Why is Ubuntu the most popular distro?

I just came across a discussion on Reddit why Ubuntu is the most popular distro? Everyone who comes to know about Linux first hears about Ubuntu. Why is it so? Why do newbies feel like home when they try out Ubuntu? Sure! It has its own set of problems and isnt perfect, that doesn’t stop it from making it the leader.

Here is the dicussion going on Reddit (Linux)

The first answer clears the conception, am shamelessly copying the answer so that people can read it here, all credits goto RalfN . I have fixed the typos in the comments.

Go to that link and read the rest of the comments too. It’s really an eye-opener.

Neutrality Ubuntu is a self-sustaining non-profit organization. Canonical does offer commercial support, but they do not spent the 10 million that Mark put into the Ubuntu organization. Aspects and features that have a direct commercial advantage for Canonical are kept separate and are not included in the main distribution. What they add to Ubuntu is always opensource and competitors are free and encouraged to pick it up. (and often they do)

Transparency The complete proccess is open for everybody to participate. Not just packaging, but creating specs, brainstorming, discussions, etc. Everybody can follow and/or participate. If you think something is lacking and you have the skills to fix it, you can maintain that project in sync with everything else. And if it’s a big contribution; you will get free plane tickets to the live meetings, etc.

They polish the learning-curve, not the system The focus of Ubuntu is not a system your mother can use, but a system that teaches you how to set it up for your mother. The learning-curve of system administration in Ubuntu is much more thoughout than the actual GUI interfaces. This includes documentation, tweaks and intelligent defaults.

Their marketing targets casual users using opensource ideals They are the poster-child of free software. It’s not in your face radical extremist propaganda, but rather subtle honest compassion that they use to market it. Not in geek-speak, but in human language. Take a look at the ubuntu promise at the front page of ubuntu.com .. some friends (that are casual users) explain their love for Ubuntu as “it’s just a very sympathetic project”. Which is a much more emotional assessment compared to the “we are no longer suppressed by M$ nazi’s with their vendor locking and patent trolls”

They build the community first and then the project They chose a mature, almost gay hippy vibe. This keeps the zealots away. And because the adoption rate stays high; the majority of ubuntu users are always new users. The majority of people on the forums are always users with 1 to 3 years of experience. They are still eager to share their knowledge and haven’t become such geeks that they use xmonad or compile their own kernel. Again, this was all intentional.

They are loyal to upstream They don’t diverge from upstream too much. The choices of GNOME/KDE/Linus are all respected; they have a strong tendency not to want to change defaults. They also embrace new technology, even when it’s not ready yet, but needs the attention and bug reports. They want to be, in Marks’ words, “upstream’s rock”. They filter and triage the thousands of bug reports by ordinary users into actual useful bug reports that are then posted upstream. Some projects (debian) do complain that Ubuntu is not cooperating enough. Yet i’m quite sure, that drowning those excellent upstream developers with the noise that launchpad gets wouldn’t be very productive for anybody.

They don’t misuse their position in the Linux ecosystem They intentionally don’t make it easy to add binary repositories and they intentionally break binary compatibility with updates. Because given their position a lot of commercial vendors and hardware suppliers would prefer to just support Ubuntu with binary drivers and software; thereby hurting all the other distributions. This keeps the choice to NOT use Ubuntu alive, and that attitude should demand more respect from the rest of the opensource ecosystem than they are currently getting.

They are predictable They want to play the part of gate-keeper for the complete free software ecosystem. One of the ways to do this is too have regular scheduled released. They are already in sync with gnome and chances are high for KDE to also jump into ship with this schedule. More and more are we seeing other vendors (like Red Had and SUSE) pick the same technology and the same releases as Ubuntu does. And rather than acting all ‘you stole our thunder and our patches’ they are actually welcoming and encouraging the ‘competitors’ to do this. They are becoming the heart-beat of the free software world.

