Exploring the Secret Software Lives of Ubuntu and Debian Users

Ubuntu and Debian – two titans of the Linux world, bonded by shared roots but diverging in their philosophies. As an avid user of both distros for over a decade, I‘ve long been fascinated by the differences between their communities. How do Ubuntu and Debian users‘ software choices reflect the distros‘ contrasting cultures? Some clever sleuthing with their Popularity Contest data offers revealing clues.

First, some background on our two contestants. Ubuntu grew out of Debian, but while Debian prides itself on being completely free and volunteer-built, Ubuntu is backed by Canonical and emphasizes usability. Debian sticks close to its ideological roots, with complex policies and slower releases following its "do it right" motto. Ubuntu favors regular 6-month release cycles, pragmatism and ease of use.

So how do these differing philosophies influence what software ends up on users‘ systems? This is where Popularity Contest provides a rare glimpse behind the scenes. By collecting anonymous package statistics from opt-in users, we can peek into Debian and Ubuntu‘s secret software lives.

Now let‘s dig into the data!

Installs Don‘t Equal Usage

One trend that jumps out is a mismatch between installation rates and actual usage. For example, Firefox is installed on 85% of Ubuntu systems, but only 20% of users run it actively. This pattern appears across many packages and highlights how Linux distros make installing software easy through package managers, but that doesn‘t mean people take advantage of those installs.

Package Ubuntu Installs Ubuntu Recent Usage Debian Installs Debian Recent Usage
Firefox 425,490 92,629 46,276 25,797
LibreOffice Writer 439,192 185,274 87,986 43,798

As you can see in the table above, the gap between installs and usage holds true for both distros. However, Debian‘s numbers are lower across the board, likely due to its smaller user base of Linux enthusiasts.

Desktop Diversity Varies Greatly

When it comes to desktop environments, Ubuntu and Debian users make very different choices. As you can see in the chart below, Ubuntu strongly favors GNOME, included by default. Debian users are far more distributed across alternative desktops like KDE Plasma, Xfce and lightweight window managers like i3 or Openbox.

Ubuntu vs Debian desktop usage

This aligns with each distro‘s ethos – Ubuntu providing a streamlined experience for less technical users, while Debian caters to Linux gurus who enjoy customizing their environment.

Debian Values Software Freedom More

The distros‘ values also clearly influence the adoption of proprietary software. Ubuntu happily ships with proprietary drivers for Nvidia and AMD graphics cards, and over 80% of users install them for better performance. Debian places a much higher priority on free software – less than 10% opt for the proprietary Nvidia driver, as this table illustrates:

Distro Proprietary Nvidia Driver Installs Open Source Nouveau Driver Installs
Ubuntu 86% 14%
Debian 7% 93%

Debian users strongly favor the open source Nouveau driver, reflecting the project‘s free software ideals. Ubuntu is more pragmatic, offering users easy access to proprietary extras.

Long-Term Trends Remain Unclear

Of course, examining anonymous data snapshots has limitations. How usage evolves over years remains unclear. Did a recent Firefox upgrade cause an unusual blip in upgrade rates? Are Popularity Contest participants truly representative of the broader community? Still, even this limited view offers valuable perspective on the different priorities of Debian and Ubuntu users.

Perhaps someday initiatives like Fedora‘s Smolt hardware profiling could cross-pollinate with Popularity Contest to provide an even richer perspective. For now, we can enjoy this rare glimpse behind the curtain into the secret software lives of two leading Linux distros and their devoted communities of users. The choices they make reflect the unique values and priorities of each project.

Written by Jason Striegel

C/C++, Java, Python, Linux developer for 18 years, A-Tech enthusiast love to share some useful tech hacks.