7 Years of Ubuntu: Ubuntu Then and Now


Today marks seven years since Mark Shuttleworth announced Ubuntu 4.10. Dubbed “Warty Warthog,” Ubuntu 4.10 was a major departure from other Linux distros at the time. Seven years, and 15 releases, has brought a lot of change. Let’s take a look at how Ubuntu has grown from the new kid on the block to one of the most popular Linux distributions ever.

It seems like just yesterday when Ubuntu made its debut. Today, it’s hard to imagine a time when Ubuntu wasn’t a major part of the Linux landscape. When Ubuntu first appeared, though, it was not obvious to all that it would succeed.

First of all, Ubuntu did some things differently. Different is not always considered good, and some of the differences were not well-appreciated. For instance, Ubuntu was one of the first (if not the first) distributions designed so that users did administration using sudo instead of switching to the root user.

Ubuntu Warty Warthog (courtesy Wikipedia)Ubuntu also made a lot of decisions for the user. Instead of asking users which email client they wanted, which desktop, and so forth — Ubuntu just shipped default programs for all the standard desktop applications. You could, of course, install alternates from the package repositories. But the concept of making decisions for users was not widely accepted as a good thing.

The single-CD approach was also novel. Linux distros were judged in part by how much software they shipped. Ubuntu bucked that trend, and went for a single CD with a streamlined set of software. Users had the finest of open source at their fingertips: Firefox 0.9, OpenOffice.org 1.1.2, XFree86 4.3, and GNOME 2.8. Ubuntu isn’t the only thing that’s changed quite a bit in the last seven years!

What wasn’t entirely new was Ubuntu’s Debian base. Before Shuttleworth and company announced Ubuntu, we’d already seen a parade of desktop-oriented distributions that used Debian. Lindows (later Linspire), Stormix, Corel Linux, and many others tried and failed to gain traction. Ubuntu, and Canonical, did a few things that the prior efforts did not.

Community, Free, Available

First and probably most important for Ubuntu adoption, was the decision that Ubuntu would be freely available. No premium version that costs money, no subscriptions required, and no restrictions on passing on the distribution to friends. Free is a really hard price point to compete against — and Ubuntu quickly eclipsed other desktop distributions due to that.

But it wasn’t just free. Ubuntu gained a foothold by not only being freely distributed. Initially, Canonical seeded the market with tons of free Ubuntu CDs via the ShipIt program. This made an enormous difference for a lot of first-time Linux users and users with limited bandwidth. Remember, in 2004 the broadband situation was even worse than it is today. Many people didn’t have the ability to quickly download 700MB of data. Even for those folks who did have broadband, burning an ISO to CD was a big task for a lot of users. Windows didn’t come with a proper utility for burning CDs, and every minor hurdle between getting and installing Linux meant losing users. Ubuntu removed at least a few of the hurdles for millions of users. The company hasn’t disclosed exactly how much ShipIt cost to run, but you can bet it was in the millions over the years.

The other thing that set Ubuntu apart from many other distributions was the focus on end users and not developers and highly technical users. There was also the fairly new idea of being aggressively friendly to new users. All of this worked in Ubuntu’s favor.


As Ubuntu caught on, it started gaining fans who liked everything about Ubuntu — except the GNOME desktop. KDE fans felt left out, but not for long. The first variant of Ubuntu appeared with the Ubuntu 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog) release. It included KDE 3.4 and was the first of many Ubuntu variants that featured different desktops or different package sets.

Since its inception, Ubuntu has included Xfce (Xubuntu), LXDE (Lubuntu), and eventually branched out into server releases, and Long Term Support (LTS) releases.

Ubuntu Server

The first LTS release was 6.06. You might note that the version number looks a bit different than the usual *.04 and *.10 release numbers. That’s because the decision to make “Dapper Drake” an LTS didn’t come until part-way through the development cycle.

Since Canonical promised support for the LTS releases beyond the usual lifecycle (3 years for desktop, 5 for server), it was decided that Dapper needed a bit more polish before sending it out the door.

The first official server release came out in October 2005. It included a different kernel optimized for servers, and (of course) a different selection of software optimized for server use.

Hardware Comes, Hardware Goes

If you peer into the Wayback Machine, you’ll remember that PC hardware was a little bit different. Apple was still selling PowerPC-based machines, and a fair percentage of users (Linus Torvalds included) had the PowerPC bug for a time.

Ubuntu’s Warty release shipped with support for x86, AMD64, and PowerPC. It dropped PowerPC support in 2007 a while after Apple dropped PowerPC support in the face of dwindling PowerPC usage.

Along the way, though, Ubuntu picked up support for ARM and is now looking at ARM chips as a major area for expansion.

The Desktop Split

Ubuntu has been immensely popular over the years with the Linux community, but it’s not been without controversy. One of the most controversial decisions is (ironically) the Unity desktop shell.Ubuntu 11.10 with Unity Desktop

For most of its life, Ubuntu has featured a fairly stock GNOME desktop – including the standard GNOME interface. However, with the introduction of Unity and GNOME 3.0, Ubuntu moved away from the default interface. Instead of using GNOME Shell, the new interface shipped with GNOME 3.0, Canonical pushed for Unity. Unity was initially targeted at netbook computers – but has since had its role expanded for all desktops and laptops.

The Cloud and Beyond

The desktop may be Ubuntu’s initial claim to fame, but it’s not the final frontier. These days, a lot of the action in Ubuntu is going on in the cloud. We looked at Juju the other day, which made its debut in Ubuntu 10.10. Juju takes packaging to the next level. While APT makes installing software easy, Juju is supposed to be the APT for services. It allows admins to “package” the processes of setting up services so that it’s easy to automate setting up services.

Ubuntu is also integrating OpenStack, and doing a lot of other work to make Ubuntu a preferred distribution for cloud computing.

Today, Shuttleworth posted his thoughts about the upcoming LTS release. Ubuntu 12.04, says will be a “carrier-grade” cloud infrastructure and guest OS. To achieve this, Shuttleworth says that 12.04 will feature the next major OpenStack release, and focus on support for “cloud-oriented hardware.” Ubuntu will also be positioned to be a good guest on Amazon Web Services and other cloud platforms.

Ubuntu 12.04 will also feature a lot of polish for the Unity desktop, including better support for multiple monitors. (Which some might argue should have been a use case from the beginning…)

Even if you’re not an Ubuntu user, it’s worth taking a few minutes and looking at the progress that the distribution has made in seven short years. From a handful of users that braved Warty on their desktops, to millions of users that use Ubuntu on netbooks, laptops, desktops, servers, and in the cloud — Ubuntu’s growth has been pretty impressive.