They compete with Microsoft and Apple, not other linux distro’s This tactical choice explains a lot of points above. Why they welcome integration, synchronization and cooperation with other distributions. How to prevent divide and conquer in the linux ecosystem. More linux users is good for everybody. Not everybody stays with Ubuntu, but the 99% of all new linux users of the last 3 years, have started with Ubuntu. That’s the key here. And they aren’t just users; they have become advocates for free software. Some will start using it professionally. This benefits Red Hat and SUSE just as much.

40 thoughts on “Why is Ubuntu the most popular distro?

  1. First of all, I don’t believe Ubuntu will be an ongoing concern. What exactly does Shuttleworth get in return for his 10 million a year? I can see him, eventually, throwing in the towel.

    Your argument for polishing the learning curve instead of the system is just plain dumb. Most new users of Linux actually complain about not having GUI tools and having to use the CLI. Ubuntu, based on Debian, keeps itself mostly just a polished up Debian distro and nothing more. Debian doesn’t use GUI tools for admin, so neither does Ubuntu. However, this thinking is rather arcane. This is why Ubuntu will never compete either with Windows or Mac OS. You see, they really are very popular, and both contain GUI admin tools.

    They’re not loyal to the upstream. The money that Shuttleworth puts into Ubuntu is mostly for marketing the distro. They don’t have any kernel developers, and don’t contribute all that much to KDE or Gnome. The fact that they are such a success and don’t contribute much to the real world development of Linux, is unsettling. From what I understand, he doesn’t even kick back much in donations to Debian, either.

    They don’t compete with Microsoft and Apple. Sorry, but where did you come up with this? If they did, they’d actually develop more to compete. They don’t. They rely mostly on the work of others and put it all together in a package, much like all the other distros out there except the larger ones with a strong corporate presence like Novell and Red Hat. If they’re trying to compete with Apple and Microsoft, they aren’t even on the map. Ubuntu’s slice of Linux’s already small pie is off the radar map. Microsoft is far more concerned about the likes of Red Hat and Novell than they are Ubuntu.

    The reason Ubuntu is so popular comes down to an aligning of the stars for them. First, they came along when Red Hat quit making a desktop distro, Mandrake (Mandriva) started a push to get users to join their club and doing other things to upset their user base for the sake of profit, and Novell bought Suse. The timing couldn’t be better for someone like Ubuntu to rise to the top of the ashes.

    Now, they took the work of others – Debian, and packaged it well in an easy to use and install ISO and gave it away. Debian has long been admired in the Linux community for many reasons like the size of the repositories and Apt, but it was always a PITA to install. Distros like Mepis and Ubuntu changed all of this. But what made Ubuntu unique was the money being thrown behind it. It got marketing. Suddenly, everywhere you looked there was a writeup about Ubuntu. It couldn’t help but succeed.

    Ubuntu hasn’t really changed that much in all these years. They still require CLI work to configure stuff, and that requires some research on behalf of users. They still market the crap out of it, and they still rely on the work of others.

    The sad thing is the last part could be the undoing of Linux. You see, we need companies like Novell, Red Hat, Mandriva, and even non-profit distros like Debian and Gentoo developing for the rest of us. That takes money. We rely on the big boys to shoulder much of the costs. When a distro like Ubuntu, which IMO won’t be around when Shuttleworth gets tired of dumping so much money into it and they haven’t figured out a business model to make it sustainable, takes away the flow of cash to the companies that actually do the lion’s share of development and innovation, it hurts the community as a whole. Say what you want about companies like Novell, but they’re actually making Linux better for us all. They’ve either developed or laid the groundwork for stuff we enjoy like Mono, Compiz… Now think long and hard as to what exactly Ubuntu has developed that Linux was the benefactor of…

    1. LinuxLover,
      You are not getting the bigger picture.

      Even if Ubuntu doesn’t contain GUI tools, everything works out of box. If you start adding more and more GUI tools, it may one day result in bloat.

      Agreed that they don’t contribute upstream. Still, they have taken the responsibility of making Linux famous. Debian is an awesome distro, so they are busing making it even more. This leaves then less time to market it properly. This is where Ubuntu comes in to picture. Secondly remember, Shuttleworth was once a Debian developer and he had stated Debian-Ubuntu relations as father-son.

