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Are Ubuntu’s Glory Days Over?

If there’s any lesson to be learned in high school, it’s that popularity is a fickle mistress.

One day, you can be riding high on the strength of your awesome gaming skills, say, and the next, a fleeting fashion faux pas can bring you crashing down again.

But maybe that was just Linux Girl. In any case, popularity is nothing if not changeable, as Ubuntu has aptly demonstrated in recent weeks.

A Sudden Upset

The Unity desktop, specifically, has raised more than a few eyebrows in the Linux community, causing some to speculate even that Canonical has lost its way.

Such concerns have been bandied about ever since Natty Narwhal’s launch, of course, but last week some data emerged that appeared to give them weight.

Namely, Ubuntu dropped from its longtime No. 1 spot on DistroWatch’s popularity rankings — all the way down to No. 3.

‘Has Ubuntu Had Its Day?’

“Ubuntu is sliding down,” noted the gang over at TuxRadar last Monday. “As each set of data gets more recent, you can see the gap between Ubuntu and other distros narrowing — and in the last month, Mint and Fedora have overtaken it.”

Such was the shocking nature of the news, in fact, that TuxRadar immediately launched “perhaps the biggest Open Ballot we’ve ever posted: has Ubuntu had its day? Has the switch to Unity, the talk of Wayland, and all the upheaval on the desktop driven traditional Linux users away?”

A collective gasp could be heard throughout the Linux blogosphere soon afterward, causing more than a few glasses to fall crashing to the floor down at the Punchy Penguin blogobar. Within seconds, Linux Girl’s Debate-o-Meter started screaming, so she dropped everything — glass included — and whipped out her Quick Quotes Quill.

‘Just Becoming Normal?’

It should be noted that the TuxRadar masses had plenty to say on the topic themselves.

“I don’t think Ubuntu is on the way out as opposed to perhaps being used by a slightly different market these days,” wrote dazfuller in the site’s comments section, for example. “I get the feeling that those who are more power-users are moving over to other distros such as Fedora and Arch.”

Conversely, “I think the real question is, ‘Is Ubuntu on the way out for new users?'” countered spaceyjase. “Maybe new Linux users, seeking Linux advice on which distro to install, see the negativity surrounding Unity and are unwilling to challenge their previous computing experience (via Windows) with something a little different.”

Then again, “Maybe Ubuntu’s just becoming normal?” Eric Mesa suggested.

‘If Only It Were More Stable’

Down at the Punchy Penguin, a raft of similar musings could be heard.

“I’ve been observing a lot less competence lately with updates breaking packages, compiz breaking Unity, et cetera,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl. “I don’t think that Unity is the problem, I think that rushing things that aren’t ready is.”

Unity could be “a step forward,” in fact, “if only it were more stable,” Espinoza opined. “Just as I get miffed when something takes out the graphics driver — which should never be possible for an application — I get upset when a Unity place crashes and I have to start a terminal and restart Unity before it will function.”

Firefox, meanwhile, “began showing black screens after an update so I jumped up to Firefox 6, but unlike when they made the transition to Firefox 4, it uses the same package names and thus you cannot have it installed alongside FF4!” Espinoza added. “If Ubuntu continues to regress then I will jump ship as surely as I went to Ubuntu.”

‘Ubuntu Is Offending Current Users’

Indeed, “there is merit in making things simpler, but most users of PCs are somewhat comfortable with the level of complexity in KDE/GNOME/XFCE4,” blogger Robert Pogson pointed out. “I don’t see a pressing need to deviate from those.”

Canonical can certainly add “an optional new UI for those who like change,” Pogson opined. “Diversity is good, but Canonical/Ubuntu has gone too far in advancing radical change as the default. I think Ubuntu is offending the majority of current users, regardless of how newbies feel about it.”

Most offensive to Pogson is “the deprecation of X,” he told Linux Girl. “That is not the right way to go in these days of thin clients.

“Networked UI are the future — Ubuntu should embrace and promote that,” he concluded. “It is a powerful feature for system administrators, transparent to the user, newbie or not. X is something business can embrace in GNU/Linux that costs nothing and is equivalent to many layers of complexity and cost with RDP on that other OS.”

‘Broken Drivers Aren’t Friendly’

Though primarily a Windows fan himself, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took a similar view.

