Oct 19 2011

time to ditch ubuntu?

I’ve used Ubuntu on my desktops/laptops and netbook for some time now. I think my first installation was 6.06 (the version 6.04 which was late by two months) and my desktops currently all run 10.04 LTS. I got over the minor irritation of the move of the window control buttons from the top right to the top left (a la Mac OSX). But I disliked the first version of 10.10 I tried on the netbook (sporting an early version the unity desktop) so much I quickly switched that back to to 10.04.

I have used the LTS versions of Ubuntu because, in my view, it provides the best trade off between bleeding edge and stability. I’m a huge fan of Debian and use it on my servers and slugs, but Debian is too conservative (and too purist about non-free software such as multimedia codecs) to make it a truly attractive OS for the modern desktop without a lot of additional work. So, the fact that Ubuntu was based on Debian, but with a rather faster release schedule and added usability has made it an obvious choice for some time. And it has become hugely popular. It still ranks number one at distrowatch and there are many other distributions which are based upon it. But Canonical have been taking some controversial decisions of late, many of which have split the user base.

After trialling the unity desktop on the netbook edition in Ubutu 10.10, Canonical merged the netbook and desktop versions into one with 11.04. This meant that users upgrading from an earlier (GNOME based) version were suddenly faced with a radically different looking desktop. The GNOME desktop (called Ubuntu classic) was still available as a fallback from unity in 11.04, but from the latest release (11.10) this is no longer the case, instead you get a 2D version of unity. So, you have unity or you have a worse version of unity.

Ubuntu may be using the GNOME libraries (and it is now using the GNOME 3 libraries rather than those for GNOME 2 as it did when unity was first launched) but many people, myself included, cannot understand why Canonical did not simply work with the GNOME project on version 3. But Canonical have form here. As a company they have been criticised many times in the past for taking rather too much from the FOSS community and not putting enough back. Without Debian, Ubuntu would never have existed. Ian Murdock (the “ian” in Debian) himself expressed concern some time ago that the Ubuntu codebase could diverge too much from Debian unless Canonical developers pushed changes back into the upstream projects. Furthermore, unlike companies such as Intel and Redhat, Canonical developers seem to be almost entirely absent from the linux kernel development community. An interesting, indeed almost comical, statistic emerged recently showing that Microsoft was the fifth most productive contributor to the Linux 3.0 kernel behind only Redhat, Intel, Novell and IBM respectively. As admin magazine notes however, this position owes much to the fact that Microsoft employee K. Y. Srinivasan made 343 changes. Most of those changes were to clean up the code implementing a driver for Hyper-V virtualization. But this is just a statistical blip – I fully expect Microsoft to drop out of the top five, or even top twenty five, shortly.

Canonical also got into a spot of bother when they ditched the GNOME audio player Rhythmbox in favour of Banshee. Rythmbox is decidedly “free software” and links users to free music downloads from Jamendo and paid for music from Magnatune, whilst Banshee looks far more commercially oriented (it linked to Amazon’s MP3 store for downloads in mid 2010 and Canonical used it to link to its own Ubuntu One music store in the 11.04 release. Such decisions can upset people (and make Canonical begin to look like Apple). If they introduce any form of DRM then there will be hell to pay.

With the release of 11.04, Ubuntu Studio, the Ubuntu based distro aimed at multimedia creators, defaulted to retaining GNOME in preference to unity, saying in its release notes “Ubuntu Studio does not currently use Unity. As the user logs in it will default to Gnome Classic Desktop (i.e. Gnome2)”. Shortly thereafter, in May of this year, Scott Lavender, the project lead for Ubuntu Studio announced that they would move away from unity (and GNOME) and use the lightweight Xfce desktop as the default environment in future.

Criticism of Ubuntu (and of Canonical the company) has become so loud and frequent of late that Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu Community “spokesman” reacted by founding openrespect.org apparently as a means of deflecting some of that criticism. The openrespect website says:

“OpenRespect was founded out of a concern that discussion and discourse in the Open Source, Free Software, and Free Culture community has become a little too fiery and flamey in recent years. The goal of OpenRespect is simple: to provide a simple declaration that distills some of the core elements of showing respect to other participants in discussions.”

But as itwire points out, the timing here is rather odd since it is only now “when Canonical has its feet held to the fire, we have a new website called OpenRespect.org registered and volumes of spiel being generated by Bacon.” Quite so.

Jono Bacon has also popped up in a variety of fora getting all defensive about Canonical’s design decisions. He even fronted an article in the July 2011 issue of LinuxFormat magazine where he “interviewed” four key players at Canonical (including Mark Shuttleworth). That interview included such unbiased questions as “Unity is an exciting new vision. What are your goals and inspirations?” Worse, the article did not bother to mention that Bacon was a key Canonical employee.

I have no doubt that Canonical will make unity work. The installed base of Ubuntu users is so large that developers will be forced to make it work, but I don’t have to like it. My problem is that GNOME itself has also changed radically in the move from 2.30 to 3.0. And I don’t like that either. I find myself in good company though, back in July of this year, Linus Torvalds called GNOME 3.0 an “unholy mess” and announced that he was ditching it in favour of Xfce. Although unlike Linus, I never liked KDE, even before the KDE 4 debacle

Permanent link to this article: http://baldric.net/2011/10/19/time-to-ditch-ubuntu/


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    • Peter on 2011/10/20 at 1:42 pm

    It appears that we are yet again in violent agreement. I liked Ubuntu because it took the best of Debian but remained a bit more pragmatic about commercial code, and I disliked it when they started messing with the user interface.

    I have found myself use Linux Mint Xfce more and more. Originally I installed it on advice of a friend on a box which didn’t have much horsepower, but it sort of grows on you. Maybe worth a look?


    • Mick on 2011/10/20 at 3:33 pm


    I’m ahead of you. I’ve been experimenting with various distros, including xubuntu, but I’d like to get away from Ubuntu entirely. So I’ve been testing LMDE (the Debian edition of Mint). I’ve tried both the GNOME and Xfce verisons and because of the uncertainty around GNOME for the future (I /really/ can’t get on with 3.x) I’m likely to go for the Xfce version. I’ll write about it later. Right now I’m trying to get LMDE to look as much like my currrent desktop as possible. For example, I prefer my menus to drop down from a top panel and I like my most used programs to be set as icons on that top panel too.

    But you are right, it is a good distro, and looks to be worth supporting.


    • Jan on 2011/10/23 at 9:41 pm

    No, you are not alone. Over at http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=3822 Eric Raymond got mad as well. He said he’s bailed out to KDE.

    • Mick on 2011/10/24 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks for that Jan. Looks like he too is going Xfce now.

    • David on 2011/10/25 at 10:43 am

    Another agreement from me. I could cope with 11.04 by switching over to the “classic” deskop, even on a netbook. But now that option is gone I’m left wondering what to use.

    I only moved from KDE initially because Ubuntu used GNOME as a default, so it might be time to investigate and see what else is available. However with the likely impending purchase of a Macbook (yes, really) I find myself wondering whether I’ll need a Linux desktop at all.

    • Mick on 2011/10/25 at 3:48 pm


    Put down the macbook, put your hands in the air and walk quietly backwards….

    Seriously, of course you need a linux desktop. You just don’t need the rubbish being touted by GNOME and Ubuntu. I have just finished successfully porting my desktops to LMDE with Xfce as the desktop. Lovely and shiny debian goodness and laid out the way /I/ want the damn desktop to look. I’ll write about it later.

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