Ubuntu at 10: All that way for this?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 28, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

"In a middle of a good time,
Fate dealt me her icy kiss,
Look around, you must be joking,
We've come all that way for this."

-OysterBand

Last week, Ubuntu celebrated the tenth anniversary of its first release. The occasion was marked by the obligatory retrospectives, most of them uncritical or at least carefully neutral. What nobody asked was the obvious question: after ten years, is Ubuntu a success?

That depends on the criteria.

On the one hand, the fact that Ubuntu has shaped free software is undeniable.

When Warty Warthog, Ubuntu's first release, was announced, the last thing that free software seemed to need was another distribution. The market seemed saturated, and its distinguishing features few, but at least a few Debian developers were being employed for as long as the newcomer lasted. Other Debian developers were looking askance at the eccentric millionaire behind the distribution, wondering what he was up to and how quickly he would become bored and move on.

Needless to say, almost all these perceptons were wrong. Contrary to expectations, Ubuntu thrived. It did not replace Debian, as one or two predicted, but it did make the .deb package format dominant, usurping .rpm from the position it had occupied unchallenged for years. While prior to 2000, projects would release .rpms if they released any packages at all, by 2007, any default packages were .deb. Because of the popularity of Ubuntu, you simply reached more people with .debs. And when new distributions such as Linux Mint began, they naturally chose to use Debian packages.

However, Ubuntu was soon shaking up free software in even more important ways. After the first release or two, it became a leader in the push for greater usability. It did not originate this interest; in 2000, GNOME had benefited from its first major user testing, and, by the time of Warty Warthog, KDE's third release series had matured to the point where, functionally, it was the equal of any proprietary alternative. But, more than any other project, Ubuntu transformed usability from a growing concern to a major priority.

One early example of Ubuntu's leadership in usability was in multiple language and locale support. When Warty Warthog was released, the typical Linux installation lacked the fonts to support multiple languages, and changing the keyboard locale required dropping down into the command line. Ubuntu, however, was the distribution that first installed the necessary fonts by default, and added the necessary tools to the desktop. Other distributions and desktop environments soon followed -- an important step in the maturation of the Linux desktop.

A few years later, Ubuntu's founder Mark Shuttleworth would go on to challenge other projects to produce a desktop that would rival Apple. The challenge was not answered by anyone else, but usability had already become a priority. I can only guess, but I doubt that it would have been as important a concern without such a prominent advocate.

True, Unity, Shuttleworth's own response to his challenge, leaves many still unpleased after five years (although some have warmed to it). The same is true about GNOME's third release series. But the spirit of the times encouraged everyone to dream large and to think about the user experience more than ever before. Even when GNOME users sought alternatives, the variety of alternatives available to them was at least partly due to Ubuntu's leadership in usability.

The red side of the ledger
Ubuntu's reward for such priorities was to become one of Linux's top two or three distributions -- most likely the most popular, although unbiased statistics are hard to come by. Yet, on the other hand, Ubuntu has also failed spectacularly in some key aspects.

For one thing, despite its success, Ubuntu has never managed to be quite the leader in free software that Shuttleworth wanted. It never managed to dominate Debian (if that was its earliest intentions), nor even Debian-derived distributions. Its call for coordinated release cycles for major projects was rejected as impractical, and its efforts to set the agenda for GNOME was stonewalled by competing interests.

Ubuntu's response to these setbacks was to become isolationist, developing on its own and keeping tight control on projects. Yet this approach only created a negative stream of publicity. Outsiders complained that Ubuntu was not following accepted free software norms, while volunteers worried that their concerns were being ignored by commercial considerations. Nor have Ubuntu-manufactured tools like Unity or upstart been widely adopted by other projects.

However, Ubuntu's greatest failure is financial. After ten years, its corporate arm Canonical has never made a profit, and remains heavily dependent on loans from Shuttleworth himself. In the corporate world, this record would be considered an unrelieved failure.

Canonical is supposed to be having some success as a consultant for servers, but the truth is that it has been slow to evolve a workable business model. At least it has one now -- to produce a phone that connects easily to computers and has a common interface -- but, considering how heavily saturated the mobile market is, the model's profitability seems questionable.  Unlike competitors like Red Hat, Canonical and Ubuntu have yet to find a niche where they can survive unaided.

Ubuntu has dreamed big, and some of its dreams have been magnificent enough to leave a lasting influence on the direction of free software. If the much-joked-about world domination ever comes about, it will be due partly to the influence of Ubuntu. But if Ubuntu itself will around to celebrate a twentieth anniversary is nowhere near as certain.

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