Ubuntu at 10

TEN years ago this month, a new Linux distribution with an unusual name made its unassuming debut. Bankrolled by South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth, who had earned about half a billion dollars in 1999 from selling his Internet security company to VeriSign, Ubuntu was named after an African term for “human kindness” and a philosophy that teaches humanity toward others.

Shuttleworth, one of the developers of the popular Debian distribution, used it as the base for building Ubuntu with one distinction: he wanted to build a version of “Linux for human beings” that emphasized ease of use for non-technical users.

The first version, Ubuntu 4.10, began the numbering convention that uses the year and month of its release (October 2004). Warty Warthog, as the version was also called, also began the use of alliterative code names made up of an adjective and an animal, real or mythical.

Announcing the release of Ubuntu 4.10 in a mailing list message on Oct. 20, 2004, Shuttleworth wrote: “Ubuntu is a new Linux distribution that brings together the extraordinary breadth of Debian with a fast and easy install, regular releases (every six months), a tight selection of excellent packages installed by default and a commitment to security updates with 18 months of security and technical support for every release.”

He also assured potential users that the Ubuntu team was “absolutely committed” to free software and keeping the new distribution 100 percent free of charge.

Even then, Ubuntu was a departure from the norm. Until then, Linux distributions had been aimed primarily at developers and more technically inclined users. Ubuntu emphasized everyday desktop users who might otherwise be running Windows.

Also unlike makers of commercial desktop operating systems, the Ubuntu team set an ambitious goal of a new release every six months, in keeping with the open source philosophy of “release early, release often.” Over the next 10 years and through 21 versions, the Ubuntu team missed its release deadline only once, in 2006 with Dapper Drake or Ubuntu 6.06, a testament to the efficiency of their open source development model.

The focus on ease of use has paid off.

This month, as Ubuntu marks its 10th anniversary, it is the most popular Linux distribution, used by an estimated 25 million people.

But staying true to its rebel origins, Ubuntu has pushed into new directions, including the cloud and mobile devices in recent years, moves that have been accompanied by their fair share of controversy.

For example, when recent releases included Web sites in search results, Canonical, the company Shuttleworth established to oversee Ubuntu’s development, came under fire for invading the privacy of users, whose search details were shared with third parties. The criticism was valid, but users could easily change the settings to exclude online results.

Ubuntu also came under fire when it replaced the GNOME interface with its own homegrown Unity starting with 11.04. This irked many long-time users and even cause some of them to move to other Linux distributions such as Mint, which is built on Ubuntu without the Unity interface. But Canonical slowly improved the performance of Unity, in line with its goal to build an operating system and interface that works on desktop and laptop computers as well as smart phones and tablets.

Ubuntu’s 10th anniversary coincides with the release of its newest version, 14.10 or Utopic Unicorn, as well as the release of the first smart phones using the Ubuntu operating system. In his blog entry, Shuttleworth talks about the innovation that is driving him and his team.

“Who would have thought—a phone!” he wrote. “Each year in Ubuntu brings something new. It is a privilege to celebrate our tenth anniversary milestone with such vernal efforts. New ecosystems are born all the time, and it’s vital that we refresh and renew our thinking and our product in vibrant ways. That we have the chance to do so is testament to the role Linux at large is playing in modern computing, and the breadth of vision in our virtual team.” If the last decade is any indication, the next 10 years should be fun to watch.

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