Ubuntu is the most popular version of desktop Linux. It gets most of the press and has the most users. When a developer provides a Linux version of a cross-platform app, often it’s only for Ubuntu. Sure, you can get games to run on whichever version of Linux you want, but Ubuntu’s often the one with official support.
With all of these advantages in Ubuntu’s favor, why do people choose Ubuntu alternatives? Why might you?
Disliking How Ubuntu Bundles Software
Ubuntu is a free and open-source Linux “distribution” (or “distro”) that anyone is free to use and edit as they please. The vast majority of the software that goes into Ubuntu is the same as what you will find on other distros. What stands out is how all of these components are packaged together.
To make things simpler for users, Ubuntu comes with a bunch of tools and background services baked in. This enables newcomers to use Linux without needing in-depth knowledge of how the system works. For those with more experience, this saves them the effort of having to assemble things themselves.
But you may not like the components that Ubuntu has chosen. You may not be able to swap out certain parts of the system or find that the difficulty is more trouble than it’s worth. In that position, it’s easier to use a Ubuntu alternative that utilizes the open source components you prefer or one that lets you build your own system from scratch.
Preferring a Different Release Schedule
New Ubuntu releases arrive twice a year. Those that end in X.04 launch in April while X.10 versions become available in October. This timing is based on the GNOME desktop environment’s release schedule, where new versions launch in March and September.
Ubuntu alternatives come with a different schedule. Fedora’s is similar to Ubuntu, with new versions coming twice a year: one typically between November and January, and another sometime in the summer. While Fedora’s timing is less predictable, the delay of a couple of months means the distro typically comes with newer versions of apps. Fedora also tends to send out more app updates in between its major six-monthly releases.
You may prefer to avoid regular releases entirely. Some Linux distros use what we call a rolling release model. You install them once, then updates to apps and major system components gradually roll in indefinitely. There are no major releases for you to upgrade to. Arch Linux and openSUSE Tumbleweed are two distros that take this approach.
Knowing a Different Package Manager
Ubuntu-based distros are take after Debian, which uses the APT system to manage software (commonly referred to as “packages”). Fedora uses DNF, openSUSE uses Zypper, and Arch Linux uses pacman. While these package management systems largely do the same thing, they function differently.
As command line tools, you need to know precisely what words to type in order for any of these systems to work. Once you learn one, it can be inconvenient to learn another.
Or you simply may prefer the way one works. Pacman, for example, lets you install software with minimal typing. APT has a purge command that rids your system of downloaded packages, whereas DNF doesn’t.
No system is best, so whichever one you like is largely a matter of taste. But while Ubuntu lets you swap out many components of your operating system, you can’t switch the package management system without switching to a different distro.
Questioning Canonical’s Track Record
Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, has sought to improve the Linux desktop by providing a more consumer-ready experience. The goal was to provide a differentiated experience that attracted people to Ubuntu and kept them there, without resorting to software vendor lock-in. Along the way, maybe the company would discover how to build a sustainable business model based on desktop Linux.
So for over the past decade, people have seen many initiatives come and go. Canonical no longer invests in the Ubuntu Software Center, App Indicators, Unity, or Ubuntu One cloud storage. Other experiments, such as Ubuntu for TV and Ubuntu Phone, failed to gain traction. Unity 8, the new interface Canonical spent years working on, never saw an official release.
Many people were excited about Ubuntu 17.10 not because Canonical has finally delivered a remarkable unique experience, but because it has stopped trying.
Discomfort With Ubuntu’s Tendency to Go It Alone
Rather than prioritize contributions to existing free and open source projects, Canonical focused resources on software and services only intended for Ubuntu. Much of the company’s creations could be used on other distros, but the onus was on others to take the code and make that happen. Many were not willing to do so because Ubuntu software often required editing core libraries in a way that could break other software that depended on these libraries.
This also impacted Ubuntu users. The previous default interface, Unity, required patches that caused problems for people who wished to use the GNOME desktop environment instead.
Canonical’s approach created a gulf between people who used Ubuntu and people who used Ubuntu alternatives. Unity, Ubuntu One, and the Ubuntu Software Center were Ubuntu-specific experiences. With Unity 8, Canonical was creating its own display server (used to render pixels on a screen) called Mir, while nearly all other distros intended to use Wayland instead. Canonical also developed its own package format (Snap) rather than using the option more distros were looking to adopt (Flatpak).
New versions of Ubuntu may have much more in common with other distros now that Canonical has abandoned many of its projects, but the company is still throwing its weight behind the Snap format. It’s easy to imagine Ubuntu finding new ways to diverge from other distros in the future.
Wanting to Avoid Proprietary Software
Part of what made Ubuntu popular in the beginning was the ease with which it provided proprietary software. This included Adobe Flash and codecs needed to play popular media formats such as MP3s. Admittedly, this made it much easier for me to switch to Linux. I didn’t yet know why some distros avoided these formats — I just expected things to work.
While Ubuntu remains an overwhelmingly free and open source project, it now provides even more proprietary software than people have come to expect from their time on other operating systems, such as Spotify and Mailspring. It’s easy to install closed source software without realizing it.
Thing is, there are issues with closed source software that have nothing to do with price. One of the reasons I use Fedora instead of Ubuntu is because I know it doesn’t provide any non-free software aside from the closed hardware drivers integrated into the Linux kernel.
There are other distros out there that strip closed source components from the kernel, even though that means not supporting as many PCs. For people deeply concerned about the ethics of free software, hoops like these are worth jumping through, and it can feel safer to avoid using Ubuntu entirely.
Do You Use a Distro Other Than Ubuntu?
Ubuntu (or rather, Xubuntu) was the first Linux distro I ever installed, but it’s not the one I use today. Even when I install Elementary OS, I sometimes wish it weren’t based on Ubuntu. Even with a different interface on top, I’m just not all that into the Ubuntu ecosystem.
But Ubuntu is great! I would gladly use Ubuntu over a commercial operating system, and I have no problems recommending it to new users. When I help people use Ubuntu on this site, I’m not doing so with any bitterness or frustration.
If people want to use Ubuntu, that’s a wonderful thing. And if they later decide to use something else, like I did, that’s cool too. Who knows? With Ubuntu switching back to GNOME, maybe I will eventually switch back someday.
What distro do you use? Did you start off on Ubuntu only to branch off to something else. Did you start off elsewhere and gravitate toward Ubuntu? I’d love to hear your story!