Stealing Ubuntu's top spot will be less about the specific distribution and more about being realistic about what new Linux users actually need from the computing experience.
Many people are looking to Ubuntu to be something that it is not: A mass market ready operating system designed to work with the same level of compatibility as Microsoft Windows.
Where people get confused is in believing that if Ubuntu, king of the Linux distros, is not able to take the marketplace by storm, then something must be broken with desktop Linux. In this article, Ill explain what it will take to dethrone the mighty Ubuntu and gain a market share so large that it will eclipse anything seen by Ubuntu to date.
Success with geeks does not equal marketplace dominances
Despite some fantastic efforts by the folks at PCLinuxOS and the Fedora team, Ubuntu remains in the lead when you learn to look past the inconsistencies of services like Distrowatch stats. I remain firm in my belief that Ubuntu is the top dog with regard to user numbers for two simple reasons.
1. Third party resources like Envy, Automatix and GetDeb.net. Long before Ubuntu Feisty or Gutsy were on the scene, these three products allowed relative newbies a smoother migration over to their new chosen Linux distro.
2. Successfully maintaining a balancing act with both purists and casual users alike with regard to restricted firmware and codecs. I realize that Fedora 8 has come along recently with their successful CodecBuddy functionality, however I believe the PCLinuxOS team still expects users to know what theyre searching for to get their restricted codecs. Most users still prefer a simple GUI wizard.
Dethroning a Linux distribution that has yet to achieve OS dominance in the first place
Ubuntu has a long way to go before catching up to other closed source operating systems with regard to GUI usability. Understand that I am not speaking as a Windows user. I have been a Linux user for a number of years now and happen to use Ubuntu full time. Having said this, I remain practical about what most people are looking for generally usability.
For any Linux distribution to become remotely successful in the "non-geeky" world, it will mean developers catering to people who never want to hear the words configure, tweak, alter or update ever again.
Recent efforts with products like the gOS PC, Zonbu and the Asus Eee show promise in taking an otherwise difficult market easier to penetrate, and making Linux a serious contender. The successful formula is leaning away from software politics, embracing the idea of a Green PC and perhaps most importantly making sure the hardware works as bundled with the software.
To me, dethroning Ubuntu is less about doing it with the specific distribution and more about being realistic about what new Linux users actually need from the overall computing experience. Most of them could care less about open source licensing. These users simply want a cheaper alternative to Vista and OS X. And because this is where Ubuntu differs in vision, Ubuntu developers will continue to be a runaway hit with computer geeks, yet a total failure in the market without some sort of realistic OEM-type intervention to get the distro onto standardized hardware.
And no, Dell does not count. They have done nothing to promote Ubuntu whatsoever.
Ubuntu has other problems as well. For example, I grow tired of having to act as an apologist for totally avoidable bugs. Allowing easily avoidable issues to roll out into release status will not win you a mainstream market share, much less that of the enterprise market.
Imagine if the new XO notebooks (one Laptop Per Child project) were running with Ubuntu's bug list! I can see the teachers now, explaining to the students that they cannot use certain software or connect to the Wifi because the latest update broke something in the OS. Give me a break.
Ubuntu will remain an OS best suited to people like myself who are comfortable editing a config file or two until better checks and balances are put into place for newer users. This, obviously, leaves the door open for other distributions to pick up the slack. But are they up to the challenge?
Continued: Fedora 8, PCLinuxOS and other unlucky contenders
PCLinuxOS a real contender for top dog?
While PCLinuxOS provides a really slick control panel, I simply cannot get my mind around the overall value of it. Despite what their users claim, I have used two different releases and honestly, it is no better than Simply Mepis or Knoppix with regard to overall usability. It provides a gorgeous desktop feel, yet lacks overall OS usability to get me to drop Ubuntu. A shiny control panel and KDE is not going to win me over.
The latest version of PCLinuxOS however, has seen fair progress with proprietary video card driver installation thanks to dkms-nvidia. It is not nearly as slick as Ubuntu's restricted driver manager, but it is progress nonetheless.
With stronger focus on cleaning up the documentation, a more reliable means of installing proprietary video drivers, PCLinuxOS could become a serious threat to Ubuntu over time. The distribution takes the best from Mandriva and works hard to make sure that everything is as manageable as possible, considering its slower release schedule. If Kubuntu (Ubuntu with KDE) users are looking for something new and different, PCLinuxOS makes a lot of sense.
Fedora 8 so very close, but too geeky even still
Speaking of RPM-based Linux distributions, I would also point to Fedora 8 as being a very serious threat to the Ubuntu desktop. Unlike Ubuntu however, their implementation of a restricted module installer is limited to codecs only. I think it is awesome that they are asking people to pay for them rather than simply looking the other way with a weak legal warning.
Why? Because here in the U.S., proprietary operating systems have already paid these bills for the user, so I see no reason why U.S.-based Linux users should be any different.
Another area that Fedora rocks with is their out-of-the-box release of Pulse Audio. The new sound system allows users complete audio control for each individual application being used at any given time. This is something that Ubuntu has yet to provide without extra apt-get installation and tweaking. Serious props to the Fedora team for this.
Where Fedora falls short, however, is with their offering of the GNOME desktop. Nautilus (the file manager), when used from the Places menu or with a self created folder, provides zero options for a location bar to browse to different areas of the desktop. Yet if you go to Nautilus from Applications, System Tools, the provided link to Nautilus there does provide the needed location bar how about some consistency here!
Continued: What dethroning Ubuntu will finally require
Linux desktop users have a lot of options: Everything from preconfigured systems running specialized implementation of Linux distributions to popular stand alone distros like PCLinuxOS and Fedora. Which of these options will finally dethrone Ubuntu once and for all? Would we be shocked to hear that it will not be a distribution of Linux in the literal sense?
Success will be had by providing a standardized platform like we have seen with gOS on Everex PCs sold at Wal-Mart. gOS is using Google's branding to make the OS seem like something that users have been wanting for a very long time to magically appear and compete against Microsoft Windows.
At the end of the day, Zonbu wins over gOS, as their products provide restricted codecs out of the box and it requires ZERO tweaking to get anything working. In short, I believe it will be Zonbu-like products that will overthrow Ubuntu as we know it today.
Also, Linux products that provide Flash and Java out of the box. Violating the GPL, you say? Maybe, but I have seen a few companies doing this successfully and ensuring some level of compliance by making their own source code available. They key to success is actually simple. A low price point, plenty of recognizable software, and the ability to use their PCs as users see fit.