What Is Ubuntu? The Past and Present of the Ubuntu Linux Distro

What is Ubuntu

Ubuntu is the most popular Linux distribution in the world. It may (or may not) be the best, but it is definitely the most popular. The distribution, or packaged “brand” of Linux, is developed by Canonical Ltd. for use on desktops, servers, and many other applications.

Ubuntu is also the most popular operating system in the cloud. It’s the operating system Google built its Android development tools around. Ubuntu was the first Linux distribution supported by Valve for Steam. When most people think of Linux, they’re probably thinking about Ubuntu.

What Is Linux Then?

Even though Linux drives a majority of the Internet, most people haven’t even heard of it, let alone using it. So, what exactly is Linux?

Technically speaking, Linux is just a kernel, the core of a computer operating system. That Linux kernel is at the center of much more than what people typically think of as “Linux,” including Android. The software typically referred to as the Linux operating system is actually a combination of the Linux kernel and a set of open source tools, many of which come from the GNU project, leading some people to call it GNU/Linux.

To put it all simply, GNU/Linux (many call it “Linux” for short. though that is incorrect) is an open source operating system built around the Linux kernel. It’s a descendant of the Unix operating system, making it a cousin to the BSD operating systems and macOS. Even though the applications built for these related operating systems won’t work directly on Linux, software is often ported between them. After all, the underlying systems are actually fairly similar, and you probably won’t have too hard of a time switching from a Mac to Ubuntu or vice-versa.

How Did Ubuntu Get Started?

Ubuntu wasn’t always the most popular Linux distribution. In fact, it’s actually a comparatively young distribution. With that said, the rise of Ubuntu lines up pretty well with the uptick in Linux popularity as a whole.

Canonical Logo

Ubuntu comes from the Debian Linux distribution. Debian is one of the oldest and most welrespected distributions, and it developed many advancements that modern Linux users rely on daily. Mark Shuttlesworth, a South African entrepreneur, was a fan of Debian and worked with it when he built his company, Thawte Consulting. After that same company was acquired, Shuttlesworth chose to fund the development of a new Linux distribution, Ubuntu.

Debian To Ubuntu

The initial goal of Ubuntu was to take Debian, which was fairly difficult to install at the time (2004), and make a Linux distribution that anyone could use. Actually, the first bug filed for Ubuntu stated that Microsoft Windows dominated the desktop operating system market, and Ubuntu was there to change that.

Ubuntu’s earliest releases focused on developing user friendly features, like a graphical installer that walked users through the steps of setting up Ubuntu. Ubuntu configured your computer for you, which wasn’t a given in the Linux world at the time. It provided a ready-to-use desktop right out of the install. Ubuntu also made a point of making thirdparty software, like drivers, easily accessible, another sore point for Linux users.

Clearly, the effort to make Linux accessible worked because Ubuntu quickly won the hearts of longtime Linux users and newcomers alike.

What Can You Do with Ubuntu?

In case it wasn’t already clear, you can do pretty much anything you want with Ubuntu. It’s a powerful and versatile Linux distribution. You can theoretically install and run Ubuntu on every device you own. That means you can run Ubuntu on your desktop and laptop.

Then, you can use Ubuntu to host your website on a server. You can build a network attached storage device to back up your files on your network using Ubuntu. Next, install Ubuntu Core on a Raspberry Pi to use it as an IoT device. Finally, connect it all with your custom-built router, also running Ubuntu. If you’re feeling really creative, there are even a couple of ways to run Ubuntu on your Android phone.

Ubuntu Bionic Desktop

Chances are if you’re reading this, you’re probably considering installing Ubuntu on your desktop or laptop. Even there you’ll find plenty of options. Ubuntu comes in a variety of “flavors,” each built for a specific purpose or around a desktop environment. The desktop environments determine the look and feel of Ubuntu. They also dictate which graphical system utilities – like file managers, archive tools, and PDF viewers – you get.

From there, Ubuntu is like any other desktop operating system. You can find any type of software you may need on Ubuntu, and most of it comes free of charge. Ubuntu also makes an excellent gaming operating system. You can install Steam on Ubuntu and use it to play thousands of games, including some exclusive to Windows. It’s also not a hard feat to install the latest graphics drivers for your card on Ubuntu. Even though you might not find the exact same programs, it’s hard to think of anything you can’t do on a Ubuntu desktop.

What’s on the Horizon for Ubuntu?

It’s hard to say what’s coming up for Ubuntu, but it continues to be a major player in most of the cutting edge areas of the tech world. Ubuntu has always been a favorite on the cloud, and it continues to make progress there, with improvements to deployment and containers. It’s also becoming a favorite in the AI and machine-learning fields. This popular Linux distribution also has an IoT specific version, Ubuntu Core, and it continues to grow in that space, too.

Ubuntu Cloud

The IBM acquisition of Red Hat now makes Canonical the largest independent Linux company. That could go a couple of ways, and it’s too soon to know which it will be. Depending on IBM’s handing of Red Hat, former Red Hat and CentOS users could find themselves turning to Ubuntu. That’d cement Ubuntu’s place as the biggest player on both desktops and in the business world.

