Why aren't there Linux Upgrades?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing with various Linux distros – focussing on Ubuntu based distros.

After a while, you start to see how similar they all are. In fact, they are just custom tailored versions of Ubuntu (which itself is a custom version of Debian). They come with a customized GUI, have their own look and feel (and pretty background picture), but ultimately rely on the Ubuntu Software Center and Software Updates to keep running. One I tried out, Elementary OS, even prompted me to upgrade to Ubuntu 11.04.

Two days ago, Linux Mint, released version 12 of its OS. I thought that was a bad idea. Not because I think there is anything wrong with Linux Mint – it’s a fine distro, just like many other Linux distros.

I thought it was a bad idea because the average person isn’t interested in installing a particular Linux distribution. They are interested in installing an Operating System (OS), applications and using that combination to do work. If they already have a Linux distro installed, then then they aren’t interested in replacing it, but upgrading it.

This is why Ubuntu was nice. When a new version came along, you could upgrade to it and keep all your data and applications.

When a new Linux distro comes out, you don’t have the option of upgrading, you have to delete your old installation (along with applications and data), install the new Linux distro, reinstall all the applications you were using and, finally, restore all your data. whew! That is way too much work for the average user.

When Ubuntu 11.10 came out, a lot of people were unhappy that Unity was the default interface (sure, you can change it, I even wrote instructions for it here). It was not possible to roll back the upgrade. This has caused Ubuntu to drop in popularity and other distros (like Linux Mint) to rise in popularity. Unfortunately, if Ubuntu is your main work computer, it has YOUR apps installed, it has YOUR data, it is configured to work the way YOU like it, why in the world would you want to destroy all that just so you can install a different Linux distro? It doesn’t make sense.

A better option, and one I haven’t seen exploited, would be to provide “upgrades” from one distro to another. If you are unhappy with Ubuntu 11.10 and Unity, then why not be able to “upgrade” to Linux Mint 12?

The reason is simple, each distro reflects a different approach or philosophy. Some focus on being lean, others focus on being cutting edge, others focus on being “pure” (in the sense of no proprietary software). Being able to install a “lean” distro over one considered “bloated” would kind of negate the reason for the lean distro to exist.

It could be argued that what I’m really going on about is just installing a new Window Manager or desktop (like GNOME or KDE or LXDE or XFCE) – which is pretty much true. Most users don’t care what’s under the hood, they care about how they interact with it – the look and feel.

Is Linux Mint interested in releasing a Linux Mint Desktop package for Ubuntu? Or Elementary OS in releasing an Elementary OS Desktop for Ubuntu? Or any other Ubuntu derivative interested in releasing their desktop to run on Ubuntu? Probably not – why would they want to position themselves as nothing more than an add-on to Ubuntu? The only Ubuntu derivative desktops you can install on Ubuntu are Edubuntu, Kubuntu, Lubuntu, and Xubuntu (which are all official Ubuntu derivatives).