While Linux is a power to be reckoned with in the enterprise server room it continues to struggle for acceptance on the consumer desktop. On the desktop the most popular distributions, far and away, are Ubuntu and Fedora. Which one is more popular is an ongoing debate between Canonical and Red Hat, the companies which produce the two distributions. However, when it comes to Linux media and the wider tech press there is no contest: Ubuntu has mindshare and gets the lion's share of media coverage. For Linux on the desktop Ubuntu is the de facto standard bearer. To whatever part of the general non-geek public is even aware of Linux the names "Linux" and "Ubuntu" are all but interchangeable. Over the past few years I've come to the conclusion that this state of affairs is, at best, unfortunate.
Case in point: I have an HP Laserjet 1020 printer which works fine under Linux. Well, it always has, but today I plugged it into my HP Mini 110 netbook running Ubuntu 9.10 and nothing happened. None of Ubuntu's printing tools or CUPS recognized the printer. lsusb correctly listed a USB device for the printer but did not have a description for it. I checked in synaptic and the proper drivers and firmware are all installed. Hmmm... I did a Google Linux search and found this gem: Ubuntu 9.10 does not detect HP LaserJet 1020 on cold-plugging.
It seems I haven't printed from the netbook, only the desktop running SalixOS, since I upgraded from Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) to 9.10 (Karmic Koala). It also seems that a bug classified as "high priority" by the Ubuntu people has had no movement whatsoever in nearly two months. I guess I've run into the same attitude at Canonical that has so annoyed me before: we'll get it in the next release. Not fixing the current, supported release seems to be just fine with Canonical. For me, with Ubuntu, this was strike three. They're out of here. Actually, this was about strike 12 but since Ubuntu is so darned popular I keep giving them chances. Silly me.
We FOSS supporters get all on our high horses about proprietary software while we keep offering up "Linux for humans" that, in reality, is an oft broken mess, at least in the case of Ubuntu. I am back to believing Andrew Wyatt was right when he called the distro "garbage salad." This is a perfect example of what he was describing. No wonder CrunchBang Linux is moving to a Debian as a base instead of Ubuntu. Linux Mint may be moving in the same direction.
The developers of these three Linux distributions have an excellent point. In the nearly six years since Ubuntu was introduced there have been a lot of improvements. Sadly Ubuntu still falls down in one major area: reliability. Joe and Jane User doesn't really care about FOSS philosophy or even technical merit the way Linux geeks do. They want things to "just work". If we really want to lure people away from Windows and even MacOS to Linux we have to offer a product that works reliably. We can't have hardware magically stop working after a routine upgrade.
There has been a lot of discussion about why Ubuntu consistently fails to deliver a stable, reliable product. Ubuntu 8.04 LTS (Hardy Heron) was, in fact, very stable and reliable after the first maintenance release (8.04.1) so I have no doubt that Canonical can produce a quality product. One idea which is often raised is that the rigid six month release cycle may just be too frequent. Another is that Ubuntu tends to stay on or near the cutting edge of Linux development and that, inevitably, leads to breakage. I think there is some truth to both theories and Canonical's success with the Long Term Support (LTS) versions of Ubuntu, released every two years with subsequent maintenance releases, seems to bear that out. So do the track records of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, which is released relatively infrequently, and Fedora, which is cutting edge. RHEL is extremely reliable while Fedora tends to have some issues. The problem for both Canonical and Red Hat, of course, is that to support the latest and greatest hardware you sometimes do have to live on the cutting edge.
The one conclusion I have reached is that Ubuntu is a very poor standard bearer for Linux. It isn't what I want Linux judged by. Other distributions have problematic releases but other major distributions do not have significant problems in nearly every release. Ubuntu does. So how do we, in the Linux press make people outside of the Linux community aware that Linux does not equate to Ubuntu? That is the real challenge we now face if we want Linux to be more widely accepted.
UPDATE: I've read all the comments and found some very valid points that helped me clarify my thoughts regarding Ubuntu. Please read the follow up article here.