Of course, the amount of money involved in the Red Hat acquisition could also inspire a Canonical IPO or even a purchase from a different tech giant. If the often-dreaded rumors are true, that could be someone like Microsoft. This really isn’t anything but rampant speculation, so don’t worry too much about it.

Whatever the future has in store for Ubuntu, it’s probably going to be bright. All signs point to continued growth for Canonical and Ubuntu in the business world and improvements in usability and compatibility for home Ubuntu users.

Nick Congleton Nick Congleton

Nick is a freelance tech. journalist, Linux enthusiast, and a long time PC gamer.


  1. I’d switch today from OS X. I’m not hating on Apple, quite the contrary. I just can not afford to upgrade my geriatric but perfectly working 2009 17” MacBook Pro to anything close to its modern day equivalent.

    The problem is iTunes. I have a huge, almost 150GB worth of music, most of it digital purchases or thru Apple Music subscription (I switched from Spotify because Apple services are So much better integrated). Until Ubuntu or any Linux distro can figure out how to access my iTunes catalogue, even if it’s just to transfer them to a native app or back to Spotify (even tho I hate Spotify) at least, I cannot switch.

    1. I don’t know much about I Tunes, but there are tons of apps that can convert it’s mp4 format and most any other format to mp3’s, Audacity being one. It may mean keeping your catalogue locally on your own storage device though.

  2. Okay, APOLOGIES IN ADVANCE: Sit down, and buckle-up for a VERY LONG-WINDED, and ridulously over-detailed comment. I promise that it will be relevant to the article, at least! :-)

    ….here we go…..

    I’ve long been curious about Linux. I dabbled with Ubuntu in 2011 or so, and then again in 2014 or so. Both times were with [quote unquote] “regular Ubuntu”. So, what I’d later learn was Gnome 2 the first time, and what I knew even in the moment was Unity the second time.

    While there were definitely things I liked about Gnome 2, and even moreso, about Unity, neither one of them just really “connected” with me. Or at the very least, I was never able to really “put down roots” in them. The look and feel of both Mac and Windows were things I could really connect with. Not nearly as much so with my two DE experiences with the wide world of Linux.

    But the biggest problem with those early adventures was that I had no real direction for them, no real long-term strategy. The first time was a simple matter of sheer curiosity, and the occasion of risk free exploration afforded me by the purchase of Parallels for my Macbook, so I could set up a Windows 7 virtual machine created a situation of “while I was at it, why not? Let’s see what this Linux business is all about.” So I toyed with it a bit, felt my nerd cred go up a tiny bit, and then stopped using it. To free up space later on, I deleted it, and that was that.

    The second time was a little bit more purpose-driven. I had bought a cheapie Acer netbook running Windows 7 that wasn’t even powerful enough to run Windows 7. So, I switched to Ubuntu in the hopes that it would run leaner and make my laptop useable again. Certainly, it did help to some degree, and once again, I felt my nerd cred go up a bit. But knowing nothing about the different “flavors” of Ubuntu, I had no idea that I had just installed the “heaviest” version – the one that would yield the least benefit to me in terms of what I was after. I had encountered the terms Xubuntu and Lubuntu in the wild before, sure. But I had no idea at all what they meant (other than being some form of Linux) or why I would’ve probably wanted them instead. So, the netbook I had installed Ubuntu on, having still been way too sluggish and plodding to have any real use to me as a regular use machine just got shoved into a closet and forgotten. It’s funny, had I just done Xubuntu at the time, the bug may have truly bit me then. But alas.

    Fast forward to 2018 (I know, I know…it’s 2019 now… happy new year, by the way – but my Linux saga picks back up in the last couple months of last year).

    I have four primary devices (not counting my fleet of 45, 46 some odd video game systems, or the handful of old junker laptops and similar devices, hidden in the nooks and crannies of the house): 1) a Mac Mini that I use for podcasting, what very little music stuff I do, and any other audio recording / very elementary video production I do. It probably goes without saying, but macOS is the OS I’m rockin’ there. 2) a DIY gaming PC running Windows 10 (Kaby Lake i5 and GTX 1070 are the most salient specs on it), a cheap Lenovo N22 Touch Chromebook, and then, of course, my Pixel 2 XL Android phone.

    And my rekindled interest in Linux was born out of the confluence of all these devices….

    ….of late, I’ve been growing more and more frustrated with both Mac and with Windows for such opposite reasons, but in about equal measure. I’ve always known that each had their profound advantages and disadvantages over the other, which is why I’ve always strove to have both in my life. I figured that the strengths of each would compensate for the weaknesses of the other. But as time has gone on, I’ve become less and less enchanted with that notion, as instead, it feels more like all I’m doing is bringing the worst of both to the party. Pair that with a growing attraction to Chrome, and one that was only accelerated by the arrival of Linux apps on the platform, and the stage was set to turn my eyes back towards Linux.

