People have been saying for a long time that there are too many Linux distros, and yet that didn't stop Mark Shuttleworth from launching Ubuntu in the crowded Debian spin-off market five years ago. What made Ubuntu succeed where Libranet, Corel Linux, Storm Linux and others had failed?
Some might argue that having half a billion dollars in your bank account was a good start, but we think Ubuntu's success can be wrapped up in one quote from Mark Shuttleworth: "I firmly believe that there's nothing an open source team can't do - except do everything." That is, Ubuntu works because it dedicates a lot of effort to refining the complete product rather than individual parts.
Well, to celebrate the release of Ubuntu 9.04 "Jaunty Jackalope" we're going to kick off a three-part celebration of this tenth release of the world's most popular distro with a quick look back at the highs and lows over the years, complete with lots of PDFs from Linux Format magazine from our archives. We've also gone back and installed all ten Ubuntu releases to discover just how much performance has changed over the years.
Along with this article, we've also posted an exclusive interview with Mark Shuttleworth about his favourite features in Ubuntu 9.04 plus a frankenreview of Ubuntu 9.04 that brings together opinion from across the web - check them out!
The Hog releases
Ubuntu 4.10 "Warty Warthog" kicked off the party way back in October 2004 (read the release announcement), and back then was designed to be a fork of Debian that released every six months with the latest software. Getting things off to a good start, Ubuntu was the first distribution to ship Gnome 2.8, and also included Gimp 2.0, Firefox 0.9 and OpenOffice.org 1.1 alongside it to form what was at the time a truly cutting-edge distro.
At a time when many other distros were intent on maxing out DVDs, Ubuntu took the unusual step of shipping on a single CD, and even then only used 523MB of the available space. Even though the installation was still done using a command line, it was at least fairly streamlined - you could be up and running with a new Ubuntu system in under 20 minutes.
New as it was, Ubuntu 4.10 received only a few hundred words in Linux Format at the time, amongst a distro group test covering Fedora, SUSE, Gentoo and others. At the time, we said, "new distros come and go, but Ubuntu is likely to stay if this release is anything to go by."
Click here to read the full Ultimate Distros feature.
Early adopters of Ubuntu will remember the early days fondly.
Installing from the command line? Yup, that was Ubuntu 4.10. It's amazing what five years can do...
Back then, Ubuntu really was *brown*, rather than orange tints we're more used to now.
Ubuntu 5.04 "Hoary Hedgehog" came along in April 2005 (read the release notes) and brought with it performance and maintainance features along with upgrades to Gnome 2.10 and Firefox 1.0. Along with most other distros at the time, Ubuntu also dumped XFree86 4.3 for X.org, and hasn't looked back since. For performance lovers, readahead was introduced to help speed boot time by pre-loading files that are need for the computer to start, and processing frequency scaling was introduced to ensure that laptops were power-efficient when under less load. Laptop users also had a healthy boost from the inclusion of suspend, standard and hibernation support as standard.
One of the key new features in 5.04 was the update manager, which is still being used in even the latest Ubuntu releases. It was never designed to replace Synaptic, but instead to reduce the complexity of system upgrades to a single mouse click, and its simplicity has been copied extensively in other distros.
But arguably the most important change in 5.04 was the inclusion of Kubuntu for the first time. Described by Canonical at the time as "easy to manage" and "packed full of useful applications and lots of great eye candy," Kubuntu has grown to become a central part of Ubuntu and arguably one of the most refined KDE-based distros available.
When Linux Format devoted a two-page review to this release, the team said, "Ubuntu still suffers from Debian-like problems - where are the configuration tools? Even if you hate Yast at least it's obvious where to go to add a printer," but concluding that Ubuntu is "powerful and extremely usable" and "has much to offer both new and old users."
Read the Linux Format review of Ubuntu 5.04 here.
With feedback from end users, Ubuntu 5.04 was a bit easier on the eye than its predecessor.
One thing that didn't change - and still hasn't - is that 5.04 didn't duplicate functionality: you get one of everything.
LXF meets Mark
While Ubuntu 5.10 was under heavy development, we visited the Ubuntu Benevolent Dictator for Life, Mark Shuttleworth, and asked him a few questions about Ubuntu. click here to read the full interview with Mark Shuttleworth, or just enjoy these choice quotes:
- "I have the privileges of getting cracking on it earlier on, rather than getting to 70 and thinking, "What am I going to do with my loot, because I can't stand my children!" "
- "I considered standing for Debian Project Leader, but I figured that there's another way to have the same effect really, and that is to create something that really executes the vision."
- "One of the reasons I decided not to do this within Debian was because I firmly believe that there's nothing an open source team can't do - except do everything."
- "Open source guys have had diff, patch and email for many years, and what have they produced? They've produced this incredible thing called Linux."
The path towards LTS
Ubuntu 5.10 "Breezy Badger" marked Ubuntu's third release in October 2005 (read the release notes), bringing with it a Usplash-based graphical boot, Gnome 2.12 and a beta as OpenOffice.org 2.0 - albeit a very stable beta. Building on the ease of use of Update Manager, 5.10 introduced a new Add/Remove Applications tool for managing software, meaning that newer users could live without Synaptic entirely if they wanted to.
