May 15th, 2008
No one has hard numbers, of course, but based on how much it’s talked about on the web, Ubuntu appears to be the most popular Linux distribution for home use (as opposed to for servers). Every tech news article about Linux mentions Ubuntu and will often recommend Ubuntu to new users. Many YouTube videos about how to do something on Linux will feature Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the top distro on DistroWatch (again, just meaning there’s a lot of interest in it—not necessarily that the largest number of Linux users are choosing it over other distros).
How did this come to pass? Seriously. I was there… not from the very start but from very close to the beginning. The very first release was Ubuntu 4.10, nicknamed Warty Warthog. I started with the next release, Ubuntu 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog). My first experience with Ubuntu was not the best. The CD froze up part way through the installation, which led me to use Mepis for a month instead. But I came back to Ubuntu. Why?
On the surface, to a new user, Ubuntu would seem like a bad choice.
- It doesn’t come with popular proprietary software.
- It doesn’t have additional CDs (meaning, for software installation, you probably need a broadband connection).
- Its documentation Wiki (especially at the time I started using it, less so now) is a mess.
I figured in 2005 that distros like Mepis and Linspire would thrive and be at the forefront of bringing Linux to ex-Windows power users, if not “the masses.” After all, in Ubuntu, I couldn’t (in Hoary) edit the applications menu, get numlock to stick, install Nvidia drivers, or add software repositories without resorting to the command-line, which was a very daunting thing for me to use when I first started on Linux. The word terminal was a scary word to see. In retrospect, I don’t know why I was so scared of it, but I was. And, yet, only a month after using Mepis, I moved to Ubuntu and stuck with it for three years. No, it didn’t come with Flash, Java, Nvidia drivers, Skype, Adobe Reader, or MP3 playback. It just had something.
The amazing thing is that even back when Ubuntu was barely functional (no easy-codec-installation or restricted-drivers-manager or Ubiquity installer) it was getting buzz. What got it off the ground? As far as I can tell, these are what Ubuntu had going for it:
- Unlike giants Red Hat and Novell, Canonical was targeting home users first with its catchy (if slightly misleading) “Linux for Human Beings” slogan. Servers were secondary.
- Unlike homebrews Mepis and PCLinuxOS, though, Ubuntu had the backing of some serious money (Mark Shuttleworth’s).
- The free CDs worldwide (including shipping) is a nice gimmick that set Ubuntu apart, even if a lot of those CDs were given away to people who later threw them in the trash.
- The Ubuntu Forums is a good compromise in that it has knowledgeable users but is generally free of the elitism and noob-disdain of other, more difficult distros’ forums. As a matter of fact, this was one of the major deciding factors for me. Much as I liked Mepis and much as their forums were friendly, they just didn’t have enough knowledgeable users to support me in all my questions. The Gentoo forums were far too intimidating for me.
- I think this goes along with the forums being less intimidating, but associating the Ubuntu “Humanity Towards Others” philosophy with the distro seemed to give it a purpose and a flavor beyond mere technology.
- The lack of confusing options really helps new users. You don’t have to know what KDE and Gnome are or choose what applications to install or which of five text editors to use. Ubuntu picks one application per task as default. If you want to switch to different applications later, that’s up to you when you’re more familiar with Linux programs.
- Even though the Wiki isn’t the strongest representative of this, the Ubuntu documentation is pretty easy to follow. When I started with Hoary, the Ubuntu Guide was the best around, and since then a series of screenshot-heavy and video tutorials have sprung up to help new users who feel lost.
I’m a little conflicted on the single CD nature of Ubuntu. Even though I think not having additional CDs hurts the idea of Linux for Human Beings (since it really assumes users have a broadband connection or never want to install new software), I also found the multiple-CD distros confusing when I was a new user. I didn’t think of Mandriva as the first CD for installing the operating system and the second and third for only additional software. I thought I needed all three to install Mandriva. So I steered clear of Debian, definitely, which I think had fourteen CDs at the time.
I am quite proud of the Ubuntu developers’ work. Even though I have minor complaints, I like what I’m seeing: more point-and-click options, less need for the terminal, prettier artwork, easy codec installation. Yes, there are bugs. There will always be bugs. But Ubuntu is a solid distro with a large userbase to support and welcome you if you want to come. It was a dark horse rising up and now appears to be the de facto distro for new users.
If you’re too lazy to install the proprietary codecs yourself, though, you can use a Ubuntu variant like Linux Mint, which includes them by default.
Five Reasons Ubuntu Is the #1 Linux Distro