Is Ubuntu the Barack Obama of Linux?

Monday Oct 27th 2008 by James Maguire

Although Ubuntu exists in a very different sphere than Barack Obama, it employs a strategy that is remarkably similar.

Oh, the unfairness of it. Take a look at the list of the most popular Linux distributions. Topping the user rankings? Ubuntu, of course. Based on the DesktopLinux survey (from 2007) or the current Distrowatch list, it runs easily ahead of the other options.

The unfairness arises when you look at the Linux distros that Ubuntu is topping. Debian, for instance, has been around far longer than upstart Ubuntu. For goodness sake, no one even heard of Ubuntu until 2004 – because it didn’t exist before then. Meanwhile, Debian has served the Linux faithful since way back in 1993. (Indeed, Ubuntu was a fork from Debian). Yet the Linux Foundation surveys from ‘05, ‘06 and ‘07 all put Ubuntu ahead of Debian.

And take a look at gNewSense, the Linux distro that touts its absolute Free software purity. GNewSense, which is based on Ubuntu, removes every last line of proprietary code – it includes not a scintilla of help with pesky closed source drivers. (Unlike Ubuntu, which acknowledges that the world is full of closed source drivers.) The Distrowatch ranking parks gNewSense all the way down at No. 51.

But wait. Isn’t the low ranking of the hyper-pure gNewSense counterintuitive? After all, there’s a deep strain of ideological purity in the Linux community. The night I interviewed Richard Stallman – the very heart and soul of GNU/Linux – he described being on a speaking engagement in Spain. His host offered him a CD of local music. But Stallman wouldn’t accept it – because the tunes were copy-protected. Wow, that’s purity. Thank goodness someone is standing up for the spirit of GNU/Linux freedom. If we start listening to Flamenco guitar on copy-restricted discs, what’s next? The downfall of Western Civilization?

So what’s up? Why is Ubuntu’s popularity demolishing gNewSense’s, even though gNewSense’s purity reflects a Stallmanesque fondness for ideological strictness? And why is Ubuntu also so clearly topping Debian, given that Debian had more than a decade head start?

To understand Ubuntu’s rapid climb, it helps to look at another relative newcomer who has enjoyed a rapid ascent, Senator Barack Obama. The paths to popular success for both Obama and Ubuntu, despite respective fields as different as politics and software, are remarkably similar.

Just as Ubuntu surpassed the established Debian (and other popular distros) Obama zipped rapidly ahead of longstanding political figures. The Clinton team, like Debian, was the entrenched choice from the 1990s. But the Clintons’ association with the past sunk them in the Democratic primaries as the public demanded a new direction. Seniority, it turns out, doesn’t always win the day.

But reaching out to a larger audience does. Barack Obama, while grounded in the orthodoxy of the Democratic Party, has always emphasized an appeal to the other side.

Obama’s popularity stems from his ability to inspire both a smaller group of ideological partisans – what Howard Dean calls “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party” – and a broad mass of mainstream voters. This is in contrast to a figure like, say, Congressman Dennis Kucinich. As an ideological purist, Kucinich’s liberal bona fides are unquestioned. He introduced a resolution to impeach George W. Bush, supports phasing out all nuclear and coal-based power, and wants to withdraw from NAFTA. (For extra points, he’s also a vegan and he claimed he saw a UFO.) Kucinich might be called the gNewSense of politics; ideologically he’s all the way to one side, so in the Democratic primary he received something like 14 votes.

(On an related side note, Richard Stallman endorsed Kucinich for U.S. president.)

Obama’s policies, in contrast, are essentially centrist. Tax cuts for the middle class, a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, more regulation of financial institutions, help with healthcare – it’s all right down the middle of the road. In Virginia, for instance, he runs TV ads touting his support for gun owner’s rights and clean coal. These latter two positions don’t thrill Democratic partisans, but, again, Obama’s platform is about reaching out to the other side.

Which, when you think about it, is oddly similar to how Ubuntu has achieved its leading position.

Continued: Newbies swarm to Ubuntu

Over the last few years a legion of newbies have flooded into the previously tiny fiefdom of Linux, drawn in by Ubuntu (much as Obama drew in a robust legion of new voters). These Linux newcomers have swarmed to Ubuntu. And just as Obama’s rapid success created massive resentment – the Clintons in particular grumbled long and hard – Ubuntu’s magnetic appeal created deep resentment among some Linux partisans.

I remember back in 2006, it seemed like virtually every day a story about Ubuntu on Digg would get about 900 Diggs, because everyone was so excited about this young distro. And if you read through the comments, you’d see plenty of resentful Linux old-timers saying, “What, another story about Ubuntu?” Adding insult to injury, many newbies thought Ubuntu was Linux – they had no idea other flavors existed.

(Even worse, the history of Google searches reveals that Linux has been falling while Ubuntu has risen. Damn! It’s enough to make a Gentoo user’s blood boil!)

