Is Ubuntu’s Popularity Declining? The Answer is Yes... and No

Mint, which just released its latest version (Linux Mint 12 Lisa), has become the most popular Linux distribution on DistroWatch. Seizing the top spot from Ubuntu, the GNOME 3-based distro has evolved from a mere spin to a serious competitor to Canonical’s flagship product. As Mint continues to dominate DistroWatch, some journalists have already come to a conclusion that Ubuntu is no longer the most popular distro around. How true is that claim? Is Ubuntu’s popularity really declining? The answer to both these questions is Yes and No.

Yes, Ubuntu’s popularity is declining, but Mint’s not to blame.

With Unity, Ubuntu managed to annoy a lot of its loyal users. Regular Linux users, who relished the comfort of a clean simplistic UI, were presented with something entirely different and confusing. With Ocelot, Canonical did manage to alleviate many of those issues. However, Unity still remains a punching bag for longtime Linux users. Since there’s no denying that Unity’s complexities have coerced veteran Linuxians to look for better alternatives, many of them have found comfort in the familiar freshness of Mint and are probably never looking back. So, if Ubuntu’s popularity is declining, it’s here; it is the faithful Linux user who’s quitting the distro.

Having said that, Ubuntu’s popularity decline might not be something Canonical should worry about right now. Mint, though popular and better than the Unity-ridden distro, is still unknown to the average user who’s trying to escape the shackles of a world with Windows. Over the years, Ubuntu has gained a lot of popularity among Windows users, and to them, it’s still the virus-free magic pill that they can load onto a USB drive and impress their friends. Moreover, Ubuntu has a vast repertoire of support tools like Ask Ubuntu and Ubuntu Forums, which assure the user that if anything goes wrong, there’s a huge community backing you.

If you check out Ubuntu’s website, it’s far more appealing and inviting than Linux Mint’s homepage. Furthermore, Ubuntu has its very own cloud service, music store and even training courses that have been quite popular lately. Overall, it goes without saying that Ubuntu is still a behemoth in the wild distroland, and to topple it, ain’t that easy.

What about those lost users then?

As I mentioned before, Canonical shouldn’t worry about those lost users right now. They may be 100, 1000 or even a million, the number just doesn’t matter. If they manage to pull off something impressive with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin, I’m sure almost 90% of those users would hop back on to Unityland. For veteran Linux users, switching distros isn’t a big deal. So, if Ubuntu does come out with something spectacular and useful of course, they’ll definitely switch back.

So, what about Unity then?

Many journalists have attributed Ubuntu’s much-hyped ‘decline’ to the contentious Unity interface. We all know what Unity is, what a launcher is, what global menu does, and how bad all that looks. But hey, does the average Windows user who has just started exploring Ubuntu know about these terms? Moreover, does he or she even care about them? Users just want a desktop that works for them. If they find it attractive and easy-to-use, they’ll download and use it. In short, Unity isn’t a cross Canonical has to bear for the rest of its life. It’s just a small feature of the desktop that needs some work.

Oh but DistroWatch says…

Since when did DistroWatch become the ultimate authority on a distribution’s popularity? Do they check each and every computer and see if users have switched to Mint? The answer is No. Currently, there is no way of telling whether a user has switched to Mint or any other distribution. Also, considering the fact that Ubuntu comes pre-installed on many laptops (see: Affordable Ubuntu Laptops) - its user base is undoubtedly much bigger than Mint. What’s more, the UbuntuOne client, which recently released its Windows version, is bringing in many new users to Ubuntu. So that, coupled with Ubuntu’s brand, still make it the no 1 Linux distribution around.

Written by: Abhishek, a regular TechSource contributor and a long-time FOSS advocate.


  1. I'm still stuck at 10.10 because I don't want to try Unity. It may be a great UI, but I resent being told I *must* change, when Gnome is working well for me.

  2. themainlinerDecember 06, 2011

    I think you're mistaken, the problem with the Global Menu is not that it's unfamiliar to veteran Gnome 2.x users. The problem with Global Menu's is that they divorce functionality from application windows. This is confusing to Windows users particularly. They will look to Linux to behave in a way superficial like Windows and not in a manner they find counter-intuitive.

    Once again the Unity argument is reduced to that of a "fresh, modern" interface shocking a entrenched and inflexible sub-set of users. I love new tech, I play with it and if it works and is productive I stick with it. As I did with Gnome 2 when jumping ship from XP.

