For many in the Linux community, the topic of Ubuntu brings up ire and, in some cases, nothing short of rage. Why? On the surface it’s easy to point to the likes of Unity and Mir as the primary reasons for the criticism and hatred. If you look deeper, however, I think it’s much more complicated. I think Ubuntu faces this petulance because:

  • Many users hate that Ubuntu is a commercial product
  • Many “hard core” Linux users look at Ubuntu as “Linux lite”
  • Many don’t see Canonical giving back enough to the open source community

I’m not here to negate those concerns (though I do not share them). Instead, I wanted to take a moment and imagine a world without Ubuntu. At first blush, one might think that world wouldn’t change much from where it is now…there’d just be a different distribution in Ubuntu’s place.

Or would there?

And therein lies the key to this line of thought.

No matter how you feel about Ubuntu, it has managed to do something no other Linux distribution could pull off: Become a commercially viable desktop alternative.

Ubuntu came out of nowhere in 2004. This was a time when there were already thousands of variations on the Linux desktop operating system. In fact, upon the release of this Debian derivative, very little changed. Ubuntu was quietly released and the landscape hardly shifted a byte. Now? Ubuntu holds roughly ninety percent of the Linux market. That’s a fairly remarkable number, considering Ubuntu’s primary focus has largely been new users.

And so now, we borrow the chains from the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, strip the landscape of Ubuntu, and examine where things could be.

Put on your imagination caps and take a walk with me.

A bit less distros

First and foremost, the Linux community would be without the following distributions:

  • Linux Mint
  • Kubuntu
  • Edubuntu
  • Xubuntu
  • Ubuntu Studio
  • Crunchbang Linux
  • Ubuntu Kylin
  • Elementary OS Freya
  • Ubuntu GNOME
  • Netrunner
  • Deepin

That’s a fairly notable list of distributions to be missing. Especially important in that list would, obviously, be Linux Mint. No Ubuntu…no Mint. Considering Mint currently sits atop the Distrowatch’s page hit list (and is often ranked at the top of everyone’s “Best of the best”), the Linux community would most certainly miss out had Ubuntu not existed to inspire Linux Mint.

A bit less cloudy

At the moment, seventy percent of public cloud workloads run on Ubuntu. On top of that fifty-five percent of OpenStack clouds depend upon Ubuntu. Businesses like Time Warner Cable, Yahoo Japan, Bloomberg, Bestbuy, Cisco, Samsung, Ebay, AT&T, Walmart, and more depend upon Ubuntu for their cloud presence. That is significant. And certainly Red Hat and SUSE would easily have taken over that workload. But the truth is, Ubuntu makes deploying clouds easy (which is part and parcel to their entire business model…making Linux easy).

A bit less friendly

This one might be cause for some to toss down the gauntlet and shout “j’accuse!” No distribution of Linux has, in the history of the platform, made the open source operating system so easily accessible to new users. Not Mint, not Deepin, not Elementary OS, not Solus…none of them. From the very beginning, ease of use and user-friendliness was at the heart of Ubuntu. Strip Linux of Ubuntu and the platform becomes increasingly less likely to attract new users and far less user-friendly.

But this isn’t just about the UI or UX. Over the years, Ubuntu has worked hard to make Linux a household name. Has it achieved that lofty goal? Not to the extent we’d like; but it has made great strides. Consider the likes of System76 – a company that does an outstanding job of selling hardware pre-installed with Linux. Their OS of choice? Ubuntu. Imagine how much more challenging that prospect would be if System76 were faced with selling hardware running Fedora? or openSUSE? My guess is that they’d sell considerably fewer desktops and laptops. NOTE: That is not to ding either platform…as both are outstanding distributions.

Ubuntu is truly Linux for humans. It’s not only open source, it’s open arms. Cheesy? Yes. True? Also yes.

A bit less graphic-y

One of the less discussed improvements Ubuntu helped to usher in was that of graphic installers, configuration tools, and UI polish. There is little doubt that Ubuntu helped turn up the heat on UX and UI improvements. With that added heat, Ubuntu demonstrated just how clean and professional a Linux interface could be. Consider that Linux might not even enjoy high quality font rendering without Ubuntu. Even in recent releases of Fedora, fonts don’t render nearly as well as they do in Ubuntu. Even though Microsoft holds the patent for subpixel rendering until 2019, Ubuntu has been, since inception, the distribution best capable of a polished desktop from fonts to titlebar.

A bit less edgy

One thing Ubuntu has done better than any other distribution is push the limits on boundaries. Prior to Ubuntu, Linux happily existed in a bubble. Sure there were battle cries of “World domination”, but those cries were silenced simply because no other distribution was willing to violate many of the taboos held by the Linux faithful (such as dropping Wayland for their in-house Mir or the unveiling of Launchpad) – taboos keeping Linux from achieving the greatness it has always been capable of.

Edgy became the calling card for Ubuntu when Canonical released Unity. This was the first true modern take on the Linux desktop. To this day there are a great many haters of Ubuntu’s default desktop. Without Unity, however, we wouldn’t have borne witness to the massive improvements of GNOME Shell or possibly not have ever enjoyed the release of the Mate, Cinnamon, Budgie, or Elementary desktops.

A bit of a conclusion

No matter where you stand on Ubuntu, it cannot be denied that the distribution so many like to hate has brought about or inspired some of the most important milestones for the Linux community. Without Ubuntu, we’d be a few rather large paces behind the competition at this point.

Do you agree? Has Ubuntu been a harbinger of “do” or “die” for Linux?