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Are Ubuntu's Glory Days Over?

By Katherine Noyes LinuxInsider ECT News Network
Jun 30, 2011 5:00 AM PT

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

Are Ubuntu's Glory Days Over?

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."

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