  3. You might want to take a look at this..

  4. I think Ubuntu has still some technical advantage over Mint. Ubuntu has better bug reporting system, better support for DVD distribution, etc. This is something I miss in Mint distribution. I still keep Ubuntu 11.04 at my production desktop machine.

  5. Red Hat is the NHL, Ubuntu is the AHL, and Mint is PeeWee. There is so much more that goes into building a distro than repackaging someones work. Mint is a short-term distro that doesn't have the infrastructure to maintain its user-base. Ubuntu now has enough employees and has the infrastructure in place to start to make some moves. Canonical tried to do this early, which failed. Remember Ubuntu Remix...kind of like what Mint 12 is. Mint should adopt standard Gnome3 as their default. It is the best option since they are so small.

  6. I think you miss the point. A distribution is in serious trouble if its most knowledgeable users start leaving it enmasse to other distributions. The people who switch are the ones who are aware of other distributions and are capable of making that switch. These are the same people who answer questions on bulletin boards, help companies make a decision on what distribution to use, help friends and family with installations and so on. They may also help with bug reporting, fixing issues and so on. This is the last group of people you want leaving the system.

  7. Distrowatch is not the be all and end all.

    I'm running xubuntu. it is great. based on ubuntu with xfce4 instead of unity.

  8. "If they manage to pull off something impressive with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin, I’m sure almost 90% of those users would hop back on to Unityland. For veteran Linux users, switching distros isn’t a big deal. So, if Ubuntu does come out with something spectacular and useful of course, they’ll definitely switch back."

    Ugh.. No. Not at all. It's not just Unity. It's the fact that no one was forwarned about the upcoming changes. One day our buttons moved from the right to the left, the next we had a different desktop. Within a week we were told if you don't like it, don't use it.

    There isn't much that will coherse Linux users back at all. The only way I personally would be interested is if the leader opologized to the community and outright dropped all development on Unity. Remove the Unity desktop, and provide a stable less buggy platform. All of this sounds a bit far fetched and not apt to happen. Jumping back on the sinking Ubuntu boat isn't an option for many. We need to know that the desktop isn't going to flip out and try to alter the way we do things. And the leader of the tribe need be less of a dictator for this to happen.

    Just cannot agree with the article. There are other areas of disagreement, but this is the more glaring position that I don't believe would become a reality.

  9. While your basicaly right, longtime Linux users is bit off here. Simply because longtime users, such as myself, have long abandoned the Ubuntu Os directly. Since it has spawned a plethera of re-spins which do away with the Unity issue, long before any of us saw it. Linux Mint is okay, but well I've discovered PinguyOS, ZorinOS, Ultimate EditionOS, and so many others that most mainstream journalist ignore. So believe me, Distrowatch provides access to these re-spins, as do several other sites. When I steer folks to use Linux these days I am more prone to set them up with any number of these Ubuntu derivatives..

  10. It is in theory possible to move through a drastic change of direction, and GUI, without setting many people *against* you. OK, life happens, upset happens, sometimes things get painful. But the worst reactions can be avoided by explaining reasons openly, and being energetically up front with a 'we are sorry, this really has got to happen, although we did not mean nor want to cause hurt'. The public relations side of Ubuntu has allowed a situation where there is an appearance of coldness, even arrogance. It would be good if this could be corrected from a high level.

  11. I am also stuck at 11.04. I am checking other distros and will not be back to Ubuntu. Six of my windows friend whom I got to use Ubuntu went back to win 7 at 11.10. I started using Ubuntu back at 6 and love it. The reason I went to it is now gone. Instead of a choice, it is now a closed door. 100% lost in my circle of friends. In the last six months I have tried 8 different distros and the only one I may use is Fedora 16, if not back to windows 7 and if win 8 is like their stupid pre beta 8 then it is back to Unix.

  12. In case anyone is keeping score. I switched to mint. After years of being with ubuntu, Having Unity was like having annoying in-laws moving in and staying. What mint has done is nothing short of "Fantastic!!!" Renewed love of linux and gnome. I've actually installed it on 3 newbs computers for them. They have happily switched from Microsoft products. I'm sorry for contradicting the main article, but something as well done as Mint Lisa will definitely attract much word of mouth. The same thing that rose ubuntu to behemoth size in the beginning.

  13. As I mentioned before, Canonical shouldn’t worry about those lost users right now. They may be 100, 1000 or even a million, the number just doesn’t matter. If they manage to pull off something impressive with Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin, I’m sure almost 90% of those users would hop back on to Unityland. For veteran Linux users, switching distros isn’t a big deal. So, if Ubuntu does come out with something spectacular and useful of course, they’ll definitely switch back.

