Sunday, February 25, 2007

Why it is.

There's a critique of my recent posts on Ubuntu over on adamw's blog titled "What is it?". He starts off with the following provocative thesis:

Another of those bizarre raves about Ubuntu.

It’s a perfect example of the genre, really. The guy installs the distro, installs some updates, runs Firefox, reboots, and concludes it’s the best thing he’s ever seen.


Let me give a little background about myself before I answer that question as well as other points in the post. I was introduced to Linux by my long-time friend Jim Smith back in the early 90's when the kernel was at version 0.99pl13 (I think). At least the kernel wasn't at the 1.0 release level yet. The distribution was SLS. Since then I've used Yggdrasil, Slackware, Suse, and Redhat/Fedora Core. I sampled a bit with Mandrake, but never stayed with it for long. I even installed Free BSD when some of my more hard-core Unix friends were around to help with the occasional problem. On the commercial side I've used Ultrix (DEC's version of BSD, 1986), SCO (the original Santa Cruz Operations Xenix 286 and 386, 1989), Univel (from the AT&T/Novell joint venture running on a 486, 1994) and Solaris (1996 onward). Lots of Solaris, both on the server as well as the workstation. And it's all been for Real Work. No web surfing, Flash, streaming video, or serious gaming. My last big task was participation in a long development effort of an HLA-based multi-federate distributed simulation running on Solaris servers connected to multiple Java-based clients running on Windows XP.

I know that most, if not all, the distributions can get similar tasks done. In fact, that distributed HLA-based simulation I just mentioned was ported from Solaris 8 to RHEL 4, a task I helped to start up before I left (2004). Some really sharp engineers finished it after I'd left, and it was successful. It was successful not just because the engineers were very sharp, but also because RHEL, and more specifically the 2.6 kernel, had matured to the point that it supplied the same OS features and functionality that Solaris provides and the application used extensively. If we'd tried that effort on an early version of the 2.6 kernel or 2.4, it would have failed.

So. After a long day at the office, it's fun to come home and play on the computer. I don't mean just games. I mean surfing and streaming content as well (at least that's what it means to me). And I'd like to do that in conjunction with "real work". I can certainly do this on a Windows machine. It would be nice to have the same level of capability on a Linux (or even *BSD for that matter) machine. That's why my focus is what it is, and why I'm pleased to see how features I take for granted on Windows are as easy to set up and use on a Linux distribution. But let's continue...
Because, make no mistake about it, there’s absolutely no substance to this review. Every distro uses the same font rendering engine - freetype. Every distro includes Firefox. There’s nothing special about the Ubuntu installer (the One installer is as good or better, if a bit less polished; other distros have similar features). The sound thing is just regular Distribution Hardware Randomness - note how he compares Ubuntu to ‘earlier’ distros, likely any distro of the same kernel vintage would work.
One man's substance is another man's fluff, so I'll concede the point. Remember, however, that this is just a personal blog. If you want real reviews heaven only knows there's plenty of "harder hitting" reviews to choose from. I can't compete with them, and I don't even try. What I do comment on are my personal experiences and what strikes my fancy.

With regards to the font, there is indeed a visual difference. I don't know what it is, but when installed off the ISO and before any tweaks are performed on the fonts, I find Ubuntu 7.04's font selection and rendering to be better than Suse 10.2's. I have sat the monitors of both machines side-by-side to make sure, and Ubuntu's is better. I'm in the process of determining why, and I'll write about it later, but the emphasis is what I've experienced without having to change anything after first installation.

You make an interesting comment about sound. Sound on the Ubuntu machine has never worked with Fedora, all the way up to Fedora Core 6. Sound has always worked with Ubuntu, going back to at least 6.06 LTS (I know, I booted them and tried a few simple experiments to prove the point). The success of sound on this platform has to be tempered by the fact that the motherboard is based on an old nForce2 chipset. This is by no means state of the art now. But then you have to ask "If Ubuntu can support it, why can't Fedora?" Especially if it is just kernel related.
The only conclusion I’ve come to yet is that what people _say_ impresses them about Ubuntu is not what actually impresses them about Ubuntu. What impresses them is something else that they don’t manage to actually write down.
Now that's interesting. Here I am blogging away about what impresses me and I'm accused of now writing it down.

