Ubuntu carves niche in Linux landscape

Less than two years into its development, a new version of Linux is generating considerable excitement.

It's not easy building a new version of Linux and establishing a large following. But with the Ubuntu project, one team of programmers has managed to do just that.

The fact that there are at least 386 available versions of Linux shows just how many groups want to launch their own "distributions"--Linux combined with other open-source software into a full-fledged operating-system product. But the fact that few people are familiar with distributions other than Red Hat, Suse and Debian is a testament to how hard it is to be successful.

Ubuntu began less than two years ago. It's the brainchild of Mark Shuttleworth, who, in the last 10 years, also founded security firm Thawte Consulting, sold it to VeriSign for $575 million and rode a Russian rocket to spend eight days in orbit at the International Space Station.

Ubuntu is an offshoot of Debian. It began with an emphasis on easy-to-use PCs, but there's also a server version. Development comes from volunteers and those funded by Shuttleworth's 50-person start-up, Canonical, and the Ubuntu Foundation, which Shuttleworth launched with a $10 million donation. The founder's influence is strong--developers refer to him as SABDFL, short for self-appointed benevolent dictator for life.

And with only two versions released so far--a third, code-named Breezy Badger, is due Oct. 13--it has drawn praise. "It's the distro that I recommend to newcomers to Linux because things just work," RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said. And Ubuntu's developer community is fairly strong, he said.

Breezy Badger will include support for the Linux Terminal Server Project, a project popular in the education market that lets a group of low-end PCs share the horsepower of a Linux server. And it will include a "configurator" to make it easier for computer makers to install a customized version and add-ons.

Shuttleworth wanted Linux that was innovative and that wasn't divided into a costly but supported high-end version and a free but largely unsupported alternative, said Jeff Waugh, Canonical's No. 3 employee and a leader of Ubuntu's business and community development efforts.

"Red Hat is essentially charging licensing fees to use their enterprise distribution," Waugh said. "There's no glass ceiling in Ubuntu--no enterprise version you can't touch."

Wooing "the community"
Ubuntu's gains come at a time when the commercial powers of the Linux realm are trying hard to engage the vast and amorphous group loosely known as "the open-source community." This band includes new and experienced programmers at major corporations, schools and cash-strapped start-ups, and it spans the globe. Harnessing its talents can make it easier to develop new features, find bugs, build a customer base and set development priorities.

Red Hat's community project, Fedora, has had some troubles, but the project and the company's relationship to it get "better by the month," Chief Executive Matthew Szulik said. Novell has launched a similar project, OpenSuse, and spokesman Kevan Barney said the company believes that it has "a much broader user community" than does Ubuntu. Even Sun Microsystems, which is making a version of Unix into an open-source project called OpenSolaris, believes that it can benefit from the approach.

But the project most likely to benefit from Ubuntu's success is Debian, a decidedly noncommercial project. Ubuntu is based on Debian's development version, called Sid, and Ubuntu programmers are collaborating well on the GNOME desktop interface software and the X.org low-level graphics support, Waugh said.

Quantifying Ubuntu's gains is difficult. For example, it doesn't show up in IDC's revenue charts, since it's available for free, even for those who want installation CDs sent to them. But there are some signs. For one thing, there are 60 people who are authorized to approve Ubuntu software changes and many more who supply them with the modifications. Ubuntu also distributed 1.4 million copies of its first version, called Warty Warthog. And it tops the reader interest charts at DistroWatch, a site that catalogs Linux distributions.

One thing Ubuntu lacks is commercial partnerships, but there are some early signs that's changing. VMware, whose software lets multiple operating systems run on the same computer, added experimental Ubuntu support with its new version 5 beta, citing customer demand. And Hewlett-Packard sells notebook computers with Ubuntu in Europe and Africa, with plans to expand to desktops in the region, spokeswoman Nita Miller said.

Commercial support might be easier with more stable future versions. Ubuntu releases new versions every six months, and 6.04--named after its April 2006 due date but code-named Dapper Drake--will feature three-year support for the desktop version and five-year support for the server version. That's a much

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