Recently I made the statement that Mepis Linux was the dominant player in the it just works market for desktop linux. A Ubuntu supporter challenged that Mepis was not the dominant player, Ubuntu was. The supporter went on to state Ubuntu's top place in reviews and online polls, as well as the deal with Dell that it was in fact the dominant player in the Desktop Linux market. If Mepis was truly the better distribution, then it would have been chosen by Dell or have topped the polls, Q.E. Duh.
So, lets examine that theory... where exactly did the perception come from that Mepis was somehow behind Ubuntu? How did Ubuntu get to be so massively popular?
Lets start with Mepis Linux.
Mepis has largely been a one man operation for about 4 years now. Warren Woodford, after a push by friends, decided to create a version of Linux that operated how he wanted to operate and to have the applications that were used most on the desktop.
Thing is though, Warren decided to be pratical about how his version of Linux would work. Warren decided to use the best tools for the job, regardless of the licensing state of the tools. So, from the first release, Mepis Linux contained closed and open licensed software. This didn't sit well with the Open License groups like Free Software Foundation. Mepis wasn't on the list of distributions to be supported by those aspiring to only promote Open Licensed Software.
Mepis's use of Closed License software opened up another can of worms early in the distributions life. Former members of the Mepis Community decided to copy Mepis Linux and resell it for profit on Ebay and through other sites, which went against the Licenses of software included in the release. The resellers were collectively busted, and rendered persona non grata in the Mepis Community. Several of these resellers then decided to extract revenge by harassing any author who wrote a review about Mepis Linux, or any user who commented about Mepis Linux in an online forum. The fallout from the F.U.D. attacks meant a clear listing of the applicable licenses at Mepis.org.
Despite the list of licenses, even as recently as April, June, and July 2007 the F.U.D. attacks were still being witnessed in locations such as the PLinuxOS forums, and commented on at MepisLovers: Thread 1, Thread 2, PCLinuxOS thread.
The concentrated F.U.D. attack against Mepis wasn't the only problem Mepis Linux suffered with when it came to reviewers. Warren Woodford reportedly went against suggestions made by writers for the popular Newsforge.com website, and a select few decided to deliberately avoid writing about Mepis Linux or running news stories on Mepis Linux.
Other writers went out of their way to write anti-Mepis stories, such as a story concerning Mepis Linux having serial numbers (Mepis Pro and Frontier Mepis), conveniently ignoring that professional users buying from Red Hat often had serial numbers to keep track of their users accounts.
Thing is, Mepis Linux has gone out of it's way to provide end users with Legally Licensed products that satisfy both the FSF and owners of the license. Mepis Linux is one of the few distributions to support the closed licensed MP3 format off the disc, coming up with a solution that was palatable to both the FSF and Fraunhofer.
Mepis Linux also went to bat against the FSF when it was revealed that distributions using the source code from another distribution were expected to mirror the source code and packages, even if they did not modify the source code or packages.
Ubuntu took a different approach to creating a distribution than Mepis. Ubuntu has an official policy that they will use open-licensed Software where-ever possible, and only closed-licensed software where there was no other alternative. In practice many Ubuntu users found out the hardway that the reason it works in Mepis is that Mepis used the best tools for the job. Not the third or fourth best down the line. In order to achieve the same functionality as Mepis, many Ubuntu users were having to add the same closed-licensed drivers and products in after installing Ubuntu, that Mepis shipped with by default.
That didn't matter to a lot of the press which praised Ubuntu for it's handling and promotion of open-licensed software, although the reality was that Ubuntu's use of closed-licensed software was nearly identical to the way Mepis used closed-software license. The only real difference was where Ubuntu and Mepis drew the line at where it was appropriate to use the closed licensed software.
Ubuntu's rapid rise to fame came not only at the hands of reporters swayed by the sweet sounding nature of Ubuntu's promises, but at the hands of Ubuntu's forum community. Ubuntu forum members encoruaged each other to flood webpages and polls about using Linux. If another Linux was reviewed forum members were encouraged to flood authors with responses about how Ubuntu did something better, faster, and so on.
Ubuntu simply was better at mobilizing it's users to respond than other distributions. Ubuntu was also better at figuring out how to exploit various systems. Many of the major Distrowatch exploits created in the past 2 years came from Ubuntu's forum members.
To other distributions, it was unthinkable to exploit how Distrowatch was tracking interest in various distributions. It simply wasn't polite for a moderator to order people to go after an author for writing a less than stellar review.
The final part of Ubuntu's rise to success was it's founder, Mark Shuttleworth. Mark is the exact opposite of Warren. Trying to get details out of Warren about what is going on is like pulling teeth out of a non-tranquilized adult Polar Bear. Getting details out of Mark Shuttlworth is like shooting fish in a barrel... with an Abrams tank.
Thing is Mark Shuttleworth has two things that other distribution founders generally haven't had. A: Lots of Money. B: Lots of charisma.
Mark Shuttleworth has a policy that he will never ever say anything degrading, mean, rude, obscene, or such against any other distribution, person, or company. He is a consummate showman, who uses his wealth in ways other people haven't. His status as an amateur astronaut was a perfect launching point to promote Linux to people who never would have looked at Linux. There are lots of people who are very interested in the stars and space travel that soak up everybit of news that comes along. Mark Shuttleworth used that to his advantage to promote Ubuntu.
Like the news media's handling of Ubuntu's status with open and closed licensed software, and the status of the forums for having used less than ethical methods of promotion, behind the showman is a much darker picture.
Thing is, I side with several Debian developers that Mark Shuttleworth is trying to take over Debian. I've heard from more than one distribution maintainer that Mark Shuttleworth has told them to get about the Ubuntu train or there won't be a place for them in his future of Linux. As Bob Crane used to say as Colonel Hogan, I hear lots of things. Like my friends painting a completely different private picture of Mark Shuttleworth than I see myself.
Thing is though, Mark did place Ubuntu Linux in a place where a Linux did need to be. If it weren't for the people sitting at phones answering questions, if it weren't for the money behind Ubuntu, things like the Dell deal probably would not have happened.
Mepis, however, has a long history of stepping on toes and being the recipient of attacks, not the initiator of attacks. Personally though, I'm glad Warren stuck to his guns and didn't back down when the F.U.D. attacks hit, when the reporters went away, and when the Free Software Foundation got way out of line. And whether or not Ubuntu likes it, it's still way behind Mepis, and always will be unless it steps up and closes the gaps on it's software choices.