What impresses me about Ubuntu every time I install it in a VM is the fundamental - to use a controversial term - GNOMEness of everything. It’s very definitely the GNOME of distros, where SUSE and Mandriva are the KDE. You don’t get a lot of choices. Everything is very streamlined, very efficient, and very well designed. There are little bits of this experience hiding in this review trying to get out, like the smooth way the Ubuntu update process works (using a very well designed updater and judicious use of the notification system).

And that I agree with. In fact, I've said (and written) that the Gnome implementation of Ubuntu 7.04 is the best (out of an admittedly limited) implementation I've every used. Better than Suse 10.x, better than SLED 10, and better than Fedora Core. Everything Works Smoothly. The Ubuntu 7.04 Gnome implementation does a good job of implementing everything according to the principal of least astonishment (or rule of least surprise).
To me Ubuntu is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, a triumph of style over substance - it’s not that it doesn’t _have_ substance, but it doesn’t have any _more_ substance than anyone else (it really has less); it just uses style to give the impression that it does. I’m not suggesting this is lame or cheap, I’m suggesting it’s something others could learn from.
There's plenty of substance to Ubuntu, or else I'd not waste my time. But style plays a big part in the selection process. Our society is saturated by style (insanely good to horribly bad) such that when it's missing or poorly implemented it stands out like a sore thumb. Note, for example, the excellent use of style in the Mac interface (all Mac interfaces), and how Microsoft is slowly getting this clue and is attempting to use it in such areas as Vista (to good effect), the design of the XBox 360 interface and even the oft-maligned Zune.
The process of installing Mandriva or SUSE is utterly different. In many ways it’s better; you get more stuff and more choices for what to do with it. But it’s an experience no-one exactly enjoys, it’s more a task you slog through and then arrive at the end thinking ‘well, I’m glad THAT’S over’. Installing Ubuntu, by contrast, feels kind of…cool. Sure, if you want to do something the installer doesn’t want you to do, you’re up a creek without a paddle, but the feeling is important. This applies even to the One installation, which is much more streamlined than DrakX. It’s still slightly inelegant. It still asks you more questions than you quite feel comfortable answering. It still feels, basically, like looking after the neighbour’s kids. Installing Ubuntu feels like the _other_ neighbour’s extremely cool university student offspring taking you to all the best clubs in town. It’s glitzy and shiny and makes you feel a bit like a rock star. I think that’s the feeling all these Ubuntu reviews try (and fail) to pin down.
Ah-men brother about installing Suse and Fedora Core. Suse's installer has gotten better with each release, but it's still time consuming, and if you missed something out of the nearly-infinite selections you can make in detailed mode, then you get a repeat with Yast2. As for feeling like a rock star, that is a bit over the top. I just like the fact that when you install Ubuntu It Just Gets Out Of The Way. It is simple.

As for being up a creek without a paddle, that's where "Add/Remove Applications" and the Synaptic Package Manager come into play. Add/Remove gives you the glitzy catalog-style view of applications, while Synaptic lets you get down into the fine grained nitty-gritty of distribution management.

