How did Ubuntu end up so popular?

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.

Further Reading
Five Reasons Ubuntu Is the #1 Linux Distro

79 thoughts on “How did Ubuntu end up so popular?”

  1. While I am an experienced user I do like Ubuntu. Why well it’s just amazing toss it on almost any old PC and boom your up and running! Yes I did test a number of others but I was impressed that it installed correctly on an old Dell when the others did not…

  2. Brian

    You can run Adobe CS using Wine. And you can run IE in Linux using Wine. So there . . .

  3. I am one of those people that went from Red Hat to Suse to Debian… and Ubuntu won me over at Warty, and I have not had another Dist on my system since. Why?

    1) Ubuntu install was simple.
    2) EVERYTHING worked on my laptop — with very little futzing around.
    3) Upgrades are a breeze, even between major revisions, and I have never suffered from the equivalent of RPM-Hell.
    4) Ubuntu is backed by Debian, with an insane number of packages available if you configure your package manager to accept them.
    5) Third party repositories are easily added to the package management system (e.g. I update Wine directly from the budgetdedicated repository).

    Ubuntu was the first dist that I found that could do everything that I wanted Linux to do, and I have not looked back since.

  4. IE4Linux does not work well with IE 7, let alone the beta of 8 which I need.

    Yes, I am well aware that wine can run CS2. But I truly need CS3 because of collaboration projects with others who are using it on Windows or Mac. Gotta be compatible in every way.

    Trust me I love Ubuntu Linux and run it for fun at home. I just wish I could run it at work too.

    If Adobe introduces native Linux support, that would propel Linux, most likely Ubuntu into the mainstream. Perhaps other developers would follow. Perhaps by that point, enough people will be using Firefox that IE will be irrelevant.

    I think this is several years away from ever happening although the development of Linux over the past five or six years has been remarkable. I’d say, it’s literally equivalent of the difference between Win 95 and Win Vista, and in less than half the time it took Microsoft to develop it’s software.

    I heard a rumor that Google is now funding the wine project. This is cool, but I want native support before I make a real switch at work. It needs to be official for me to be convinced that my production output won’t suffer or that my software won’t be buggy. Wine isn’t all that stable. Is it even in version 1.0 yet?

  5. You know what may really make this interesting is virtualization. I had not realized that Sun had recently purchased Virtual Box (or MySQL for that matter)

  6. “the development of Linux over the past five or six years has been remarkable. I’d say, it’s literally equivalent of the difference between Win 95 and Win Vista”

    So true.. I remember how experimental (in a negative way) and odd the linux desktop felt 6 or 7 years ago, but the rate at which it has stabilized is very impressive.

  7. another reason:

    Ubuntu has always been *1 step forward* the other big distros in ease of use and Big amount of software in repos !

  8. @ Brent

    Wine just released 1.0RC1. That is huge news, since it took about 15 years to get there. It shouldn’t be too long before Wine has a stable 1.0

    And to aysiu, thanks for this great article. Well reasoned, well said. You are, and I think you know this, also highly appreciated on the Ubuntu Forums.

  9. I guess it’s time for me to give it another try too. It’s been 2 years and the progress looks promising. Thanks for the article, can’t wait to hit the forums after install.

  10. I use it because in a choice between OS X, Vista, and Ubuntu, Ubuntu wins by a mile. It’s as simple as that.

  11. This summer, when I build my computer, I will be putting Ubuntu on it because of the fact that it has excellent potential for it to improve in the future. And frankly I am quite tired of the Windows vs. Mac debate.

  12. For what it’s worth, aysiu is a big part of the reason I use Ubuntu. When I was first poking around looking at Linux, I heard about Ubuntu, and one of the first resources I found was the series of tutorials. In the pre-Wubi days, your description of setting up partitions for dual boot and lots of other stuff made the transition seem a lot less scary.

  13. Never heard of Ubuntu until about two years ago. Now we have it as default OS on all our home machines. Boot windows only for Netflix or the occasional WOW which is not Ubuntu’s fault. With Hardy Heron and the Wubi??? installer the largest barrier (how do I partition my disks for a dual boot system etc…) has largely been negated. 1000’s of free packages via the apt package manager, the ability to micro control every aspect of the system such as individual icon sizes on your desktop etc… and a boost for aging hardware make it an excellent choice for preferred operating system. Why Ubuntu? because relative to the other distros out there it’s easy to get up and running, comes with a huge active community for support issues and actually has support from major players like Dell. People want to pop in a disk and just go… Ubuntu lets you do that or at least comes closer than the other Linux’s.