“Ubuntu on the way out? Yes please?” hairyfeet said. “How you can have a distro that is supposed to be ‘Linux for humans’ while being so cutting edge the CDs have stigmata is beyond me.

“Trying to push an OS that is THAT bleeding edge as ‘user friendly’ must use some definition of friendly I don’t know about,” hairyfeet concluded. “Broken drivers aren’t friendly, bugs not getting fixed before the next one is shoved out half-baked through the door isn’t friendly, and playing hardware roulette or doing forum hunts trying to get working drivers certainly isn’t friendly.”

‘We’ve Seen This Show Too Many Times’

The mixed reaction to Canonical’s latest is “to be expected,” opined Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site.

“The Ubuntu apologists are making all sorts of noise about how Canonical is targeting a new market (tablets and similar screen resolution devices), but we’ve seen this show too many times before,” Hudson explained. “Red Hat didn’t get to be profitable (something that still eludes Canonical) by dumping their target customers every year to chase new opportunities.”

There’s a lesson there, she added: “You can only expect people to remain loyal to you as long as you reciprocate. Desktop Ubuntu users can’t be too happy knowing they’re now slated to become the red-headed stepchild.”

‘Each New Entrant Makes Linux Better’

It’s also difficult to see “how Canonical will combat the enormous lead that Android has over them in the tablet and smartphone market, and — more importantly — in mind-share,” Hudson suggested. “Unity is five years too late, and Canonical (and the linux world in general) would be better off if they stuck to addressing their worsening QA problems.”

Finally, consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack chose to focus on the positive side.

“The nice thing about open source is that with distros the competition is very cut-throat,” Mack told Linux Girl. “Ideas get borrowed from the competition, and if someone else thinks there is something you could have done better, they will try it. Each new entrant on top makes Linux better.”

12 Comments

  • To ignore the bug in Ubuntu 11.4 for a moment. 11.4 with Unity is terrible for the desktop. Maybe a smaller screen like a tablet. But desktop is going the wrong direction with Unity. If Ubuntu is going to abandon its user base to go after tablets. I think it will fail terribly. If anything HP has taught the tablet market. Is don’t come to market late with a different OS without app support. I think two OS in tablets mainly the Android and Apple’s IOS is about all the market can bear.

  • Who would issue a full desktop version of an OS… designed to be used on tablets? That’s the question here. Unity, designed for tablets, is a horrible interface for desktops. I personally turned Unity OFF immediately after installing. Then, I didn’t like the underlying eye candy or applications either. Canonical hasn’t lost me entirely, as I loaded Xubuntu with support for both KDE and Gnome… and use the Dolphin file explorer as my default. It’s the way I like it, and it’s all about choice, right?
    Maybe the ‘buntus could explain better to new users WHAT you’re getting before you install. KDE, Gnome, Xfce.. whatever, and the default packages and appearance.. Konquerer vs. Thunar VS. DOlphin, etc. and that you can switch and swap (using Xubuntu, at least) components and still have something YOU want the way YOU want it.
    I seriously don’t think the Linux community is trying to attract new users, actually. It’s mostly for die-hard fans, and those simply SICK of the paid OS’s problems and changes with every release (think 98>xp>7 problems)

  • Ubuntu is imitating the worst behavior of MS. Change for change sake without addressing stability.

    Build a better mouse trap.

    Who is going to recommend Ubuntu if not their users? You can not ignore the core users.

    I have been using Ubuntu due to its popularity. It seemed something that I was likely to run into. I do believe there has been a set back in the quality. Quality matters. It should be all that matters, Not how fast a cube spins across the screen.

    The good news is that it allows for the fun of re-evaluating other distros.

    btw….Puppy Linux has been based on Ubuntu recently. It’s stability has suffered too.

    • About:

      "But I believe that if 11.10 turns out to be a good release, Ubuntu will mostly entirely recover. " from Wachsmuth…

      They said the same about 11.04, when it was to be release, with the known lie… ‘It is ready’

      Hope and change is as lie bantered around by people that should not be doing things, like destroying companies and countries.

      From where do you get the idea that the 11.10 will be 100% ready to go?

      From this release?
      From this misdirection?
      From all the drivers they didn’t and still haven’t put in the repositories?
      From all the standard ‘fixes’ they didn’t fix, but screwed around with so they could not be tweaked?
      From the way they pissed off their core, trying to appeal to a bunch of bubble gum chewing teens who can’t read or write well? (But do know how to start a class action suit, since it is about all they learn in school??)

