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Help, the penguins are revolting!

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The penguins are on the march: they are leaving Mark Shuttleworth's Ubuntu and migrating towards other Linux distros, fresh data suggests.

Distrowatch's annual web rankings claim Ubuntu's top spot has been snatched by Mint during the last 12 months. In the past month alone Ubuntu's been kicked to fourth place by Fedora and openSuSE, who slid in to take the second and third spots behind Mint.

Distrowatch itself offers no insight as to why, but others are drawing their own conclusions. Ubuntu's Unity interface, introduced in 11.04 this spring, is prime suspect.

Web host Pingdom comments here:

"One reason behind this reversal of fortune for Ubuntu could be the change of default interface in version 11.04 or "Natty Narwhal", released in April 2011. With the new Ubuntu came Unity, an interface previously seen in Ubuntu Netbook Edition, and Gnome was relegated to an option.

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding Unity. Now it seems like Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, may be paying the price for the change.

Canonical has certainly upset gnomes, as the Linux desktop environment that Ubuntu had used from day one was demoted and replaced by a new interface designed to make ready Ubuntu ready for touch-based devices. It wasn't just the technology responsible for the heartburn, it was the politics too as Canonical was accused invariably of being heavy handed and shutting down debate.

Is this the beginning of the end of Ubuntu's rise, and will Canonical's top brass look back years from now and rue the decision to follow General Shuttleworth over the edge as a strategic mistake?

Not yet, at least. Distrowatch data is based on page hits that a site receives, so while it can say which distros penguinistas are interested in, it's not necessarily an actual measurement of solid market share by more accepted metrics such as downloads, installations or revenue. The most you could argue is that Mint (which is based heavily on Ubuntu), Fedora and openSuSE are attracting interest from the Ubuntu faithful.

Penguins in unity - against Unity

Is the Ubuntu crowd revolting? Not necessarily. November has been a big month for Linux distributors, with Fedora 16 and openSuSE 12.1 released and the Mint 12 release candidate also delivered. These updates will attract attention from any Linux-using bod. Yet it's arguable that the lead Mint has established over Ubuntu is small enough to be a rounding error.

The real question does remain, though, of whether Ubuntu fans are exploring Fedora and openSuSE because they're fed up with Unity.

The latest Fedora and openSuSE both stuck with GNOME, although they went with version 3 of GNOME and moved further away from the PC friendly version 2. GNOME 3 looks suspiciously similar to Ubuntu's Unity and if it's not exactly the same, it's something of a move in the same direction: it has a re-oriented dock, 3D look, new search, and integration with the web. It's ready for use on touchy tablets and mobile and a step outside the domain of the keyboard and mouse that are the hallmarks of the desktop and even - shock - the laptop.

When Ubuntu announced Unity and the move away from GNOME, the reasoning from the distro's founder Shuttleworth was simple: GNOME wasn't moving fast enough in the direction that Ubuntu needed to go. "We are not trying to lead folks in a different direction, but the GNOME shell is some way behind. I'm not sure it will be ready in this or the next release," Shuttleworth said.

Now it seems the distros are more or less on the same page, although Ubuntu got there first in April - seven months ahead of the latest Fedora and openSuSE.

Time will tell whether Unity does prove to be a watershed; whether the interface proved a disastrous strategic decision that squandered Ubuntu's market love and lead or a stroke of brilliance taking it into a brave, new world.

Given today's changes in computing - the shift away from keyboard and mouse on the desktop and towards finger and mobile - the choice to go Unity-like seems like it was unavoidable. And now Fedora and openSuSE are on GNOME 3 maybe the decision was the right one to make.

Following a brief period of transition, the differences between Ubuntu, Fedora and openSuSE are again few in number on the interface.

That means we could see the Ubuntu flock checking out the other distros this year and either deciding to stick with Ubuntu or jump ship based on the strength of implementation or on pure politics - whether they felt miffed enough at the idea and method of Unity's introduction.

The real test of Unity against GNOME on Fedora and openSuSE has yet to come. The results will be measured by who has the most polish, who gets the most buy-in from developers tailoring their applications to fit, and what hardware partners are teaming up on devices. ®

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