    I might be mistaken, but I'm part of the penguin culture for about 13 years now and in that time I've come to know that trust lost is very, very hard to gain back. Everything is judged on transparancy, collaboration and merit. Painful transitions are accepted if there is merit in the end result. Temporary screw ups are accepted if projects are open and transparant about it.

    Going it alone, being authoritarian without merit and acting behind closed doors is the kiss of death in penguin land. Canonical might think that having a Self-appointed (Benevolent) Dictator For Life is beneficial to drive through harebrained ideas, but in reality it isn't.

    The "buttons left" debacle alone was damaging enough. It wasn't even the actual placement of the buttons that was the problem. It was the arrogant attitude of Canonical that did the most damage. They placed the buttons left and made some vague allusions of wanting to use the spot on the right for some innovative functionality. When people started pressing them about the nature of that innovative functionality, the response (roughly) was: "We don't know yet, shut up and get with the program!" By the way, we're still waiting for that innovative functionality.

    < sarcasm > If we didn't know any better, we could conclude the reason for the buttons left was to just resemble Mac OS some more. < /sarcasm >

    Unity may be the straw that breaks the camels back. Canonical has proven that they are unwilling to cater to the broadest possible userbase by selecting the most widely accepted software. Canonical may have a large amount of residual brand image. They may feel that they are hot with some OEM's. They may even think they can force the course of the Linux eco-system. What they don't realize is that Linux on the home front is still very much a matter of listening to a longtime Linux user on what to use on the desktop.

    Guess what the solid core of knowledgeable Linux users did for Ubuntu? We recommended it to every possible switcher. Guess what the group of knowledgeable Linux users, who left Ubuntu over the shenanigans, do now? Recommend anything but Ubuntu.

    I guess we'll see how well money bleeding Canonical fares with vexing their most valuable users and how much difference voluntary community marketing really makes.

  14. If I could have been so elequent to write as this long time linux user has done "r_a_trip" just above this post. I would have written just as he had done. Very well written.

    I too have used Linux for over 13 years. Long before an average individual could install and get past an fdisk.
    I am absoultely appalled at how Cononical has handled themselves since Ubuntu 11.04.

    I thank "r_a_trip" for being a bit better than I would be at trying to bring the important points across and believe this writing says exactly what I feel about it.

    Thank you "r_a_trip" for being polite and eloquent about this situation.

  15. I tried Unity for a while on my S10-3t, and really it wasn't bad for the small screen. I switched back to Arch with a minimal X11 installation because I value fast booting and low memory usage, not so much because of Unity's usability. But I tend to think of it as more of a tablet and netbook UI. The "program manager" that takes over your whole screen when you open it doesn't make sense on a big screen. I like KDE's app menu better: I find myself using search most of the time to launch apps rather than going through the hierarchy. So really I think a Spotlight-style search (one that really works, without taking lots of CPU, disk and memory for its database... this has not been written yet!) plus a panel from which I can launch a few favorite apps is what I want. And I like to keep the task list separate from the panel - because there's a difference between finding one of the myriad windows I've already got open, and launching another one. KDE continues to get me closer to what I want than Gnome, although it's too much of a pig to run on my netbook.

    I really like the global menubar in Ubuntu. Too bad that's mainly a Gnome trick at this point. I hope KDE does it too some day.

    I think the attempt to shoehorn everyone into a tablet-style UI is going to turn out to be fad; it's just odd that Microsoft, Apple and Ubuntu are all so hell-bent on the same thing right now. The purpose of large screens is to view a lot of windows at once, not to full-screen one app and have it waste all that space. And screens will keep getting larger. Some day we will have desk-sized and wall-sized displays. Then we will look back and laugh at these misfit UIs from this time period. Meanwhile I will keep working the way I see fit, not how Ubuntu tells me to, thank you very much.

  16. well, I'm a long term linux user, power user, tried a lot of distros, and never liked gnome.

    Unity is the first distro making me liking gnome, and nearly loving gnome :)

  17. I am okay with Unity's interface. But it is unresponsive and slow. I was hoping that to improve every release but still not so great. Dash is really very sloow.

  18. I'm just going to use 10.04 until it's no longer supported and when it's done, I'll switch to Mint. I tried Unity, but it was just too unorganized and missing too many features. I suppose it would be OK if I was a more simple user who only used it for surfing the net, but I like to be able to quickly find apps without having to type in a search. My son has already made the switch to Mint.