And how did Ubuntu attract its many fans? By reaching out to the other side, by realizing where the mainstream was and moving toward it. Ubuntu embraced the traditions of diehard Linux users and moderated them, creating a distribution capable of reaching a mass of users.

Historically, the phrase “user friendly” has never been synonymous with Linux. Instead it’s been a true computer enthusiast’s operating system. Diving into the OS and tweaking things was part of the pleasure – in fact it was required. Linux advocates, to promote migration, always explain, “If you get stuck you can get help in a forum,” as if trolling for help with a down PC is anything but a drag (and how do you get online when your machine won’t work?) Notice how they never say, “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t get stuck. Just point and click and it’ll take care of itself.”

But Ubuntu, even at its debut, made great strides toward the point and click user-friendly OS needed to reach the mainstream. At the time, Debian had only a text-based installer – sure, that’s ideologically true to the spirit of GNU, but it’s anything but an Obama-style gesture of inclusiveness. (There’s a joke that says that Ubuntu is a South African word meaning “can’t install Debian.”)

Indeed, Ubuntu’s original focus on the easy usability of proprietary OSes contrasted greatly with many distros. So much so that some diehard Linux users called Ubuntu the “dumbed down” distro.

For instance, here’s a forum comment by an experienced Linux user who complained about how simple Ubuntu has made things. He wrote:

“As a user's knowledge and experience go up there is a joy in getting under the hood of your system and completing more difficult tasks. I learnt a lot when my son and I set up a home network running a samba server and when we set up a firewall and gateway when we went onto a cable internet.

With standard Linux setup all information can be found easily so why does Ubuntu think it is making things simpler by doing things different.”

On one hand, that’s a sweet sentiment; he’s working on PC stuff with his son. But I would respectfully say, Sir, the vast majority of PC users take no joy in “more difficult” tasks; in fact, difficulty on their PC is something they curse. A home network running Samba? How about getting email to work?

When I spoke to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth a few months back, he noted that his goal is to push the Ubuntu GUI up to the level of Apple’s. He conceded that Ubuntu, at this point, isn’t quite there. “Our goal, very simply, is to make sure the Free software ecosystem can deliver a Mac OS-like experience,” he explained.

He was, in other words, acknowledging that Linux had to reach out, to transcend its traditional roots, if it is to reach a mainstream audience.

When was the last time you heard a Fedora user wishing that his distro’s GUI more closely resembled Apple’s? It’s possible that sentiment has never been voiced in the history of GNU.

Continued: Ideologues and pragmatists

Shuttleworth also spoke of a Ubuntu feature that breaks with the Linux orthodoxy: the distro’s Restricted Drivers Manager, which helps users install proprietary drivers. To the entrenched Linux faithful, this is apostasy. Proprietary software represents everything they’re against – for some, it’s the very reason they support Linux.

But, in a moderate stance that a gifted politician like Obama would be proud of, Ubuntu’s position on proprietary drivers is inclusive. Yes, Ubuntu is a true blue Linux distro, open source and proud. And yes, it also helps users who grew up in the larger world of closed source software.

Shuttleworth’s comments suggested that his decision hadn’t been an easy one. “It was controversial that Ubuntu was willing to ship drivers that included proprietary blobs,” he told me. “I dislike it, but I think it was the right decision.”

But why? Why does the well-crafted Ubuntu have to resort to including the dreaded closed source drivers?

The reason, Shuttleworth said, is that he feels very strongly that non-technical users be invited. “I’d like to be able to give Free software to my grandmother. And I’d like her to be able to put that CD in and have it come up on her computer. And I’d like her to experience all the power of Free software and thereby make a stronger economic case to the vendors to take Linux seriously.”

In short, his flexibility is not merely to sell out Linux’s core principles, but actually to further them by reaching out to a larger audience.

This one-world spirit runs throughout Ubuntu. For example, here’s an Obama-esque touch: the Ubuntu Women site, supported by Canonical, which encourages the work of women developers. In the overwhelmingly male software niche of Linux, Ubuntu Women is a progressive – and much needed – gesture of inclusiveness.

In the same vein is Ubuntu’s built-in tool to assist migration from Windows. While some Linux developers merely sneer at Windows users, Ubuntu welcomes them with a helping hand. If Obama were a software developer this would be one of the first things he’d do. The Illinois Senator never condescends toward Republicans; he once said Ronald Reagan had some good ideas – not an opinion you’d hear from Dennis Kucinich.

In the end, history is made by both the ideologues and the pragmatists, not by either acting alone. It’s shaped by both the Stallmans and the Shuttleworths, by the Kucinichs and the Obamas.

As to how, exactly, history will be shaped by either group of players is of course unclear at this point. The marketplace of PC users, like the American voters, will have the final say. We await the result.

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