Ars looks back at the decade in Ubuntu, from Warty Warthog to 25 million users worldwide,by Oct 22 2014, 9:00pm EDTIn October of 2004, a new Linux distro appeared on the scene with a curious name—Ubuntu. Even then there were hundreds, today if not thousands, of different Linux distros available. A new one wasn't particularly unusual, and for some time after its quiet preview announcement, Ubuntu went largely unnoticed. It was yet another Debian derivative.
Today, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, estimates that there are 25 million Ubuntu users worldwide. That makes Ubuntu the world's third most popular PC operating system. By Canonical's estimates, Ubuntu has roughly 90 percent of the Linux market. And Ubuntu is poised to launch a mobile version that may well send those numbers skyrocketing again.
This month marks the tenth anniversary of Ubuntu. As you'll soon see in this look at the desktop distro through the years, Linux observers sensed there was something special about Ubuntu nearly from the start. However, while a Linux OS that genuinely had users in mind was quickly embraced, Ubuntu's ten-year journey since is a microcosm of the major Linux events of the last decade—encompassing everything from privacy concerns and Windows resentment to server expansion and hopes of convergence.
Warty Warthog: What's an Ubuntu?
Starting right from its launch, Ubuntu took a different approach to Linux, one that was perhaps best defined by its slogan at the time: "Linux for human beings." The word Ubuntu itself recalls the same idea, coming from the South African philosophy where it means, literally, "humanness." More broadly translated, it's "humanity toward others."
This distinction is more than simple semantics. It's what makes Ubuntu unique in the annals of Linux history.
The name, combined with the slogan, set Ubuntu apart from other Linux distros of the day. Its competitors tended to focus more narrowly on what developers and enterprise users wanted rather than what "ordinary" desktop users might need. Fedora, for example, takes a very different approach, aiming for users who are also developers and will contribute back to open source.
The focus on "Linux for human beings" set the tone and direction of the Ubuntu project from the beginning. Ubuntu never chased developers. It also did not seem interested in the server market. Instead, this distribution was aimed squarely at desktop users (of whom there were significantly fewer in October 2004) and Linux newcomers. The idea was to win over "ordinary" users from Windows.
Ubuntu was started by Mark Shuttleworth, who sold his company Thawte to VeriSign in December 1999 for $575 million. After a short vacation in space, he founded Canonical Ltd and started work on Ubuntu. Shuttleworth's announcement of the very first Ubuntu release defines the fledgling project as a "new Linux distribution that brings together the extraordinary breadth of Debian with a fast and easy install, regular releases... (and) a tight selection of excellent packages."
Those goals—fast and easy to install, regular releases with support, and a wide range of applications available—are the basis of what powered Ubuntu to the top of the Linux charts. Perhaps the most significant of these three goals, though, especially in terms of Ubuntu's focus on new, beginning Linux users is the first one: making Linux easy to install.
By 2004, Debian wasn't difficult to install if you had prior experience with Linux. For someone accustomed to the installation process offered by Windows XP or Mac OS X, however, it was, at the very least, intimidating. Ubuntu on the other hand was just as easy to install as Windows or OS X. You inserted the CD, it booted, and you double-clicked the installer. When prominent Apple supporter Mark Pilgrim switched to Linux, he chose Ubuntu. Pilgrim joked that it was the African word for "can't install Debian."
Dapper Drake: Rising to the top
Ubuntu stuck to its every-six-months plan, churning out progressively more polished releases from 2004 on. In ten years, it has only missed a release deadline once—6.06 Dapper Drake in 2006.
By 2008, Ubuntu established itself as the distro of choice for "switchers" moving away from Windows or OS X or even other distros lacking the ease of use Ubuntu offered. Ubuntu put a friendly face on the otherwise cryptic world of desktop Linux. It offered a simple installation process, the promise of easy updates, and a great selection of applications all available at the click of a button in the Ubuntu Software Center. In short Ubuntu achieved its goals.
Even those who don't like Ubuntu's take on the Linux desktop benefited from it over the years, as many of its defining characteristics, particularly the installation process and focus on a well-designed desktop experience. These traits became a priority in other projects, and the result of Ubuntu's efforts rippled out through the wider Linux world.
Intrepid Ibex: It's lonely at the top
The move away from GNOME did not hurt Ubuntu's adoption rate. It remains the most popular Linux distro by a wide margin, which makes it, among other things, the most popular target for critics. Linux, like every other tightly knit subculture on the Internet, seems to hate a runaway success, especially one that violates so many of the subculture's taboos.
Violating unwritten Linux taboos became something of an Ubuntu sport over the years. And the critics were there at every turn, even right at the start. For example, as part of its initial launch, Canonical unveiled the Launchpad project hosting platform, but it did not release it under an open source license for another four years. This angered some who saw Canonical as saying one thing and doing another.