      I disagree on your stance that why Ubuntu is famous. Ubuntu is famous due to 1CD availability which makes it easy to download in 3rd world countries. I live in India and internet connections are not as fast as in the west. 256Kbps is an average speed over here. It takes 7-8 hours to download a CD, just think about a DVD! I cant wait ages to download it. More reasons to add to its popularity is that it has a great, really great community. Just have a look at ubunutforums. You wont get a STFW or RTFM when you ask simplest questions like “Where do I type the commands?”. Harsh treating newbies turns them off! Again they have ShitIt program which ships CDs free of cost to places where its nearly impossible to download.

      Again, Ubuntu never pretended that it did everything. It always says that it takes the unstable branch of Debian and starts working for each release. Everyone knows that Ubuntu is actually assembling of different softwares which “Just Work”. What else does a n00b require other than “Just works”?

    2. @LinuxLover – you appear to hold a grudge. First of all, Canonical DOES employ kernel developers and DOES give back, not to the scale of RH or SUSE, but they do give where they can. I could berate you on all of your points, but it is not worth the effort as you are incorrect on ALL points you make.

  2. Linuxlover,
    You are wrong in several respects. Canonical pays at least two full time kernel developers and they contribute to the Linux Foundation. They also contribute upstream to several other projects and work closely with Debian, KDE and Gnome. If this isn’t loyal then what is?

    Mark Shuttleworth has expressed that he welcomes fair competition with Microsoft and he looks forward to Windows 7. I wonder how you can speak for Microsoft with such authority?

    Microsoft is concerned with Redhat, but that only applies to servers where Ubuntu is a small, but growing presence. They are not concerned with Novell ever since they rolled over for them and signed agreements which allows Microsoft to sell Novell licences. Novell has its own problems.

    They are concerned with desktop Linux or they would not have revived XP to appear on netbooks and hastened Windows 7. Ubuntu is the biggest player on the desktop by any measure that I have seen except Fedora’s unconfirmed figures which put it out in front. Funny thing is that you meet few Fedora users and lots of Ubuntu ones. I am sure that Ubuntu is more of a concern than you make out or they are just plain stupid.

    Recently Ballmer gave a talk where he showed that Microsoft’s biggest competition was piracy first and Linux second, well ahead of Apple.

    Ubuntu will outlast Shuttleworth because he has expressed this as one of his goals. Canonical is near break even and it is his goal that Ubuntu will be independent of him and his money.

    The Ubuntu community is the largest and strongest and there is no reason that they will throw in their cards when he decides to stop paying. You do not get the community because you are an outsider.

    You have no insights worth sharing. The things that you have stated are contrary to all facts.

    Great post!

  3. Great post, I especially liked the part about polishing the learning curve. Since I started using Ubuntu in 2006 the forums have always been a great place to get information and contribute when possible. Before Ubuntu I used Mandrake who you actually had to pay in order to be able to use their forums!
    After a couple of years as a Linux loner I ended up being a kind of admin for my father’s computer that runs Ubuntu and have started to help out and support any number of friends with getting their computers running. This is all because of the friendly atmosphere that surrounds the project.

  4. One thing ubuntu brings to the table is the glue that makes everything stick. Its quite unfair to compare ubuntu to a company like Novel/Redhat companies that make millions from their Linux business and as been around for quite a while. Ubuntu is still just above 4 years old and within that time there have brought a lot of momentum to the Linux desktop. partly because from day 1 its focus as always been to provide a working linux desktop for the average user.

    1. I find nothing wrong doing so!

      If you build an awesome product and market is poorly, its absolute foolishness, isn’t it?
      Marketing is helping us more than Shuttleworth, we can use this hype to promote Ubuntu even much farther.

      In all ways we are in win-win situation

      1. The problem is that Ubuntu isn’t contributing to Linux. For example, last time i saw, when the Ubuntu team recive bug reports, they don’t redirect them upstream (to the software developers that are working on the application in question). Instead, they fix the bugs (when they really fix something). This means that the developers don’t know that the software had a bug and that it was fixed.