    The newfound attraction centered primarily around the hope that Linux may bring me most of what I prized (and still prize) about Mac, in reliability, and grace, while also bringing me most of (and in some regards even way more of) what I prized (and still prize) about Windows with it’s ubiquity, flexibility, and openness. I also hoped that Linux would be my rescue from the bulky, clunky, buggy nightmare of Windows, and the nanny-state limitations of Mac, as well as the overpriced, underpowered (but damn stylish) hardware it’s tethered to. And it’s appearance on Chrome only served to get it in front of my face, and into my life again, with warmly familiar elements from my previous forrays, such as LibreOffice, and, of course “sudo apt-get…”.

    So, where am I now, and where do I envision myself going?

    Well, I have “performed necromancy” on two of those “shoved into the closet”, otherwise-useless-to-me “essentially dead” laptops, and just TODAY, I set up virtual machines on my Mac and PC.

    I have at least a vague sense of just how wide the world of Linux is, with the possibly hundreds of distinct distros out there, based upon several distinct forks of Linux, a decent collection of “popular DEs”, and then countless custom-baked ones. There’s no way I’m even gonna try to cover too much of that ground too fast. Instead, I figured, I’d select a “landing point”, set up camp there, and not stray too far too fast too soon from that territory. In time I hope to go exploring and spelunking, and being found off screwing around on the outer limits of Linux…but no time soon.

    Where did I choose for a landing point, then? Well, I chose the “seven ‘official flavors’ of Ubuntu” (plus Mint Cinnamon). I installed Xubuntu on that one Netbook from earlier in our story, and then auditioned each of the other flavors (plus Mint) on a more powerful, but bigger laptop (with no battery). The winner for me became crystal clear almost instantly…for my money, I’m going with Kubuntu. What can I say, I just fell in love with KDE, and all the flexibility that it has – that I’ve no doubt only barely began to plumb the depths of!

    It’s Kubuntu!

    So, Kubuntu is the version of Linux I left on that bigger laptop, is the version of Linux that I used in the VM installs on both the PC and the Mac I did today…and hell…I even went back and replaced Xubuntu with it on our storied netbook. Although, that last one may have been a mistake, as with all the eye candy turned on, that netbook does struggle a bit. Perhaps as Kubuntu becomes more and more ubiquitous in my life on other systems, I’ll feel more okay with “favoring brains over beauty”, and either going back to Xubuntu on it (or just turning all Kubuntu’s special effects back off). I tried Lubuntu too, of course…but that was just TOO spartan! That one was TOO 1994. :-) Xubuntu is a little bit on the plain side, sure, but definitely still modern and shiny (and customizable) enough to be something I could happily live with on a weaker backup machine incapable of faithfully supporting Kubuntu.

    So, where do I go from here? Well, I plan to replace my boot M.2 SSDs in both the PC and the Mac with much larger ones (maybe 1TB instead of the current 256GB), and create multiboot situations, with Mac and Windows both being there (well, Hackintosh on the PC), but have the star of the show be Linux, presumably Kubuntu. Also, set up VMs going in all directions on each OS, so with the really lightweight stuff, I don’t have to log all the way out to switch between. I can also use VMs to begin exploring a little further into the frontiers of Linux distros. Deepin is large on my radar, for instance…and so is Elementary.

    The big plan will be to spend the next few years gradually training myself to use Mac and Windows less and less often, and use Linux more and more…just a little bit at a time, until I eventually get to the point where I’m using them sparingly enough that I can maybe kill off the direct installs, and just content myself with visiting them on rare occasions from the VMs for them I keep in the Linux environment.

    That’s the plan. That’s the goal. I think I could be done with Mac within the next couple years. Though, I think because of gaming, it’ll take a little bit longer before I can say goodbye to Windows.

    Anyway, that’s my story….and you know the funny thing? Since I installed Linux on the netbook?…..I’ve hardly used the Chromebook at all! Perhaps “real-deal” Linux will even unseat Chrome…and who knows…maybe someday, even Android*! :-)


    *=re:Android (and Chrome) being Linux…try this one on for size: Android and Chrome are to Linux as tomato is to fruit. In the most crassly technical sense? Absolutely! A tomato is totally a fruit, and Android and Chrome are totally Linux. But in a practical, on the ground, day to day sense, I would actually say no to both. A tomato is used instead as if it were a vegetable, and Android and Chrome are not at all what people are thinking of when talking about “Linux” as this sort of a “pop-nerd-phenomenon”, or ultra power user scene. You know, one of my all-time favorite phrases is “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad.” Perhaps we could extend that to say “Knowledge is knowing that Android and Chrome are Linux. Wisdom is knowing not to bring them up in a conversation about Linux”. :-D

  3. Very good article. Ubuntu is good, is great, is beautiful, I love it, and it comes in different flavors. Though I am using Debian now, I like Ubuntu very much.

  4. Ubuntu was the the leader in making Linux user friendly. There are many other good distros – Manjaro, MX, PC Linux etc but Ubuntu, in all its different flavours, has always been the pacemaker. The computer world owes them a lot.

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