Ubuntu recently released 14.10 “Utopic Unicorn”, which coincides with the fact that Ubuntu is now 10 years old! The king of Linux distributions has come a long way since its inception in 2004, so it’s a good idea to go down memory lane and take a look at the journey it has gone through so far. We’ll also take a look at how it has developed differently to Debian, the distribution upon which it is based.
If you’re more interested in the practical differences to help you choose which distribution to use, check out this comparison.
Ubuntu started out with the 4.10 “Warty Warthog” release which was essentially a replica of Debian but with a rather ugly brown theme. One of Ubuntu’s main goals back then was to make installing Linux easy. It may have been easier than Debian to install, but it certainly wasn’t easy.
It was still a text-based installer that required a bit of Linux knowledge to navigate properly. However, the young budding distro had a lot of potential with a lofty goal of making Linux available and usable for everyone. At this time, the most popular distribution was neither Ubuntu or Debian, but rather Mandrake Linux.
Increasing in Popularity
For the next several releases, things didn’t change much besides included software being shipped with newer versions. A lot of distributions looked alike in this point in time, as most had the same default setup of GNOME or KDE except for differing themes. Ubuntu was progressing with its installer, however, as it was now graphical rather than text. With some easy partitioning options to choose from, it made installing Ubuntu easier than most other distributions. I remember trying to install openSUSE and got confused by the different file systems and multiple partitions that it wanted to create. None of this madness appeared in the Ubuntu installer if I chose not to see it.
It was also during this time that Ubuntu came out with Wubi, which allowed you to install Ubuntu in a pseudo-dual-boot way. It used the Windows Boot Manager to make you pick between Windows and Ubuntu, and Ubuntu could easily be removed from the Add/Remove Programs section of the Windows Control Panel. In other words, with Wubi, Ubuntu was installed within Windows rather than in its own partition outside of Windows. While it wasn’t the best solution for long-term Ubuntu usage, it was a great way for people to try Ubuntu out on their systems without having to worry about the difficulties of performing an actual dual-boot installation and possibly removing Ubuntu from such a setup. Sadly, Wubi is no longer available on recent releases of Ubuntu.
Another change that came from Ubuntu was the start of “Long Term Support” or LTS releases. Ubuntu 6.06 was the first LTS release, which promised to be supported for much longer than any of the normal releases. This was an important step because a lot of home users didn’t want to have to upgrade their system every 6 months, and many enterprise environments definitely didn’t either. This ensured stability and support, which made Ubuntu much more attractive to adopt as an operating system.
Around this time, the state of open source drivers was not that great, so Ubuntu also added an easy-to-use application that would search for proprietary drivers and install them for you to make hardware work properly. No other distribution (besides Ubuntu derivatives) have this application, making installing drivers a breeze. It was also a slightly controversial move, as most Linux distributions avidly encouraged the use of only open source software.
Besides these relatively small changes, Ubuntu was still very much similar to Debian (except that Ubuntu was released much more often). However, change was in the air when 10.04 “Lucid Lynx” came rolling around. It came with a brand new theme (no more brown!) and also provided its own Ubuntu Software Center rather than using Gnome’s Add/Remove Software application. While this still wasn’t anything too drastic, we knew more was on the way, especially since GNOME was about to come out with GNOME Shell.
Becoming Truly Unique
While any distribution was able to add extra repositories to their systems, Ubuntu came out with Personal Package Archives, or “PPAs”. They made creating new repositories much easier, as well as adding them to systems, so it allowed developers to operate PPAs which users can add to install their software and easily keep it updated.
With 11.04, Ubuntu debuted its Unity desktop environment as a replacement for Gnome Shell, the next iteration of the Gnome desktop environment. This was the first major project from Ubuntu that made it unique from other distributions, especially Debian. Although Unity was received with mixed impressions, Ubuntu is continuing to use the desktop environment and plans on doing so for the foreseeable future.
Ubuntu is also working on “Ubuntu for Devices”, which is a rather terrible name for their mobile operating system. Work towards releasing their first mobile device with Ubuntu as the mobile OS is mostly done, and will first appear on Meizu phones. This is where Unity becomes important again, as they want to use the same codebase for both desktops and mobile devices.
Different, But Not Independent
Although Ubuntu has changed quite a bit and now has a lot of its own tools that it uses, one thing hasn’t changed — it still gets the majority of its packages from Debian’s unstable repositories. So while Ubuntu has been differentiating itself from Debian, it still needs Debian to exist. There’s a lot of work that Debian does that Ubuntu builds on, and no one expects Ubuntu wanting to all of Debian’s work themselves anytime soon.
That being said, the experience between Ubuntu and Debian is definitely different, so it’s important to pick the distribution that’s right for you. If you know quite a bit about Linux, and want to be on a vanilla system that will let you change whatever you want and actively promotes free (as in freedom) software, then Debian is good for you. Otherwise, it might be better to pick Ubuntu as in many respects it is the easier distribution of the two for the “common” user.
What’s your favorite feature unique to Ubuntu? What features do you see coming next? Let us know in the comments!