The current rankings on DistroWatch have been taken by some as evidence that Linux Mint has overtaken Ubuntu as the most popular Linux distribution by a healthy margin. The culprit, under this analysis, is Ubuntu's latest desktop user interface — Unity. Let's examine these assertions, and take a considered look the pros and cons of the two popular Linux distributions.
What the numbers really mean
First, let's put things in context. The DistroWatch rankings for December 2011 — 4,100 for Linux Mint and 1,821 for Ubuntu — are based on hits on the DistroWatch web site pages, so they don't indicate the number of actual users. As DistroWatch itself says: "The DistroWatch Page Hit Ranking statistics are a light-hearted way of measuring the popularity of Linux distributions and other free operating systems among the visitors of this website. They correlate neither to usage nor to quality and should not be used to measure the market share of distributions. They simply show the number of times a distribution page on DistroWatch.com was accessed each day, nothing more."
By contrast, the Wikimedia Traffic Analysis Report - Operating Systems shows that in October 2011 there were 16,924,000 hits on Wikimedia pages from computers running Ubuntu and 556,000 hits from those running Linux Mint (Wikimedia notes that due to server outages these numbers are approximately 7 percent too low). By December 2011 these figures had risen to 29,432,000 and 642,000 respectively.
It's arguable that these Wikimedia statistics, based on requests from software agents of operating systems actually in use, reflect the true popularity of the two distributions far more accurately than the DistroWatch rankings. If that's the case, then Ubuntu clearly remains firmly in command of the market share. However, the DistroWatch figures do indicate a substantial recent increase in the level of interest in Mint.
Back in 2004, South African entrepreneur Mark Shuttleworth gathered a group of developers with the idea of releasing a fork of the Debian Linux distribution. Debian is a comprehensive and well-respected core distribution, but it has a relatively slow and irregular release schedule. Shuttleworth wanted to produce a stable release of an easy-to-use Linux desktop on a more regular basis. Ubuntu has now grown into something more than a simple fork: it's backed by Shuttleworth's company Canonical and by the Ubuntu Foundation, which was founded in 2005 to ensure the continuation of Ubuntu in case Canonical's involvement should, for any reason, come to an end.
Some of the original Ubuntu developers were already Debian developers, and the intention was that Ubuntu would maintain a fairly strong relationship with Debian and feed back development into the Debian code base. However, the relationship between the two distributions has at times been strained, with the Ubuntu team receiving criticism for divergence and not referring changes as often as they might.
Ubuntu takes its version number from the year and month of release, the first release in October 2004 being 4.10. Reflecting the original commitment to a six-month release cycle, an x.04 version is released in April and an x.10 version is released in October of every year. The current version is 11.10 with 12.04 LTS (Long Term Support) due out soon. Ubuntu is also notable for its alliterative code-names comprising an adjective and an animal: 11.10 is Oneiric Ocelot, 12.04 is Precise Pangolin, while 12.10 (Qx Qx) has yet to be decided.
Linux Mint, currently at version 12, is in turn based on Ubuntu and is developed by a relatively small team of independent developers, funded by contributions from companies and private individuals. Initial releases were sporadic and quite frequent, but the Mint cycle has now settled into a new version that arrives about a month after each Ubuntu release.
Mint was started two years after the launch of Ubuntu with the focus firmly on usability. The Linux community has always had a concern over the inclusion of proprietary codecs in Linux distributions. However, omitting them can lead to problems with compatibility and with the ability to read files in proprietary formats such as MP3. Mint adopts a relatively relaxed attitude to the use of proprietary codecs in order to provide full multimedia support 'straight out of the box'. That said, a CD-sized, no-codecs Mint install is available for distribution "…in the USA, Japan and countries where the legislation allows patents to apply to software, and distribution of restricted technologies may require the acquisition of 3rd party licenses".
Comparing current releases, usability is perhaps now less of an issue, as Ubuntu has improved in this respect over the years and provides the option to install proprietary drivers and software that's restricted for legal or copyright reasons (see System Settings / Software Sources). Even so it's still necessary to activate the proprietary driver for Nvidia graphics cards after installing either of these distributions.
Although Ubuntu is a relative newcomer compared to Debian, which goes back to 1993, it's now a mature and popular desktop distribution with considerable resources behind it — Canonical provides a range of commercial support services for corporate users, for example.
Both Ubuntu and Linux Mint are available in 64-bit and 32-bit versions that will run on Intel and AMD processors. Ubuntu is also available as Ubuntu Server, while Mint is desktop only. There are six recognised Ubuntu variants, three of which use different desktop environments — Kubuntu (KDE), Lubuntu (LXDE) and Xubuntu (Xfce). Three others focus on usage models: Edubuntu for education; Mythbuntu for MythTV; and Ubuntu Studio for creative media work.
Meanwhile, in 2010 Mint released Linux Mint Debian Edition which is based directly on Debian Testing rather than indirectly via Ubuntu.