        I’m not a Mandriva user, but if some distro worth the title of “More user friendly Linux distro” or “Linux for human beings” is Mandriva. Unfortunatly they don’t have a billionaire injecting money on them.

        1. Eldarion,
          I respectfully disagree. I have seen many many bug reports which have been marked upstream.

          Another problem with fixing bugs upstream is that people would come shouting that Ubuntu devs don’t fix the bugs and refer all of them upsteam. They fix the bugs when they know that it’s not so easy to do so upstream at the present moment. In such a scenario, they do have to fix it so that normal users or n00bs don’t face a bad experience.

          In short, all their policies are balanced. Striking a fine balance is the best thing you can do. Now don’t go on bashing that they dont write the kernel and just use another’s work. Isn’t this what FOSS licenses want to achieve? Why “Reinvent the wheel?”

        2. If nothing else, Ubuntu contributes users to Linux. When I went through university they were getting comp sci students to try installing Slackware. I don’t know of anyone who stuck with that, though I’m sure there are a few. These days the local unis are asking them to install ubuntu, and IMHO the uptake is better.

          The more users Linux gets, the more reason 3rd parties have to develop for Linux.

  5. Eldarion, clearly Ubuntu’s marketing has been superior to all other distributions and it has built the strongest and most recognizable brand in Linux, congratulations should clearly go to Mark Shuttleworth for this.

  6. Here is a list of companies currently working on kernel development. Nowhere is Ubuntu listed:

    Red Hat, Novell, IBM, HP, Intel, Linux Foundation, Consultant, SGI, MIPS, Oracle, Monta Vista, Google, Linutronix, NetApp, SWsoft, Renesas, Freescale, Astaro, Academia, Cisco, Simtec, Linux Networx, Broadcom, Analog Devices, Mandriva, Mellanox, Snapgear, and some unknowns and some that aren’t associated with anyone. This list is as of 4/2008. Note that NOWHERE is Ubuntu listed as sponsoring kernel development.


    1. @LinuxLover – Greg KH of NOVELL wrote that article. He is biased, holds a grudge against Ubuntu, and has openly admitted that he overlooked Canonical as a contributor and lumped them in with the Unknowns.

      Get off your soapbox. You are incorrect.

    2. You know how old are companies like SUSE and RedHat. Ubuntu is a very new project/distro when compared to these companies distro. Ubuntu has matured a lot in just 4 years. What more can you expect?

      They do sponsor kernel development. Just that they cant do right now at the scale at which the other two big companies do.

  7. I too started with ubuntu in linux ..
    Ubuntu is very easy to start with , I think that is the reason people tend to start Linux with ubuntu

  8. People from the Fedora Project claim that they are infact the largest distribution at the moment – and also provide metrics on how they make that claim.

    Not trying to rain on Ubuntu’s parade, but the basic premise of this article is under question.

    As for the first point in the article – Is Canonical self sustaining? I think not, it takes funding from Mark SHuttleworth. Not a bad thing in itself, but that means its not self sustaining.

    Actually apart from the marketing and community points (which are big things) I think I disagree with all the others.

    1. TheRaggedyEdge,
      How do you Fedora people make such claims? No of hits on the repository from unique IP’s? If there are many people behind a same IP say NAT, then doesn’t their claim become baseless? Can you point out the link of their claim?

      Ubuntu developers and core development group don’t waste their resource and energy into doing a survey into the usage. It doesn’t matter too much. It’s we, the general users who are claiming this fact due to some obvious reasons. Which obvious reasons? We find more people using Ubuntu or having its knowledge. Especially the n00bs.

      Before Ubuntu, was Fedora able to migrate Windows users towards Linux? The answer is NO! Atleast the migration was insignificant in comparison to the success of Ubuntu in user migration.

