The road not taken

I am not an Ubuntu old-timer. I remember as far back as 5.10, but certainly there is a smaller circle of true Ubuntu veterans.

And I am definitely not a Linux old-timer. I am a mere babe in the woods, comparatively speaking, and I try my best to remind myself of that fact regularly. There is always someone who knows more than you.

It has been almost five years since I started out with Ubuntu though, and things have changed dramatically since then.

One thing that sticks out in my mind is a rather strong shift that occurred a few years ago, and personally I think it had a direct influence on where Ubuntu is today.

It was Mazza558‘s graph from a day or two ago that makes me think of this now. It shows a considerable upswing in Ubuntu’s popularity from its start in 2004, but it seems to have reached a plateau about three years later.

And the funny thing is, 2007 is about where I see that shift — when Ubuntu became more obsessed with looks and appearances, and stability and reliability took a back seat.

I’m not saying Ubuntu isn’t stable or reliable — if anything, it is both of those. But late 2006 is when Mark Shuttleworth made his epic “Pretty is a feature” blog entry. A year later, Compiz was enabled by default, and the push for glitz had taken center stage.

I’ll apologize if this sounds a bit too old-timey, but yes, I remember a time when there was no push for accelerated graphics by default, or animated splash screens or proprietary drivers automatically installed.

I remember when you incorporated things like Flash manually, and with a considerable measure of effort, and upgraded things like Firefox through persistence and the ten-finger interface.

Things weren’t necessarily better in those days, and I will admit that freely. And I have no proof that the push toward pretty somehow resulted in the plateau shown in the graph.

But I can’t help but wonder if the upward swing would have continued upward, if Ubuntu had focused on working perfectly every time, instead of working prettily most of the time.

This isn’t the first time I have lamented the direction Ubuntu took, and it probably won’t be the last. I am critical of Ubuntu mostly because I am fond of it. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t even think about it.

The only advantage in this position is that Ubuntu can always move upward from here. When people become uninterested with yet another sparkly Compiz plugin, then perhaps the mob will push the project back towards stability and reliability.

It’s not an impossibility. Personally I would prefer that: I think you establish a reputation by being stable and predictable, and you can build onto that with flash and glitz … available on demand.

Because from that plateau there is also a chance to slip back down again, to lose ground with a reputation for being superficial, or useful only on some machines with certain hardware. That too is not an impossibility. 😐


18 thoughts on “The road not taken

  1. Doug

    I was an Ubuntu fan, coming to it from experience with other Linux distros and Unix. My brother had problems with Debian and adopted Ubuntu at my recommendation. He was very happy.

    I dropped Ubuntu aroung 2007/8 because of the regressions on new releases, the unresolved bugs in Launchpad and the bloat.

    My first real ‘nix (after Minix on a 286) was IBM’s AIX on a 25 MHz 386, running Motif. When Ubuntu started to be slower and less stable (on a modern system) than the old AIX box, I gave up on it.

    I currently use Crunchbang Statler Alpha 2 (Debian Squeeze using Openbox) on my desktop and netbook and Tiny Core on my PII 266 MHz 192 MB antique. I’m delighted with both and have also been very pleased with Arch, but I’m never going back to any ‘buntu.

    I guess I really like KISS, although not quite to the extent of our gracious host! 🙂

  2. quigybo

    My biggest gripe with ubuntu is that, with every new release, you need an ever more powerful computer to run it on.

    But then again, I don’t feel the need to criticise it, because there are other distros which are lighter and faster. And in the end thats what FLOSS is all about, there being something to cater to everybody (from our gracious host to LAMP servers to glitzy desktops). I have recently started reaching for ArchBang when I need a livecd instead of my old favourite ubuntu. And even though I won’t go back, I am glad it is there to catch windows converts looking for an ‘easy to use’ distro, for whom even the newest version feels faster and lighter than the OS they came from :twisted:.

  3. unohu62

    I would agree that Ubuntu seems to wannabe too Mac-like in terms of eye candy nowadays. Stability and functionality seem like secondary concerns. I started using Mandrake Linux 6.0 in ’99 but it was with Ubuntu’s 6 through 7 releases that made me enjoy linux and abandon the Windows world for good.

    I owe a certain debt to Ubuntu for helping me to develop my interest in linux and admit a certain fondness for it, but for me, the 8 through to the current 10 editions while okay, left me underwelmed leading me to explore lighter, less bloated rolling release OS’s like antiX and my current favourite archlinux + openbox.

    What’s exciting for me, is the new rolling release Mint Debian edition. I hope it catches fire. Time will tell.

  4. steve

    I’m not 100% sure of this but IMO the decline probably happened when they decided to base their releases on Debians unstable branch. By doing this they introduced the regressions etc that I have experienced too, altho some of these were kernel related in 8.04. Since then I have been more than satisfied running my own custom Debian OS which has yet to fail me in any significant way.

    Also, frankly speaking, I do not like Mr Shuttleworths freeloading attitude or dictatorial style. Just another rich dude who thinks he knows better than anyone else.

