but I would very much like to see ANY (or all) Free Software make a decent showing against MS and Apple.

    (It’s too bad Google went over to the dark side; for a moment there I had hopes for Android.

  3. maiki, if Ubuntu is more mainstream in China, I can’t tell.

    Laurel, I agree, but it’s conceivable that one dominant OS (distribution, whatever) in the Free Software world would make that OS more likely to gain mainstream acceptance as there are strong network effects for adoption of software that fragmentation destroys. How much in this particular domain, I’m not sure. I suppose one theory as to how Canonical’s alienating some of the community hurt its mainstream chances is that it could’ve been more dominant, possibly (as I already noted in post) tipping scales toward mainstream adoption.

    But as that tipping towards mainstream adoption has been stalled for years (I’d love to be convinced otherwise), any distribution to be really interesting to me has to have a solid theory of change about how to make it happen. Maybe catering to large institutional adoption as a path to get preinstalls?

  4. Diane Trout says:

    There’s a pretty good argument that one of the big things holding back desktop Linux is lack of easy to install AAA games.

    At least that’s the argument made by this article…

  5. Diane, I guess gaming is something Canonical/Ubuntu could’ve worked on, or that a distribution/organization wanting to breakthrough into mainstream could do now. A suggestion was made in LWN story comments that Canonical could’ve taken more responsibility for delivering hardware. I guess Steam is doing both (games and hardware). Will be interesting to see if they have a large positive impact on computing generally, given that they’re only focused on games, and are just using free software as platform. Canonical/Ubuntu, whatever their faults, were/are primarily focused on general computing and delivering free software.

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