      Self sustaining? Read the comment below from Andrew — http://is.gd/nIVE

  9. Uh, I think that there are far too many uninformed comments here.

    Without pointing any fingers, Linux is a _kernel_ – it’s only a relatively small part of the GNU operating system. Claiming than Ubuntu doesn’t do much for the Free Software community, simply because it hasn’t contributed to the development of the Linux, the kernel, is far from anything researched. There are still _heaps_ of areas that Linux, the kernel, doesn’t cover;

    Desktop and window managers (GNOME, KDE, Xfce, etc.), a fully functional office suite, graphics programmes, printer and external peripheral drivers aren’t completely covered by simply adding to the kernel development process (although the kernel is capable of supporting many devices).

    Aside from that, Ubuntu has crossed the path of just about everyone I have talked to in regards to GNU/Linux and Free Software. If they start with that, then they may just end up in the kernel development process after all.

    1. Correct Sam,
      Linux and FOSS area is more than just developing a kernel. Surely, Kernel forms a important part, but there is another more important thing left to do — Bringing out the awesomeness to the end-users. Assembling the different parts of Linux properly, huge testing and cutting-edge features for desktop users is as demanding as kernel development.

      1. Awesomeness? Damn right Manish 😉

        Best case scenario – gNewSense (which is heavily based on Ubuntu) now has Mesa/GLX re-enabled after OpenGL has been released under a Free Software compatible license, allowing a fully-free GNU/Linux distro to perform graphics on par–if not better than–a well-known successor to XP that quietly failed.

        But really, RedHat was the talk of the town not that long ago, it has me wondering what Ubuntu’s secret formula for fame is too.

        And yes, as for Manish’s last remark, they do compete with Microsoft quite blatantly – that’s a priority. Anybody bothered to check what bug #1 on Launchpad.net is?

        1. I can’t still understand that if we keep on fighting amongst ourselves, then how can we push Linux to mainstream users?

          Many people just want to troll, trying to bust the claims that Ubuntu is great. They always forget that its the only distro which made people shift from Windows to Linux. Before that Fedora and OpenSuse just used to snatch users from each other. None of them paid much attention to convert users.

  10. Linux Lover:

    “When a distro like Ubuntu, which IMO won’t be around when Shuttleworth gets tired of dumping so much money into it and they haven’t figured out a business model to make it sustainable, takes away the flow of cash to the companies that actually do the lion’s share of development and innovation, it hurts the community as a whole.”

    Go do a little bit of research before you rant. Canonical did $30M in revenue this year and is profitable and growing in a global economy that is shrinking.

    Mark’s a smart business man IMO; look at his track record. He’s making money and giving back to the community at the same time. How many companies can you name that do the same? If only we were all so noble.

  11. I disagree with a lot of this article. But the one strong point is the lack of GUI admin tools. Until this changes Ubuntu or even linux as a whole will not be in direct competition with Apple or Microsoft. This has been the problem all along. I believe most ppl want a terminal but only for scripting or doing very, very advanced tasks that would not be possible with a GUI. To quote a noob in a different forum ‘I never want to see the command line again’

    1. Well JB,
      You didnt pin point what you didnt like in this post!

      When it comes to GUI tools you should know that GUI tools do exist, just that they arn’t installed by default due to space restrictions.
      Any other problems?

    1. Um, nobody–especially Canonical themselves–stated that Ubuntu was ever going to be a profitable enterprise. Where did you ever get that idea from?

      It’s self sustaining at ~30M, and that’s their target.


      @Manish – Yes, since Free Software inadvertently allows freedom of expression, too many (illiterates?) get in the scene and taint a wonderful community and fight out of arrogance rather than righteousness. An article worth reading with nothing I disagree to. (Well, maybe the GNU/Linux naming controversy, but ah well 😀 – even Stallman himself doesn’t forbid people from calling OS “Linux”)

      1. Really, even claiming facts requires proofs, then nullifying them too requires proofs. This is what missing here.
        People are just keep on bashing Ubuntu for what it hasn’t done rather than praising for what it has actually done. The scope of Linux is very big and not limited to kernel development which is also part.

    1. The rules of the game are simple “Compete or make way for others”. You can’t say that Mandriva is doomed! They are making profits.

      Secondly that Adamw is highly biased. You should be able to make it out from the tone of the post itself.