  5. Esteban

    I don’t get. Yous sound like an old workmate you was sad over the demise of MS DOS. Or the person who felt that Windows3.0 now opened the computers to non-geeks.

    I love Ubuntu! It is simple to use and I can accomplish my work with it.

    I am no geek, but I guess if I was and OLD geek I would be looking back to the the days when command lines was the main way to manage Ubuntu.

    And as for the buttons being on the left side instead of the right. Wow if that caused you to lose a second of sleep, I say get a LIFE! You geeks really amaze me. You dummies don’t linux to be opened to us REAL people.

  6. tomas

    I started my linux experience with Ubuntu but I soon realized its not all that great. When a noob like me can set up Arch on a netbook that works better than the ubuntu on a solid desktop, you know something went wrong with the latter…

    I feel like the bugs dont get fixed in a timely fashion and if they do, other bugs appear… sad story 😦


  7. Conkeh

    I used Ubuntu for only a short time, but based on what everyone else is saying, and common sense, you seem to be making several good points.

    But all of us really so often lose sight of the fact that unlike other distros that are owned/controlled by the community that develops them, or by companies that sponsor them, or both, Ubuntu is Shuttleworth’s distro and his distro alone, and he does with it whatever he likes. He’s basically a customizer, having fun customizing his distro. Of course many people find that annoying, but that’s the way it is. And there’s plenty of choice out there.

    The only issue worth debating at this point is, where does it all go, and how does it all end. I’m interested in this bearing in mind the importance of Ubuntu in the Linux world, in terms of the Linux visibility outside that world.

    I don’t care about Ubuntu one bit, but I care very, very much about Linux.

  8. Doug

    Re: Steve — “I’m not 100% sure of this but IMO the decline probably happened when they decided to base their releases on Debians unstable branch.”

    I’ve been running Debian Testing/Squeeze for quite some time now (keeping current on updates) and find it **far** more stable than Ubuntu.

    To me, Canonical prioritizes bling over code quality, even on LTS. Fresh LTS releases are really only for the adventurous, not production. I wouldn’t put LTS into production for a minimum of three months. One must wait for the LTS point releases (e.g., 8.04.1, etc).

    Unlike our host, I mostly use a GUI, but found the Ubuntu’s Gnome was really getting larded up with bloat. Vanilla Gnome is better. KDE 4.x is huge, Kubuntu is worse. Even Xubuntu is huge compared to vanilla XFCE on a minimal Ubuntu.

    However, I have come to prefer a simpler GUI with less bells and whistles, no mono-based tools, and less of the Canonical-mandated “user friendly” stuff that hides Linux from me.

    The nice thing about Linux is that we have choices.

  9. bpalone

    Ubuntu, has opened the door for many Windoze users. It has also garnered enough press to make some people take a look at it and to maybe make the move. For that, they deserve kudos. But, I agree that stability should come before glamor and glitz, a/k/a BLOAT.

    I’m using Hardy right now and will probably continue using it for some time into the future. I may have to become a treble booter at some point, but until then. I am a firm believer in the old adage.. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It does the job for me, so why put myself through the hassle of upgrading.

    When I do upgrade, it will probably be to Debian or Mint-Debian.

  10. Kevin

    I think Ubuntu is great for what it’s suppose to be (trying to be): a competitor for Windows/Macs. Is it unstable compared to many other distros? Yes. Is it bloated? Definitely, with the newer releases. Is Shuttleworth a dictator of the jerkiest order? Probably. But Ubuntu IS Linux to 90% of people. And it probably converts more users to Linux then any other distro (I certainly can’t think of any other that converts more).

    I wish Ubuntu would squash their bugs. I wish they wouldn’t take a perfectly acceptable DE (Gnome, KDE, XFCE) and make her the fat girl by bloating her up with Twitter/Gwibber ‘functionality’. I wish Ubuntu users would stop crying over where the buttons should be. But like Conkeh said earlier, it’s Shuttleworth’s distro. He’s the man with the money. He’s the man that made the most popular Linux distro to date. He will continue deciding where Ubuntu should head.

    Just my two cents. Feel free to disagree.

  11. Freduardo

    Yet another fantastic blog post, with which I couldn’t agree more (and most of the comments).

    I _LOVE_ *buntu for getting me hooked to linux. But at the same time, I almost hate (a bit too strong maybe) what it has become.
    Every new release, which I admit I still check out almost every time, has just meant more and more bloat imho.

    Without that weird warty warhog I would have probably regressed back to windwos xp long ago.
    Despite all the “improvements” ubuntu, and linux as a whole, has seen during all those years, I still feel confident enough to claim 4.10 was the best release they ever had. But that might just be my tendancy to get too melancholic sometimes:P .