Ubuntu has a staged approach to installation that I've come to appreciate.
  1. Boot into the live desktop. Let the user check out those features she finds are important to her. This is where you start to build a good positive experience.
  2. Get it installed. Install from the live desktop. You've already got the libraries and X booted for a great graphical installer. Install it with the most-used applications and the tools for further configuration after the installation to hard disk. Get it installed quickly and cleanly and continue to build the user's confidence and positive experience.
  3. After installation, show the user a stylistic catalog of additional applications she can install and use. Want to play back DVDs? Show her how. Want to use the latest version of Java (Java 6)? Show her how. Whatever it is she could do on Windows or Mac OS X, give her the same equivalent experience, and then help her quickly find it and easily install it. Add/Remove does this.
  4. For the sophisticated user who wants fine grained control and understands the system, open it up with Synaptic. Yes, they can royally screw things up that way, but that's what freedom means. Freedom to make a choice, even a bad one. Just remember that with freedom comes the responsibility of accepting the consequences of your actions.
I like Ubuntu's installation approach over Suse's because with Ubuntu you get to work a heck of a lot faster. I have been involved in more than one Suse installation where after spending too much time selecting applications and features to install, Suse's installation just crapped out at the end. I've had my greatest problems in that area with notebooks. With Ubuntu I get a much higher level of confidence it will work when it boots from the live CD, followed by a successfull installation. Then I can go in and finish the installation of specific tools and applications.
I still believe MDV is a far better distro than Ubuntu. (I also think SUSE is.) You can, ultimately, do a lot more stuff a lot better. But it doesn’t make you feel like a rock star. I think we (and our erstwhile colleagues / competitors at Novell) need to work on that a bit.
Ah! Mandriva! The ulterior motive finally surfaces... It's funny you should mention Suse. It's my primary distribution of choice, and my blog is littered with little reports about my experiences with it. I think that Suse 10.2 has the best KDE desktop of the various distributions I've touched to date, and prefer to work with KDE rather than Gnome. And I think that Suse could benefit using Ubuntu's method of boot and installation rather than Suse's classical method.

To me this is not a zero-sum game. I'm not looking for a single winner in this process. More fundamentally I'm looking for healthy alternatives to Microsoft Windows. I mentioned Vista earlier, and as pretty and stylish as it has become, it has picked up habits that really disturb me. I feel that Microsoft Windows has gone from being merely intrusive to being heavily invasive of my use of my computer. The prime driver is DRM. Microsoft put it in to help the poor studios continuously re-sell the same content over and over and over again. Microsoft is in the perfect position to apply the same technology to software updates, including the entire OS. Then I'm really screwed. I wind up with a machine not much different than the XBox 360, in which Microsoft has complete control and I don't. I want to foster a dialog with other Linux users so that all of Linux improves over time. We need Linux (and other free alternatives) now more than ever. It may not turn out this way, but I see a time where our computers are so locked down and controlled that we loose the fundamental freedom to really innovate. I don't want to have to go through an authority just to get into my machine's hardware. And I'm afraid that's where we'll wind up if we're not careful.


  1. Like I said my friend..there are many other distros that ARE better than Ubuntu and allow you to get to work even more quickly.

    SimplyMEPIS and PCLinuxOS come to mind right away. But of course, those are KDE based and that might not tickle your fancy...but in that case, on both distros you can apt-get gnome into existence :D

  2. It's interesting you should mention SimplyMEPIS. According to DistroWatch (and other Linux news sources) SimplyMEPIS has announced they are basing their next release, 6.5, on Ubuntu 6.06 LTS. I'd be curious to see how KDE has been configured, and how it compares with both Kubuntu and Suse.

  3. about the font rendering: are you checking the displays out of the same graphic cards (obviously with the same kind of drivers installed or not) and in the same monitor? Otherwise, you can't peg the problem to different implementations of freetype only.

    About the "ulterior motive", adamw _does_ work for Mandriva, that's not hard to know if you follow the Mandriva development blogs. If it was irony, I didn't get it.

  4. > Like I said my friend..there are many other distros that ARE better than Ubuntu

    Perhaps there is, but he liked ubuntu. whats wrong with that? I'm using ubuntu and I liked it. If someone tells me distro X is better - would I like ubuntu less?

    I don't understand actually why people have the need to point out distro X or Y is better. Its like somebody walking up to you, pointing at your car and saying "My car is better"- which implies a certain "insecurity" to the speaker.

    my two cents.

  5. Bill, What I don't get is why people are down on Ubuntu. I've used five other distros, and Ubuntu is the easiest so far. I use it as my primary OS for two reasons: 1) My girlfriend can use it. She thinks the terminal is something at the airport, and The Command Line is an audioanimatronic show at the rarely open Wonders of Life at Epcot. 2) I really like Mark Shuttleworths ideas, especially his business model with Canonical.

    Good to find your blog.

  6. haha... Marks S.'s business model? I love Ubuntu and the ideals, but a business model implies making business doesn't it? Which as far as I can see is (ubuntu) linux's bug#2...


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