In association with heise online

14 November 2011, 14:25

HealthCheck Ubuntu – The search for unity

by Richard Hillesley

Ubuntu has over 20 million users around the world and is by far the most popular Linux distribution on the planet, but for the first time since the release of Warty Warthog in October 2004, an Ubuntu release is not being greeted with universal acclaim and there are mutterings of discord among the Ubuntu community.

The achievements of Ubuntu, the Ubuntu developers and the Ubuntu community are easily measured by its success in fulfilling its self-imposed mandate as a Linux that is easy to install, easy to use, easy to update, and easy to manage.

Ubuntu is based on a snapshot of the "unstable" tree of Debian, which is merged into its current code release every six months – and for most of its existence, Ubuntu could be described as a subset of Debian Sid with the rough edges smoothed over, some security features deprecated and some enhanced, the implementation of proprietary blobs made easier, a bit of polish, a different theme, and a lot less packages.

It has been successful beyond the wildest dreams of most Linux distributions. Some of that success is due to Canonical's marketing and packaging, and some to the ongoing application and adventure of the Debian community whose work lies at the core of every release of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu's biggest asset has been its accessibility and ease of use. It is a quick and polished experience for those new to GNU/Linux, but has also appealed to the more experienced users who are happy with the lack of hassle and fuss.

Linus Torvalds put it succinctly. "When it comes to distributions, ease of installation has actually been one of my main issues," he once said. "I'm a technical person, but I have a very specific area of interest, and I don't want to fight the rest. So the only distributions I have actively avoided are the ones that are known to be 'overly technical'... Yeah, I can do it, but it kind of defeats the whole point of a distribution for me. So I like the ones that have a name of being easy to use. I've never used plain Debian, for example, but I like Ubuntu..."

Ubuntu has succeeded in uniting old and new users around the idea of convenience. But this harmony is threatened by Unity, the desktop interface that has displaced the old and familiar experience of GNOME 2.0 and has been the source of consternation among users.

Out of Africa

Ubuntu grew out of founder Mark Shuttleworth's ambition to promote education and the use of free software in his native South Africa. He discovered free software when he was still a student and set up Thawte Consulting, the internet certification authority, in his parents' garage in 1995.

"I wanted to explore the internet and it turned out that Windows and the other traditional operating systems did not have very good networking technology at the time," he said. "A friend showed me Linux, and I was amazed at its stability, reliability, and flexibility. In those days it was really server-oriented and I used it to build the entire infrastructure for Thawte. Over time I came to believe that the open, collaborative approach of the free software community produces better quality software than the traditional proprietary software approach."

Shuttleworth sold Thawte to VeriSign in December 1999 for approximately $575 million (£287.5 million), which gave him a rare opportunity to explore the future in any way he wished.

In April 2002 he became "the first African in space", which he described as being "the most challenging and exciting project any geek could wish for". He was a member of the crew of Soyuz TM-34, which was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan and docked with the International Space Station two days later. He spent eight days on the space station before returning to earth to devote his considerable energies to his other interests.

He said of this experience: "It had a profound effect on the sorts of projects I am interested in getting involved in. You can't help but come away with a sense of the connectedness of the world. You visibly see how pollution from one country moves right over and affects the next country along. You realise just how interdependent we are, how artificial the geophysical lines that we read about in newspapers are, so you long for projects that are global or universal and Ubuntu is certainly one of those."

Next: Here be dragons

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