  14. I don’t know about Ubuntu. 8.04 is nice and all but it lacks a lot of built in features and programs that Windows users need to use. I’ve been shifting threw the distro sands looking at what they all have to offer and I have to say I’m disappointed that someone hasn’t taken all of these nice features and software packages and rolled them into one distribution based on popularity, openness, and freedom of choice. Whenever I try to suggest such a notion I’m called a “bigot”, “Discriminatory”, or someone tells me that I haven’t contributed anything to the GNU/Linux community. ? So I finally started to prove them all wrong. Even after I sponsored car races and redesigned the KDE Windows like interface and incorporated the Mac4Lin interface (which I used before it was a project called Mac4Lin by designing my own version) I have gained no new respect or support however I have had a couple orders for Ultumix DVDs and I am gaining contributers slowly. I don’t have an FTP or HTTP mirror yet but still people are using my Distribution. Once I get (which is ahead of Kubuntu) out I think things might change.

  15. Today my window went down with some hard disk error due to power failure. I have a Ubuntu live CD that i have never tried. I boot my pc with it. Its seems very good OS. I have used RHEL and Fedora before, but Ubuntu seems much better and easy to use desktop.

  16. They’re two Linux-based operating systems (otherwise known as “distros” or “distributions”) that have different funding sources, release cycles, default software, software management systems, and communities.

  17. Very nice article. Is it possible to translate it and publish with your credits on our online czech tech magazine as different view thant we normaly have (as we cover mostly windows)? If so please let me know on my e-mail. Thanks.

  18. i completely agree. the ubuntu forum is probably the most newbie-friendly forum in the net. hardly anyone ever gets flamed for not using the search function. unlike in most linux forums, where asking a question is an invitation to being flamed.

  19. I am using Ubuntu 8.04, after not having touched Linux since the mid 90’s. I was so impressed that I did a quick write-up here:

    In my mind, and through my experience, the popularity of Ubuntu can be summarized by 4 simple words: It’s Just Like Windows.

    And I mean that in a good way: 99% of the user-friendlyness, with maybe 1% of the bugs.


  20. I am Linux beginner and using Ubuntu 8.04 (used 7.10 too).
    It is wonderful OS and it fills all my needs from a desktop computer.
    Very simple, huge amount of help on the internet, and very beautiful. In my opinion in the current release there are less bugs and it is very polished. I am proud to be a Ubuntu user!

  21. I’m a new Ubuntu user, I started using on ד אב. I think the English date is 3 August. (Yom Ivris B’Alef-Beit Angleet is 4th of Av). I find it incredibly easy and within hours I fell in love with Terminal. It doesn’t hurt I liked the CLI when I used Windows. I also don’t care for the docs – they are confusing. I use the wiki and forums, mostly. You can’t actually edit the official docs, and the wiki confuses me a little, so I stick to the forum. :)

    And everything worked out of the box, with the exception of Java or closed-source stuff, but it takes 2 secs to install. I LOVE Ubuntu’s PDF viewer, more than Adobe because it is much faster!!

    How fast is app installation in dial up?

  22. I started with RH8 because a highschool kid told me all the reasons why Windows blowed when it came to software development and security, and told me how easy and reliable Linux had become. I was using that for awhile, fighting with its instability and rpm dependency issues, before I upgraded to RH9. I lived on that for awhile until my coworker and mentor with Linux, Paulo from Brazil (oh, and I’m from the USA), told me he received a copy of Ubuntu and said it was better than RH. He said I wouldn’t have to worry about package dependencies, the thing was the most stable Linux out there, and had more recent packages than other forms of Linux. He said it was 100% free and I could even have the billionaire owner send me some CDs, which I did.

    So yeah, that’s why Ubuntu is the most popular, and that’s why I still use it until today — they have not let me down one bit. I choose Ubuntu over RH or any other Linux.

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