  12. Sam, Andrew stated that they make $30 million a year in revenue, which I stand corrected as I misread they made that much in profit, but continued to say that they were profitable. As anyone reading that article can clearly see, Canonical is not profitable as of 11/2008, and Shuttleworth went on record, saying that he’s prepared to fund the distro for another 3 to maybe 5 years if he has to. Now, that’s good that he will, but if Canonical doesn’t at least begin to break even and pay Ubuntu’s bills in the process, the time will come when he throws in the the towel. From the article, he clearly states that he wants a viable business model around it all and even questioned from the beginning if you could build one based on a product that is freely given away. Reading between the lines, an average person can easilly conclude that if it doesn’t, Ubuntu and Canonical will close its doors.

    Now, I do believe that they are one of the main distros that originally put a lot of Linux’s power into the mainstream of users’s hands. Before they and a few others like Mepis launched, your free Linux lunch required additional work on your part to get codecs, add nVidia drivers, etc. With mainstream distros before that, you had to purchase a boxed set if you wanted them to be easy as pie. Distros such as Ubuntu changed that way of thinking.

    Now, as Soumen Bajerjee pointed out, Adam Williamson, who is a much respected developer, advocate, and Mandriva forum guru is basically on the same page as I am about Ubuntu. We simply rely on companies like Novell, Red Hat, and others to shoulder the costs of Linux development. They need money. Ubuntu has basically robbed them of much of the needed money for these costs, and doesn’t give back in nearly the same context to the development of Linux. I understand that smaller distro’s can’t afford to pay a kernel developer, but Ubuntu is by and large the big daddy of all desktop Linux. To say that haven’t been around as long as Novell and company has nothing to do with it.

  13. Soumen has it wrong. He is quoting a dated article from someone with a vested interest. He worked for Mandriva at the time. This is hardly journalism.

    Linuxlover’s article does not support his view that Ubuntu depends on Shuttleworth’s money. It says that he will support it as needed and is prepared to wait for profits. This hardly is a doom and gloom picture.

    In a recent interview, Shuttleworth stated that Canonical is near break even point which is his goal. He does not expect to make money on desktop Linux. He sees this as his contribution to something that he believes in.

    In the same interview, he said that he sees the Ubuntu community to be strong enough to sustain itself should something happen to him or his money.

    These are his expressed goals. I have the interview on audio, but not in transcript form. It is only a month or so old.

    Ubuntu is here for the long haul. Clearly the critics are outside the community. They don’t know it and how strong it is.

    As for the marketing claims, where is it marketed? Show us the commercials. Show us the advertisements. It is marketed the same way other distros are, by word of mouth. It has a great web site. It offers free CDs. It has many happy users who spread the word. It has the strongest community and for that you blame it.

    Instead you need to examine other communities such as Debian that pushes newbies away. They don’t want success and do everything possible to ensure that Debian is for enthusiasts only. To salve their egos they like to criticise Ubuntu.

    I take issue with the GNU comments. Ubuntu is not GNU/Linux. Check their site. It is called Ubuntu Linux and makes no reference to GNU. Nor does it have to. You can call Debian GNU/Linux, but don’t push your ideas onto others. GNU/Linux represents only a small number of distributions.

  14. What I see usually is that Ubuntu community hardly bashes any other distro, whereas Fedora, Mandriva and OpenSuse community spends half of their time bashing community. Maybe this is the reason of success of Ubuntu. They work instead of caring to bash others.

    Secondly its shocking to see AdamW doing the holy job of bashing instead of developing and contributing to his project. Have you ever seen Daniel Holbach doing the same? Check his blog, he writes about travel, living, tech minus shit (read bashing)

    When it comes to marketing, yes the marketing is good in the sense that the word of mouth promotion has bore fruit. FreeCD is not a publicity, but a charitable work for esp third world countries or where internet is still limited (including our country, India)

    Mandriva may be great, but does it have such a community as Ubuntu. You cannot create a community just by throwing in money. Ubuntu wiki and forum are a complete place for any troubleshooting. No offense meant, but Mandriva forum stands no where in front of Ubuntuforums.

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