As Ubuntu Declines, Can Desktop Linux Stay Relevant in the Era of Cloud and Mobile?

LinuxMint logo Ubuntu has fallen to fourth place on its Linux distribution popularity index and Linux Mint has surged to the top.

The top five most popular distributions for the past month are:

  1. Mint
  2. Fedora
  3. OpenSUSE
  4. Ubuntu
  5. Debian

Over the past year the top five are:

  1. Mint
  2. Ubuntu
  3. Fedora
  4. Debian
  5. openSUSE

Server monitoring service Pingdom charts the fluctuations:

As you can see, openSUSE is making a bit of a comeback.

Pingdom questions whether Ubuntu’s new Unity interface is responsible for Ubuntu’s decline. Ubuntu introduced Unity as a replacement for GNOME, the open source interface built on top of the X Window System, with the intention providing better usability and improved mobile/tablet experience. However, many – perhaps most – users still prefer GNOME and not everyone finds Unity easier to use. “It’s disappointing when an old friend releases such a terrible interface,” Lucas Charles, a linguistics major at Portland State University who has been using Ubuntu Linux since 2001, told me. “It’s not inherently bad, just buggy.”

Since Ubuntu users can still use Gnome instead of Unity, it’s hard to say this is the sole reason for Ubuntu’s drop in popularity.

Linux Mint was created by Clement Lefebvre to be an easy to install and use distribution of Linux. Most versions are based on Ubuntu, but some are based on Debian (Ubuntu itself is based on Debian). Lefebvre and the Linux Mint team built a number of utilities to improve the basic usability of Ubuntu/Debian. The distribution has been steadily gaining users since its introduction, and has been used as part of yet another distribution called Peppermint OS.

It’s noteworthy that there’s been quite a bit of dissatisfaction with GNOME. Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel, has switched to Xfce, an alternative window manager uses fewer system resources than Gnome. There are variations of almost all the major Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, that use Xfce or the even lighter weight LXDE.

Representatives from Canonical did not respond to my request for comment on this story.

Fragmentation in the Linux Community

The biggest concern here is the extent to which this fragments the Linux community, which has been a concern ever since Ubuntu forked from Debian. Early on the concern was that the fork would lead to incompatibilities between distributions in the Debian ecosystem. Now, at least from my perspective, the problem is uncertainty for end users about which desktop Linux distribution and interface will have the most active development and community support in the future. Having a wide variety of choices is a good thing – but at what point does increased choice become too much confusion?

To compound this matter, desktop Linux has been feeling increasingly irrelevant. While OSX has been surging, Linux has remained stuck at around 1% of the desktop operating system market. The rise of mobile and the cloud is calling desktop Linux’s relevance further into question. Android and Chrome OS are based on the Linux kernel, but little else. Intel and Nokia’s Meego and other mobile Linux projects seem to be going nowhere. Many are counting on Unity to bring Ubuntu into the tablet market to compete with iOS and Windows 8. Can it succeed in bringing in new mainstream users while alienating its established user base?

Computer science student Shrutarshi Basu doesn’t think so. In an article titled “Ubuntu Should Zig to Apple’s Zag,” he argues that Ubuntu should keep focused on power users. Looking at the comments on this Google Plus thread started by Tim O’Reilly, it seems there’s a real hunger for a power user alternative to OSX. Web developers have been getting annoyed with OSX for some time now. There’s an opportunity there, but what to make of RedMonk co-founder Stephen O’Grady switching to OSX? If the Linux community can’t hold on to the power users it already has, does it have any hope of winning over Apple fans?

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About Klint Finley

Klint Finley is a Senior Writer at SiliconAngle. His specialties include IT services, enterprise technology and software development. Prior to SiliconAngle he was a writer for ReadWriteWeb. He's also a former IT practicioner, and has written about technology for over a decade. He can be contacted at angle@klintfinley.com.