Ubuntu carves niche in Linux landscape

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

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
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

longer life span for support services than today's 18-month duration.

It also brings Ubuntu closer to major commercial Linux products. Red Hat Enterprise Linux and Suse Linux Enterprise Server, for example, get major updates about every year and a half so that customers and business partners don't have to constantly adapt. Those versions have a major advantage Ubuntu still lacks: certification for use with server hardware and software from computing powers such as Oracle, SAP, IBM and Dell.

While Ubuntu has helped Debian, it hasn't won universal acclaim in that domain.

One significant objection comes from Ian Murdock, the founder of Debian, chief strategy officer of a start-up called Progeny that is commercializing Debian and organizer of the Debian Common Core Alliance, an effort to make different Debian-based distributions compatible. Ubuntu isn't a DCCA member.

"A lot of people start using this because it's free, as in free beer, then they suddenly realize the reason it works so well is it's free, as in free speech."
--Jeff Waugh, Canonical employee and head of business and community development, Ubuntu

"I'm both positive and negative on Ubuntu," Murdock said. The positive: "It's an excellent distribution, and its success is without question growing the Debian universe." But the negative: "They chose to diverge from Debian rather than to extend the standard Debian core, leading to the inevitable compatibility problems."

Waugh is unimpressed by the DCCA. "Nothing demonstrates it's a compelling answer to the consortia that have failed in the past. We don't think that's going to work," he said.

Murdock, however, said he wishes Ubuntu was helping Debian more directly. "A lot of energy that might otherwise be directed at Debian proper is instead being directed at a Debian derivative, so it's harder to share their work than it otherwise might be," he said.

But Debian has problems as a starting point, Waugh said, because it's so broad and includes so many packages. And, he added, "You can't go walking into a project like Debian that has existed for so long, has its culture, its community and its infrastructure, and say, 'Here's how we're going to do it.'"

O'Grady isn't surprised there's friction as Ubuntu steals the thunder. "Ubuntu is rapidly becoming a more popular name than Debian," he said.

Developer's-eye view
Asked about their motivations for participating in Ubuntu, developers are quick to mention the freedoms that come with open-source software.

"I was drawn to it as a natural step in my increasing commitment to open source, after having been active as a Debian developer for about five years prior. Ubuntu represented a chance to explore many new directions in building an open-source operating system," Ubuntu Chief Technology Officer Matt Zimmerman said.

Adds Waugh, "A lot of people start using this because it's free, as in free beer, then they suddenly realize the reason it works so well is it's free, as in free speech."

There are some lumps, though. "Perhaps the worst of Ubuntu is that we are still a relatively young project, and having moved so quickly to the forefront of Linux, it's been a challenge to stay focused on our vision," Zimmerman said. "There is now a vast user community around Ubuntu, full of energy and excitement about a wide variety of different ideas, while realistically we can only pursue some of these at once."

And Sam Pohlenz, who works on Ubuntu's graphical configuration tools, isn't happy about support for audio and video software whose licensing rules prohibit their use as open-source software.

"One thing that plagues almost all Linux distributions is multimedia support 'out of the box,'" he said. Packages can be installed later, but "these legal issues are a rather large stumbling block for growing distributions such as Ubuntu," Pohlenz said.

Jonathan Riddell got involved when he saw a need to make the KDE user interface an alternative to the default, GNOME. The KDE version is an offshoot of the regular Ubuntu code base but is available separately in a project called Kubuntu.

"Nobody was doing good KDE support for Ubuntu," Riddell said. "Since Ubuntu was obviously going to be an important distribution, I felt it important that KDE should be well-supported on it."

And for now at least, idealism remains a powerful force within the project. When the early organizers were looking for a project name, Shuttleworth suggested Ubuntu.

"He said it's this African word that means 'I am because we are.' It focuses on community. It's all about sharing and consensus," Waugh said. "Everyone in the room was just gobsmacked because it really expressed what we believed as free-software and open-source contributors."