      Or, Because they are going to be unfunded?

      The 11.04 release was more critical than anything in their future, if they are going to lose the source of income, and are ditching their main business (servers, commercial and support)…

      The Titanic business model is not one of the most successful.

      Especially if hunting Ice Bergs…

      at full speed…

      with no one at the wheel…

      or paying attention…

  • There is only one thing I have to say about Unity… and derivatives…

    (Censored)…

    I have loaded it several times, in different computers, and the bottom line, Windows 2.6 was better….

    If I wanted a sewer plant with frequent breakdowns, I would have stayed with Windows.

    I said, while first trying it, the core would jump ship…

    Much of it has, and I tried to be a nice guy.

    I really WAS a loyal fan of Ubuntu. They would have to do something much better to even come close to making me trust them again… It is like listening to Mr. Ballmer…

    I saw a comment about how, this will even out…

    You don’t release an OS, that needs to be worked on for 20 years, before it starts working.

    The ‘target’ audience can not use it (dummies that love cell phones and don’t realize they are computers). Forgive me, but Unity is not for the faint of heart, who have no idea of internals, and that is not cell phone users/abusers like ‘certain former congressman’…

    I AM not a totally invested geek, but have about 45 years in and about computers. I have seen nothing as bad as unity, and that is saying some… I have seen really old systems, trounce newer one in processing (every thing was either assembler or machine programmed, and very, very efficient.)

    But I have never seen a company say "Let’s shove this 1/2 baked crap down their throats!!!" (sorry to offended 1/2 baked craps… I know you are better than that.)

    When I started turning my back on Ubuntu, I felt bad. The last attempted install of Unity… They need help and ain’t getting it.

    I just wish all the Ubuntu sites would start talking up 10.10 again, and stfu on unity… I liked quite a few of them, but… visiting less and less

    • Unity and Microsoft are working for same objective…

      Neither is getting there, correctly.

      But, they both say, we, Ubuntu users, are as uninformed as the trainees that McDonald’s has to deal with. We can not read, write or add, so, they have to have registers that do that for you.

      Dumbed down to the least common denominator.

      Well. so be it.

      But, THAT IS NOT WHO USED UBUNTU!!! (when it WAS gaining an audience, and growing)

      Most were good and trained at working with their system.

      Screw your stupid icon and garbage all over the desk top (NOT CELL PHONE!!!)

      I don’t need an idiots picture to blob and hop and shimmy shake to see I have to print… open or close… I can read ‘Print,’ ‘Open’ and ‘Close!’

      Sure, the hand wave and things are nice…

      If you think ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Mickey Mouse,’ and ‘Wut are wurdz?’

      A glitchy and glitched up interface is neeto droolzy for kids and others needing hand-holding for scary cartoons.

      I want to work with my system. I want to see ‘Print’ and not a psycho-derilect pic/icon taking up half the screen, and looks vaguely like a flower box before planting.

      Better… I want an OS that doesn’t take over 8 hours to install, and blow up. Take hours to invest of my time, to not work at all, and then internally hemorrhages…, losing everything I had in my system, and wiping out things it should not have had access to… (On more than one system, by the way)

      I need to be able to install, and re-install, if needed, and get the same effing result, consistently, over more than one computer.

      Dis-Unity doesn’t come close,

      Get the effing core of the system, functioning First!!

      Which they didn’t!!!

      Get the system consistent FIRST!!! Which it doesn’t…

      Add the McDonalds Cash Register crap as an after-thought, not as them main idea…. and…

      GET THAT CRAP WORKING…. FIRST…

      Which they didn’t!!

      but do that FIRST…

      BEFORE you try to cram it down the throats of your actual audience…

      Who don’t want it in the FIRST PLACE!!!

      Which they don’t…

      The target audience is avoiding this, as they can not use it…

      Had Canonical made something that worked, and not need to have years of background, first, they might have. (if it worked)

      THAT TARGET AUDIENCE THEY ARE AIMING FOR, TAKE THE CELL PHONE BACK, AND IF THEY CAN NOT GET A REFUND FROM AT&T, GET CLASS ACTION LAWYERS RICH!!!

  • Folks, look at Android; look at the iPhone. These are your computers of the coming days. If you don’t think so, look to their packaging of their respective products into TVs. Gee, a computer with a real OS (linux or bsd), with a honking monitor… that’s a home computer, that’s not some dumb tabletop OS (and jeez, wasn’t Java originally invented for that lo these many, many years ago?)

