Ubuntu turns 10: A look back at desktop Linux standard bearer

A brief history of Ubuntu, as alliterative as all-get-out.

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It’s pronounced “Ooh-boon-too.”

The year of the Linux desktop is here! No, the Linux desktop is dead! Tech pundits differ, to say the least, on a lot of topics in the world of free and open-source software, but it’s inarguable that Ubuntu has been the most influential Linux desktop distribution of the past decade. On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, here’s a brief look back.

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Credit: Ubuntu.com
Beginnings

Developer and venture capitalist Mark Shuttleworth’s original brainchild was a simple idea – a desktop Linux distribution more user-friendly than anything else out there. A former Debian contributor, Shuttleworth based the new operating system on that distro. The name he chose, Ubuntu, means “humanity towards others” in the Xhosa and Zulu languages.

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Credit: Wikimedia Commons/GPL
The first

Pouring in some of the money he made from selling his company, Thawte, to VeriSign in 1999 for more than half a billion dollars, Shuttleworth funded a team of developers for Ubuntu. The first official release was version 4.10 – so named because of its October (10th month), 2004 release date. Version 4.10 was also known as “Warty Warthog,” establishing the first of the alliterative animal code names by which versions would subsequently be distinguished.

Credit: DistroWatch.com
Growth

Garnering strongly positive reviews, Ubuntu appears to have spread quickly – although there are no official metrics for desktop Linux distributions, the unofficial DistroWatch page hit ranking generally showed it far outstripping any other Linux OS.

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Flavors

Different “flavors” of Ubuntu – or Ubuntu using different desktop environments – began to spring up quickly, including Xubuntu (XFCE), Kubuntu (KDE), and Lubuntu (LXDE). Other officially supported flavors include China-localized Ubuntu Kylin, education-focused Edubuntu, home theater Mythbuntu and media editing Ubuntu Studio.

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Credit: Wikipedia/GPL
On top

Ubuntu was, almost inarguably, the most popular desktop Linux distro in the world in the latter half of the noughties. As an option for first-time Linux users looking to transition away from Windows, Ubuntu had no real rival.

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Credit: Wikipedia/CC License/Sannaj
Mint

No rival, that is, until a distribution known as Mint started to gain large amounts of devotees in 2011. Itself a fork of Ubuntu, based almost entirely on Ubuntu code, Mint is an attempt to offer a more customizable out-of-the-box experience. According to DistroWatch’s ratings, Mint has edged Ubuntu as the most popular distro rankings ever since.

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Credit: Wikipedia/GPL
Unity

Part of the reason for Ubuntu’s slight loss of popularity may be Unity, the custom-built desktop interface that succeeded the venerable GNOME 2.8 in version 11.04, “Natty Narwhal,” as the default. While Unity boasted some advanced new features, large sections of the user base decried the move away from GNOME, saying the new interface was poorly designed and seemingly unfinished.

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Credit: Wikipedia/CC License/Максим Пе
Privacy

Subsequent improvements to Unity in version 12.04, “Precise Pangolin,” addressed some of the usability and added much-needed polish, but the desktop interface would be back at the center of the storm with the addition of a “shopping lens” in the subsequent 12.10, “Quantal Quetzal” version, which many, including Richard Stallman, called an invasion of user privacy.

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Credit: Canonical
Mobility

Canonical, the company backing Ubuntu, hasn’t been shy about its vision of being an every-platform operating system, releasing Ubuntu Touch, Ubuntu for Android, and even attempting to launch its own (unsuccessful) Kickstarter for a powerful developer handset, the Ubuntu Edge.