On the desktop, Alacarte (Gnome's menu editor, also known as Simple Menu Editor for Gnome until people starting laughing at the name "SMEG") was included along with Serpentine (since replaced by Brasero). Some trivia for you: the codename was almost going to be Bendy Badger. so next time you hear a strange Ubuntu codename that you don't like, remember that it could get worse!
In its review, Linux Format said, "Ubuntu gets better and better with each update and it will be exciting to see what the effort promised for 6.04 will produce." Sadly the .04 part wasn't to be hit...
Read the Linux Format review of Ubuntu 5.10 here.
Having the Add Applications program easily available made it easier to manage software, 5.10 was easily the darkest Ubuntu yet
The Ubuntu boot menu was revamped for 5.10, making the new Ubuntu look uniform with its Usplash art.
Ubuntu 6.06 "Dapper Drake" arrived on the 1st of June in 2006 (read the release notes), and is easily the most important Ubuntu release to date. Not only was it the first Long Term Support (LTS) release (although that support will finally expire in June this year for), but it also included the now-ubiquitous Live CD install process and the new Ubiquity graphical installer (this Ubiquity, not this one). Alongside these features were smaller, but equally welcome, others: NetworkManager made its first appearance (and is still going strong), GDebi was introduced to handle single package installation, and Usplash was extended to work on system shutdown as well as startup.
By this point, Ubuntu had already carved out a sizeable part of the Linux distro market for itself, so the stable and long-term release of 6.06 meant that closed-source vendors were able to create packages for Ubuntu that were guaranteed to work for some time. And with Xubuntu bringing Xfce to join the Gnome and KDE party, even more people could enjoy Ubuntu just as they wanted it.
In its two page review of 6.06, Linux Format's conclusion was "the best release yet from the Ubuntu camp. Go try it now and don't look back."
Read the Linux Format review of Ubuntu 6.06 here.
Ubuntu 6.06 provided a smart boot screen that would serve the distro well for some time to come.
The new graphical installer made Ubuntu a cinch to install even for the newest users.
The first LTS Ubuntu had an all-new look - the rounded window corners and orange tints are now mainstays of the distro.
Follow your dreams!
To celebrate the first long-term release of Ubuntu, Linux Format ran a cover feature "Ubuntu Forever", which chronicled the rise and rise of the distro, had another interview with Mark Shuttleworth, and even had a reader competition to win a T-shirt signed by Mark with the words "follow your dreams"!
Click here to read the full Ubuntu Forever feature.
Sharper than ever
Ubuntu 6.10 "Edgy Eft" went live late in October 2006 (read the release notes) aimed to follow the super-stable (and uncharacteristically delayed) 6.06 with a cutting-edge release, and even though it had a short development timeframe it certainly didn't disappoint: Gnome 2.16 brought with it the first fruits of window compositing in Metacity and, crucially, Tomboy. Now you're probably thinking that Tomboy is just a simple note-taking app, but for Gnome to accept Tomboy as an official part of the desktop meant it also had to accept Mono and Gtk# bindings, which is why 6.10 also opted to include the Mono-based F-Spot photo album app.
Although other apps such as Firefox 2.0 and Gaim 2.0 (still in beta at the time) made it into Edgy, the real highlight of this release was Upstart - an all-new replacement for the old sysvinit scripts that had long been standard. Of course, the initial deployment of Upstart was entirely in compatibility mode, and even today is a long way from being finished, but it has since been adopted into Fedora so support is definitely growing over time. When people noticed Ubuntu 6.10 often booted faster than 6.06, they usually attributed it to Upstart, but really most boot performance boosts came from switching from Bash to Dash for the default shell - a move that broke some scripts, but proved to be worth it in the long term.
Choosing to pitch Ubuntu 6.10 against Fedora 6 for a real comparison of features, Linux Format's conclusion was "usually we are effusive in our praise of Ubuntu, but this time it is more restrained. So is this a poor product? Just the opposite: Dapper Drake was an exceptional release and so is this. It might not feel as edgy as Fedora, but that is only because the Fedora Project has had so much further to come."
Click here to read the full Ubuntu 6.10 review.
Ubuntu 6.10 included Gnome 2.16 and thus Mono. Some people still regret this choice...
Ubuntu 7.04 "Feisty Fawn" sprung into existence in April 2007 (read the release notes) and was a controversial release for two primary releases: support for the PowerPC architecture was dropped, and the restricted drivers and codecs wizards were added - ifinstalling support for Flash, Java and MP3s was hard before, 7.04 took nearly all that pain away.
With the addition of easy installation for Nvidia and ATI drivers, 7.04 was also the first release where Compiz really came into its own, much to the distaste of Free Software purists who refused to install closed-source drivers. But there were several features that everyone could celebrate: Ubuntu took its first steps toward supporting virtualisation with KVM, the new Windows migration assistant made it easier than ever for people to move Windows users to Linux, and Zeroconf support brought ad-hoc networking to the masses.