Then there were gripes about Ubuntu developers not contributing to the kernel. And then there was the brown theme. Then the purple theme. Then the window buttons moved to the left of the window. The changes got smaller, the nits got pickier, but they were no quieter or less vehement. There's always someone very vocally unhappy about what Ubuntu is doing.
Utopic Unicorn: Imagining Utopia
Arriving alongside the ten-year anniversary of the project, there's almost nothing new in the latest version of Ubuntu, 14.10. There's a kernel update, a few application updates, but nothing major from Ubuntu itself.
There is one bit of good news in the daily builds, though. Ubuntu has started work on a major change that will fix perhaps the biggest tarnishing marks in Ubuntu's history—removing the privacy-invading online search features.
One of the best parts of Unity is the Dash, a single search interface that will find apps, documents, music, images, and all sorts of other data on your machine. It's the cornerstone of the Unity interface. The first few releases of Unity focused on local search, but in 12.04 Ubuntu added a feature that enabled online searches as well.
What has always been most troubling about the search features in Unity Dash is that they are enabled by default. Given that very few users change default settings—especially new users, Ubuntu's target audience—it effectively means that users may not be aware their data is being transmitted to Canonical's servers and then routed on to Amazon and elsewhere.
It's worth looking at the rest of what Shuttleworth wrote in that post, though. "You do trust us with your data already," he continued. "You trust us not to screw up on your machine with every update. You trust Debian, and you trust a large swath of the open source community. And most importantly, you trust us to address it when, being human, we err."
That last bit is especially relevant in this case, and it matters for two reasons. First, Shuttleworth apologized for the DMCA takedown notice, and it has never happened again.
More importantly, Ubuntu is reversing course on the Amazon search lens. Sally Radwan, Product Marketing Manager at Canonical, tells Ars that "the opt-in by default is not set to land in 14.10... [but] it is in the development pipeline for 15.04." That is, Amazon and the rest of the online search features will soon be opt-in (if you update from an existing install it will still be there, but it's disabled for fresh installs of the latest daily builds). In short, Ubuntu is fixing its mistake even if it has taken a little while.
Still, better late than never, because you do have to trust someone. Like it or not, Ubuntu or whatever your OS of choice is does have root access to your machine. Not literally of course, but it's effective access given that their code is running with root privileges on your machine and chances are you haven't reviewed it lately. You trust your distro to make sure that code is secure, stable, and acting in your best interests. You trust them to update it when something goes wrong.
You could look at Ubuntu's privacy fiasco pessimistically, as proof that Ubuntu is out to get you. Or you could take the more optimistic view: Ubuntu is willing to fix things when it makes bad decisions.
Ubuntu rebranded itself in 2010 and dropped the "Linux for human beings" slogan. It wouldn't be as catchy, but Ubuntu might do well to bring back its old slogan with a slight update: "Linux for human beings who make mistakes, but try to fix them."
Vivid Vervet: The mobile futureUbuntu recently announced that next year's 15.04 release will be named Vivid Vervet. While Shuttleworth tends to focus on the animal names in his announcement, looking back over Ubuntu's history reveals that the word accompanying the animal is often the more defining element. From "Warty," which was all warts and all release, to Lucid, when Ubuntu seems to have developed a more distinct sense of visual and UI direction, to Vivid, which envisions a bright future.
Again, there is almost nothing new from Canonical in Ubuntu 14.10. The reason for that is the project has all available hands working on its Unity 8 mobile interface. The Ubuntu Phone is coming, and for now the desktop is taking a back seat.
Warty Warthog: The sequelAny numbers surrounding the use of Linux are suspect simply because it's very hard to track by distro. But again, Canonical tells Ars that the company estimates there are "around 25 million Ubuntu desktop users," and Canonical claims to have around 90 percent of the Linux market.
And while this retrospective focused solely on the desktop, Ubuntu is no slouch in the server market these days. It now accounts for over 55 percent of all OpenStack deployments and, according to the company, around 70 percent of guest OSes "on major global public cloud environments."
So even if Ubuntu Touch tanks and Ubuntu goes crawling home with its tail between its legs, it has an impressive home to return to. It's hasn't been a perfect ten years, but it's difficult to imagine where Linux would be today without Ubuntu. When it debuted in 2004, the most popular desktop was KDE 3.5, the default theme of which looked like a sad clone of Windows 95. Ten years later, Linux is everywhere you look, and most often it's Ubuntu Linux that you see.
For better or worse, Ubuntu has become the friendly public face of Linux. But as Shuttleworth wrote on his blog several years ago, "free software is bigger than any one project. It's bigger than the Linux kernel, it's bigger than GNU, it's bigger than GNOME and KDE, it's bigger than Ubuntu and Fedora and Debian. Each of those projects plays a role, but it is the whole which is really changing the world."