    So, if you are looking at user interfaces, you can be influenced by Mac, Windows, or the old Athena widgets. That’s the ‘older’ UI. You want a UI that *already has* huge user acceptance, its what is on smart phones today.

    So, Unity: definitely released before it was ready, I look at the icons along the side and tell myself that’s a reduced footprint version of Apple’s launchbar along the bottom of the screen. Except the icons shift size as you move the mouse over them (big deal! See "reduced footprint")

    You get Unity or something like it running, and you run on top of something actually designed to work with 4GL, you have what Ubuntu’s been feeding you with Wayland (who’s even less ready.) But also, with Mac’s been feeding you all along.

    Alright: look at KDE 4 and Gnome 3 and tell me they are not on the same bandwagon, making their own decisions on what to compromise, where. All I know is, my DVD player has lovely plasma-like widgets, too.

    But I tell you, for a release in which "everything changes," it would have been better on them to transition things more slowly. I think some of the gains in terms of "fast bootup" was lost in this release as well.

    It won’t be long from now that everyone thinks of the touchscreen-oriented user interfaces from their phones, as opposed to the mouse-based from the soon-to-be-deprecated UIs

    • Your comments are similar to "Tom’s" in the article, who said, "Unity is five years too late".

      This is interesting to me in light of Microsoft’s recent announcement that Microsoft will follow Canonical’s lead by replacing the familiar mouse-centric shell with the new and unproven Metro touch-centric interface in Windows 8.

      If Unity is five years too late, that would make Windows 8 at least six years too late.

      And if Ubuntu is admitting defeat in the desktop arena and grasping for a user base by taking a "different direction", what’s Microsoft doing by following Canonical’s lead, exactly?

      • If you watch the MSFT video for Windows 8 they show the "metro" UI for touchscreens and when they want to use a standard desktop the Windows 7 UI is STILL included. Think of it like having Classic and Themes in WinXP, You can use it one way or the other you just can’t use both at the same time.

        that said I believe another poster had it right that Ubuntu is grasping for users and probably running off more than they keep. While I AM 110% in agreement that X server needs to go (how many home users are accessing their desktop from another machine? probably pretty close to 0%) as it seems to be the biggest sources of crashes when I run Linux the Unity interface is just too niche for it to be the standard desktop.

        I mean honestly, how many desktops and laptops are touch enabled now? not many. How many will be in the future? Not much more than now from the looks of it because capacitive touch screens are expensive and resistive frankly isn’t very good. And who wants to put their fingers all over their desktop monitor? or their laptop for that matter?

        This interface is good for ONE area and one area only…tablets. And frankly we all know there are already too big dogs in that arena, the fruit company and the "do no evil" guys. I just don’t see Canonical being able to carve out a niche, especially one that will pay the bills, with a niche where one competitor has all the buzz and the other is giving their product for free.

        Final prediction? Canonical out of the desktop game in 5 years, maybe 3. Shuttleworth has already said he isn’t giving them more money and the only area where they have any income coming in is in server. My guess is they’ll pass it off to the community and stick to server, otherwise when Shuttleworth’s initial VC runs out so will they.

  • I do not care for Unity, but, pay attention to the bits and pieces of news about what is coming. The word is that Windows 8 may be very similar. If so, the Ubuntu team will have a head start. The skinny is that Microsoft is working hard to eliminate the mouse, while moving towards touch screens and hand gesture technology. Now, imagine how easy a mature Unity desktop environment would be to use with hand gesture technology built in to a desktop pc monitor…. Be patient, the technology may catch up with Ubuntu soon.

  • So having them take a different direction reads to me that they have admitted defeat in the desktop arena. Leaving the desktop to Windows and Apple’s OS X, which in my book has always been the two dominate desktops. So is Ubuntu grasping for a user base?

  • I’m with Martin Espinoza here. The underlying idea behind Unity isn’t bad. It’s just been rushed. Unity suffers from numerous design flaws (that are however fixable, and will probably be fixed. And it’s just too unstable, with more problems introduced than fixed. So now Ubuntu 11.04 has left users with a bad taste – and it should. But I believe that if 11.10 turns out to be a good release, Ubuntu will mostly entirely recover.
    But for now, anyone recommending Ubuntu should make sure to recommend the LTS.

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