In its preview, Linux Format wasn't too impressed with 7.04, calling it "a solid if somewhat conservative release", recommending that "unless you're having problems with proprietary drivers, perhaps stick with 6.10."
Click here to read the full Linux Format review of Ubuntu 7.04
Ubuntu 7.04 made it easy to install support for MP3, DivX, WMV and more.
The Feisty Fawn desktop will look remarkably familiar to people installing Jaunty, despite the two-year time difference.
Building a better Ubuntu
In the lull between Ubuntu 7.04 and 7.10, Linux Format ran a cover feature, "Building a better Ubuntu", that aimed to give readers a behind-the-scenes look at how the distro was produced and how easy it was to spin off your own version with unique changes. We've put the Building a Better Ubuntu feature online for you to read right here.
The "modern" era of Ubuntu
Ubuntu 7.10 "Gutsy Gibbon" escaped into the wild on 18 October 2007 (read the release notes) and only recently finished its support life. Unlike the frenzy of new features introduced in 6.10 and 7.04, 7.10 had few killer features. Sure, there was AppArmor, Deskbar and fast user switching, but these didn't really capture the imagination like previous releases. The two saving graces were Compiz Fusion, which continued to push the envelope in desktop effects, and NTFS-3g, which enabled read/write support for Windows partitions. In the grand pantheon of Ubuntu releases, 7.10 is unlikely to stand out.
To review Ubuntu 7.10, Linux Format put it against the OpenSUSE and Mandriva releases of the day, and, despite "a faint feeling of disappointment", said that 7.10 "has the slickest experience, and has to be the best choice for new and intermediate users."
Ubuntu 7.10 brought with it Deskbar, which wasn't half as good back then as it was now. Still, NTFS-3g was nice to have...
Ubuntu 8.04 "Hardy Heron" flew the nest in April 2008 (read the release notes) as Canonical's second LTS release and injected some much-needed momentum into the distro. Along with core functionality changes such as the introduction of PulseAudio, 8.04 also brought with it Tracker desktop search, the Transmission BitTorrent client and Vinagre for VNC. But great as these changes were, the real boost for new users was the introduction of Wubi, which allowed Ubuntu to be installed and uninstalled using a simple Windows user interface - suddenly anyone could install and use Ubuntu without worrying about how to get rid of it if it didn't work and without having to go cold turkey on their Windows life.
No retrospective of Ubuntu 8.04 would be complete without mentioning the fact that it shipped with a beta of Firefox 3.0 - and not a very stable beta, either. Although many questioned this choice at the beginning (particularly when the Firefox beta crashed), it was simple economics: as an LTS release 8.04 would have to be supported for a long time, meaning that it would be increasingly hard to backport fixes to Firefox 2.0 over time.
Ubuntu 8.04 is probably the most popular Linux distro so far - its long-term support status means that it will continue to be used for years to come in servers, and, let's face it, it did have some cracking artwork.
Ubuntu 8.04 got a lot of things right, but this wasn't one of them: choosing your timezone could be remarkably trick if you had a sensitive mouse.
Ubuntu 8.10 "Intrepid Ibex" takes us up to the latest Ubuntu release before Jaunty arrived today, being released in October 2008 (read the release notes). Despite the optimistic-sounding name, Intrepid wasn't the most exciting release around, but did act to stabilise and refine the incredibly popular 8.04 release. With support for creating USB flash drive images out of the box, encrypted private directories and Dell's Dynamic Kernel Module Support, 8.04 was largely a release that improved things that were less visible to end users.
One of the few truly innovative user-facing features is support for guest sessions direct from the fast user switcher applet - clicking this creates a temporary user account that can't commit any changes to disk, making it perfect for letting someone use your computer for a few minutes without giving them access to your personal files.
Ubuntu 8.10 included support to make bootable USB flash drives out of the box.
Change in motion
Seeing as the old Compuserve patent expired long ago, we figured it was high time we resurrected our animated GIF skills to compare Ubuntu 4.10's desktop with 9.04. So, here's a ten-frame GIF showing all 10 versions of Ubuntu in action - enjoy!
Ubuntu 4.10 to 9.04 in animated GIF form - hurrah!
How it performs
It's impossible to tell how well Jaunty will do on the desktop without extensive testing, but we can at least compare it to its fore-runners in terms of boot speed, install footprint and memory usage. In short, Jaunty boots faster than any other Ubuntu to date, while also having the lowest memory usage of any Ubuntu in the last two years. Here are the graphs - we've put a trend line in red so you can really see how impressive Jaunty is:
The trend is clearly downwards thanks to continued work on optimisation and refinement of the boot process, but Jaunty still manages to pull in ahead of the curve.
Install footprint has stabilised at 2.2GB, which is pretty much as far as it can go until better compression algorithms are invented or Ubuntu switches to a DVD.
After reaching highs of 150MB in Intrepid, Jaunty lives up to its name by cutting memory usage under 100MB for a stock Gnome desktop.
What do you think...?
Are we overrating 6.06, underrating 7.10, or just blowing Ubuntu way out of proportion? If you switched to Ubuntu, when did you do it? If you've subsequently abandoned Ubuntu, what pushed you away?
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