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November 14, 2011
For at least five years, Ubuntu has been the pre-eminent Linux distribution for desktop users. None of the other polished distros, such as Fedora or Debian, came close to capturing Canonical’s market share or mind share in the open source world. But writing on the wall is beginning to suggest that the Age of Ubuntu could be coming to an end, at least on the desktop. Here’s why.
Lest I come off as too sensationalist, let me point out that neither Ubuntu nor Canonical is going to disappear anytime soon. Even if Ubuntu ceases to be the most popular Linux for personal desktops, we can expect it to remain important as a second or third choice for years to come.
More importantly, Ubuntu has evolved into much more than a distribution for personal PCs. It’s well-entrenched on corporate desktops, servers and cloud systems, and there’s no sign of its dominance waning in those niches. At the same time, Canonical has immense resources that the developers behind other distros lack, from strong relationships with OEMs and channel partners to a diverse array of revenue streams to the personal fortune of Ubuntu founder and self-styled benevolent dictator Mark Shuttleworth. There’s much more to Ubuntu and Canonical than the desktop.
Yet there have been some noticeable indications recently that Ubuntu’s unquestioned pre-eminence as the desktop Linux distribution of choice for users around the world may be in decline.
For one, Linux Mint, a distribution based heavily on Ubuntu but with its own take on user-friendliness, recently slipped ahead of Ubuntu in statistics maintained by distrowatch.com. Of course, as any seasoned observer of the open source channel knows, distrowatch’s figures mean little more than the number of page hits that the site gets for users seeking information about each distro; they’re hardly a universal measure of popularity. But with few other resources available for tracking such metrics in the open source world, the distrowatch change is one worth noticing.
Meanwhile, if some Ubuntu users have been defecting to the Ubuntu derivative of Linux Mint, others have been exploring the other direction of Ubuntu’s genealogical tree by considering a switch to Debian. Ubuntu remains highly dependent on Debian for much of its code, but for a long time the former’s image as the more user-friendly of the two distros ensured that the Debian crowd was a decidedly geekier one.
Why are some Ubuntu users exploring other options? Most conventional wisdom points to the major changes introduced in recent Ubuntu releases, as the traditional GNOME 2 desktop environment was replaced by Canonical’s Unity interface. As one blogger writes, “Ubuntu is facing some new challenges from users who are not very happy with the whole Unity switch.”
If it’s true that grumbles about desktop environments are the major issue at play here, they may not be that serious for Ubuntu in the long run. Linux Mint and Debian both still offer versions of GNOME 2, but they can’t do that forever, since the GNOME project itself has retired that code in favor of GNOME 3, which is subject to many of the same complaints as Unity.
Unless someone decides to bring GNOME 2 back from the dead and fork it into an independent project, even Linux Mint and Debian users will have to accept a radically new interface sooner or later. (True, a fork of GNOME 2 already exists as Mate, but it has so far remained pretty obscure and I wouldn’t place many bets that it will remain viable in the long term.)
Where will Ubuntu end up vis-à-vis other Linux distributions in two or three years’ time? It’s pretty safe to assume it will still be on the short list of influential distros, but the areas in which it enjoys the greatest popularity may shift away from the desktop and toward other poles, such as servers or mobile devices, which Shuttleworth recently highlighted as Ubuntu’s next frontier.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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