Monday, September 04, 2006

Why Ubuntu gets it right

There's a rant over on Linux Forums why Ubuntu got it wrong. I've used Ubuntu (and a few other distributions), and frankly, Ubuntu et. el. does get it right, if not right enough. So let's deconstruct the rant and see where the author got it so wrong.
Unless you have been living in a cave somewhere in Redmond you would no doubt have heard of Ubuntu and its many derivatives, touted as 'Linux for human beings'. Ubuntu has become the darling of the Linux media and has stolen the limelight from other prominent distributions such as the stalwart Red Hat and, the now Novell owned, SuSE. The question is why?
Ah. Nice inflammatory opening. A man after my own heart. Beautiful opening sentence equating Redmondites (and by association those who work for Microsoft) as cave dwelling troglodytes. In that same paragraph he goes on to impune the good fortune and reputation of Ubuntu, somehow implying that Ubuntu 'stole' something rather than working hard to obtain it: community recognition.
At first glance Ubuntu appears to be the answer to the prayers of Linux evangelists worldwide. It has a great website, great marketing, an enigmatic philanthropist leader, a devoted community and a philosophy which seems to mirror that of the wider free software community in stark contrast to its enterprise counterparts. With such a stellar resume one has to ask the question, is Ubuntu too good to be true?

The only real problem with Ubuntu is Ubuntu itself. A tested and bug fixed version of Debian unstable with a pretty installer, a splash screen and the Gnome desktop is hardly the 'revolution' which it is purported to be. For Ubuntu to upset major players in the desktop arena such as Microsoft and Apple they need to start behaving like a professional company and provide for the needs of their customers as opposed to what the company thinks they need.
Wait a minute here, bubba. After Debian zealots have excoriated Ubuntu for stealing Debian's thunder by providing a better website, better marketing, and in general a much better product than Debian, you come along and complain that it's not good enough to suit you. Tough being you, isn't it? And by the way, Ubuntu is starting to behave like a professional company. They've started by releasing Ubuntu 6.06 LTS (for Long Term Support). They also offer commercial support. All this from the very navigable and professional looking front page. But that isn't enough for you, is it?
Let's begin with Gnome. If Gnome was going to be a Desktop that would create massive changes in the IT world it would have done so by now. In no way am I belittling the success and advances Gnome has made within Linux, rather it'’s the simple fact that Gnome is old and no longer up to scratch. Users want a pretty, easy to use environment with consistent menus and one administrative 'control panel' type utility. This should provide a simple solution for all administrative tasks such as adding and removing programs, hardware and networks. Gnome is not the answer for the Windows savvy world and neither is the resource-hungry KDE.
The desktop. That's what this is coming down to (not all the critical apps that run on top). You're right. The two dominant desktop environments don't stack up against the Apple and Microsoft desktop environments. For example not only can't you find a single control panel for everything on the desktop, you can't change many of the items that you can under Windows. Under Windows I simply right-click on the desktop and get Display Properties. Under Gnome I have to pull down the Desktop menu, click on Desktop Preferences, then stare for a while looking at all the individual (and somewhat incomplete) innumerable little applets until I find what I'm looking for, and home I can change what I dislike to something better. At first blush this seems no worse (and some could argue, better) than Windows. The problem is that if you coming from Windows (or work between Windows and Linux) that's what you expect to do. It's become finger-tip knowledge. Even the organization of the Display Properties is not what I'd expect; the applets for look-and-feel are the second section on the dialog, not the first.

Something as simple as changing the colors of the window borders is impossible to do under Gnome. And if you enable the flashy, wobbly XGL under SLED 10 or openSuse 10.1, you even loose the ability to change the window border theme: you're stuck with the stock look that comes with XGL, unless, of course, you find all the updated bits that give you back that capability lost under stock XGL. It's sure not there out-of-the-box (or off the DVD as it were). And KDE. What a mess. You have the ability to make greater changes, but the fetish for glossy, poorly copied Apple Aqua themes, makes it even more annoying to work with than Gnome over long stretches. The problem with both Gnome and KDE is we have strong coders who think they're strong UI developers. They're not.

The author goes on to offer suggested improvements for the desktop: "Enlightenment, Mezzo or the Sun sponsored Project Looking Glass." Talk about jumping from the frying pan into the fire. I can't speak for Mezzo, but Enlightenment was never a desktop environment for the inexperienced, and consumed more system resources than KDE ever will. And Project Looking Glass just looked plain ugly. It would have truly taken millions of invested dollars to clean up two of the three, and we'd have been on better off. We'd have been worse, because now we'd have five Linux desktop environments to confuse the newcomer, not just two.

If you really want to appreciate Gnome and KDE, just look at what we've evolved from: CDE with mwm (Motiff Window Manager) and simpler desktop environments like fvwm. You talk about butt-ugly and frustratingly limited. KDE and Gnome may have their limitations, but they're light-years ahead from their predecessors.

Another point: quit calling newcomers newbies. Everybody knows what newbie means; it's a derogatory term, especially in the Linux community. That's another major barrier to Linux acceptance, the disrespect the 'experts' show towards newcomers. If the Linux community put as much effort towards cleaning up it's collective attitude as it wants to put toward the software, then the acceptance of Linux by the rest of the Windows-using world just might go easier.

Ahh. Why bother with this endless (and pointless?) argument? Microsoft is always going to be number one, and Apple number two, especially in the US. Microsoft is an established software power, having survived and grown for over 30 years. No single Linux distribution, or combination of distributions, is going to budge Microsoft. If anything, Microsoft has more to fear from Apple, simply because Apple does get it about the overall look and feel of the desktop, and not just the desktop, but every application that interacts with it. If Linux wants to gain a foothold it's going to do so in developing IT environments outside of the US, such as China, India, Africa, and southeast Asia.

But let's get back to what started all this: Ubuntu. Within the Linux universe Ubuntu is going to eventually bury Debian, and as far as I'm concerned it can't happen soon enough. If there's one thing Ubuntu got right, if there's one feature that makes it really stand out, it is to provide one single simple CDROM that combines live testing on the target machine as well as installation. Windows doesn't provide that, Redhat doesn't provide that, and Suse doesn't provide that. Ubuntu boots up without installation, allows you to kick the digital tires a bit, and if you like what you see, you can install it on the machine right then and there. What's more, I can go to Ubuntu's site and order (for free as in beer) up to 10 CDROMs, in several mixes, that will boot on x86, x86-64, and PPC. I've done this twice already. Then when folks come to me and ask for a good Linux distribution that they can try, I give them one of the professionally produced Ubuntu CDROMs and they go off happy. In spite of Gnome. And based on followup feedback, they stay that way. What more can you really want?

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