    I guess the turning point for me was the introduction of all the different *buntu’s (6.10?). I’m sure I’m not the only one who kept wanting to scream “Ffs, xubuntu is NOT lightweight!” or “It’s all just *buntu dammit >.<"

    Then again, thinking more rationally now, I guess it boils down to accepting *buntu has just chosen a different path than the one did. Considering it's current popularity, it's clearly still very attractive to a large userbase.
    (Also take into account that Windows 7 has proven to be "better" than Vista. If you're into that kind of stuff. Which might have also influenced popularity of newbie-friendly distro's like Ubuntu.)

    Like I said, I have Ubuntu to thank for getting me hooked to Linux. And in a way, I also have Ubuntu to thank for "pushing" me towards Debian and later on Arch. I'll just stop keeping tabs on the current and future Ubuntu's, just like I have with my first distribution, Mandrake.

  12. spc

    Yess, I was introduced to Linux by Ubuntu as well. Now I use Slackware, … you see, pedigree 😀

    Well, the story with Ubuntu is that it’s based on Shuttleworh’s Put. 😀

    Mr. Shuttleworth will be there to pick up the bill, no metter how poor the financial results of Cannonical might occur. Some say he’s over 1 bn net worth, thus he is Ubuntu.

    What if Mr.Shuttleworth discovers penchant towards, for instance, thai ladyboys and heavy drug abuse ;): and withdraws his finnancial backing for Cannonical. What will happen to Ubuntu, will community will be ready to pick up slack ?? Two releases a year??

    The Canonical has no assets whatsoever, so nobody is going to buy it, shoud they failed.

    Without Mr.Shuttleworth’s personality and his deep pockets there is no Ubuntu. He can finance his pet project forever and ever and ever and ever and ever….

  13. Enrique

    I have a couple of 10+/- year old laptops (RAM way under 256mb) running puppy linux. Yes, I agree with most of the comments, that for newbies: Ubuntu = Linux.

    Look I am not a Tech person. I just want an OS that is easy to use, etc. For a non-Tech Person Ubuntu is the ticket.

    I agree with you GEEKS that, yes, Slackware etc are much more to your taste.

    But if it were not for Ubuntu, most non-geeks would never have tried linux.

    Or you can make the case if it were not for Android . . .

  14. msx

    I will allways thank Ubuntu for being my open door to GNU/Linux despite all the distro hopping I made, back when still using XP and wanted to replace it with something as functional as it was – and I made a *lot* of distro-hopping.
    When I felt Ubuntu was too limited I tried some mid-level and low-level distros and found Arch a *perfect* blend of both: no more hopping for me for a long, long time I presume =)

  15. jack harkness

    2.5 years now.
    I started on Ubuntu 8.04 on a laptop I got and hated it.
    My wife refused to use it. Said it was drab, depressing and reminded her of Windows95-98.
    I was lucky that a coworker was using it Linux at home thanks to her high school aged son.
    The lad was 15 at the time and he showed me his laptop with various desktop environments and while i have used XCFE on old, old hardware later on, KDE was the reason I switched.
    Gnome looked then like a cheap copy of Mac (really, do I need the top text on the panel), the fonts looked weird, GTK feel felt alien…
    Had I not gotten help, I woudlnt have lasted the 3 months I promised to give Ubuntu.
    He installed PCLinuxOS 2007/KDE for me and I never looked back.

    Since then Ive used Kubuntu, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, Gentoo and Mepis and Arch with KDE (I came in during the ‘transition’ and stuck with KDE3.5 on PCLinuxPSuntil I felt KDE4 was ready which was 4.2 for me. Unlike some people, I saw no reason to change from 3.5 which was still being updated), my wife loves it now, my eldest son had no problems and my youngest doesnt even know Windows..
    With my vast experience (!), Ive managed to install Linux on two computers that belong to my folks as well as my wife’s folks and an aunt of hers.
    I still have XP on one computer because of some PC games I still like to play (maybe once every two months) and its actually interesting to go back (Ive disconnected internet access on XP, I want nothing with virus scans and the whole song and dance) but it feels like leaving a country as a child and coming back as an adult… “huh, I used to live here…” …
    feels like a thousand years ago.
    Still feels weird to call myself a Linux user after using every copy of Windows until XP but that’s who I am now.
    Ive gotten to understand free software and the GPL (my wife is a scientist so collaboration is a given) and appreciate them beyond the Linux is free/gratis aspect of using the software.
    Ive also distroed myself out and am sticking with a few and not experimenting as much… lack of time but also, most distros usnig the same DE are really all the same.
    More than even before, Ive forgotten what Im using very often because it just works. Audio/jack being the one thing I think has to be worked on.

    Me. Linux user.
    Who would have thunk it?

  16. MK

    I keep reading those posts about Ubuntu being bloated, and keep looking for the bloat. Where is it? Behind the wallpaper? Under the panels? Where? I’ve been using Ubuntu for the past four years on the same HP notebook, and it never felt bloated. In fact, all the version worked rather well out of the box. I think the difference between myself and you guys is reasonable expectations. I know that Ubuntu is not intended to work on Pentium 0.2 and 3MB of RAM, while you keep stumbling on the same step over and over again. Well, I guess, good luck.


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