What can Linux learn from Toyota?

Before I begin, let me set the premise for this article.

If you follow news at all, you’ve probably heard of the recent recall fiasco involving various Toyota vehicles.  If you’re not familiar with the situation, here’s a brief recap courtesy of the relevant Wikipedia article:

Three separate but related recalls of automobiles by Toyota Motor Corporation occurred at the end of 2009 and start of 2010. Toyota initiated the recalls…after several vehicles experienced unintended acceleration. The first recall, on November 2, 2009, was to correct a possible incursion of an incorrect or out-of-place front driver’s side floor mat into the foot pedal well, which can cause pedal entrapment. The second recall, on January 21, 2010, was begun after some crashes were shown not to have been caused by floor mat incursion. This latter defect was identified as a possible mechanical sticking of the accelerator pedal causing unintended acceleration, referred to as Sticking Accelerator Pedal by Toyota…

As of January 28, 2010, Toyota had announced recalls of approximately 5.2 million vehicles for the pedal entrapment/floor mat problem, and an additional 2.3 million vehicles for the accelerator pedal problem. Approximately 1.7 million vehicles are subject to both. Certain related Lexus and Pontiac models were also affected. The next day, Toyota widened the recall to include 1.8 million vehicles in Europe and 75,000 in China. By then, the worldwide total number of cars recalled by Toyota stood at 9 million.

Obviously this has become a PR disaster for the world’s largest automobile company, but the fallout has affected more than just Toyota.  The following commentary comes from one of many articles on the matter:

The Japanese government is getting increasingly worried that the Toyota debacle might turn into a worldwide backlash against Japanese cars, or even all Japanese products. As the world’s 4th largest export nation, Japan has a lot to worry about.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama himself urged Toyota to ensure the safety of its vehicles and customers worldwide: ”When an event that impairs safety occurs, the initiative should be taken to work for the safety of people in Japan and worldwide.”

Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Seiji Maehara was a bit less diplomatic. He said Toyota ”lacked customers’ perspective” and reacted too slowly: ”It might be that Toyota considered it a minor problem,” Maehara said and added that the company must deal ”quickly based on the viewpoint of customers.”

…Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said he ”would like Toyota to deal with the situation properly so that it can alleviate concern among users.”

…[Foreign Minister Kaysuya] Okada is concerned that ”this is a problem for the whole of the Japanese auto industry and it is also about trust in Japanese products.”

One final observation before I transition into the main point of this article: 9 million may sound like a lot of recalls (and it certainly is), but consider that Toyota manufacturers nearly 9 million cars per year – meaning there may be upwards of 75+ million Toyota-manufactured cars currently in use.  That perspective will become important in a moment.

So what does this have to do with Linux?

I believe the impact of the Toyota recall on the wider perception of Japanese automakers is hugely relevant to Linux.  Here are the parallels:

  • Japanese automakers: Linux (for purposes of this discussion, desktop Linux)
  • Toyota: Canonical (maker of Ubuntu – currently the largest, most popular distro)

(For the record, I’m not interested in debating whether or not Ubuntu is the most “popular” desktop Linux distro – it is absolutely the most visible, which makes it appropriate for this analogy.)

Let’s delve into this a bit deeper.

Why Canonical is like Toyota

In classic form, the launch of Canonical’s latest and greatest (Ubuntu 10.04) has garnered huge amounts of media attention – some good, some bad.  For purposes of this article, I’m going to focus on the bad.

Why?

Reason #1: when it comes to public perception, bad coverage ALWAYS trumps good coverage.

Reason #2: much of the overtly positive Ubuntu coverage comes from blatant fanboys and/or media personnel who fiddle with a liveCD for 5 minutes before writing a supposedly “comprehensive” review.  Reviews like this simply don’t deserve attention.

Reason #3: I am a disgruntled Ubuntu user, so I personally connect with many of the negative 10.04 reviews.

Early last year (2009) I wrote an article titled “The Only Feature Ubuntu 10.04 Needs“.  It has since become one of this site’s most popular articles, in part because so many people have read it and agreed (at least according to the article comments).  My point in that article is summed up as:

Two significant things need to happen between 9.10 and 10.04 if Ubuntu wants to stay relevant:

1) no new Ubuntu-specific features in 10.04 (new upstream features are fine)

2) make Ubuntu 10.04 a fix-only release

To save you reading the entire article, the basic premise was this:

Ubuntu is an excellent distribution, possibly the best general-purpose distribution of them all.  More than any other distro in recent memory, Ubuntu has the opportunity – and the financial backing – to carve out a real place for the Linux Desktop.

But there is one major, significant barrier standing in its path.  No, I’m not talking about the brown interface (which should improve in the future) – I’m talking about the perception that Linux doesn’t “just work.”

Yes, us lxers we know that it’s remarkably close to “just working.”  We know that if something doesn’t work there are a hundred different sites we can go to for help.  We know that driver issues are rarely Ubuntu’s fault – they’re the fault of lazy hardware vendors.

But everyday users don’t know this, and they arguably don’t care.  For them there are no excuses, only “it all works” or “it doesn’t work.”

And the sad fact of the matter is that it only takes one piece of hardware or one peripheral that DOESN’T work for the average user to throw Linux out the window.

But here’s the thing – it doesn’t have to be this way.

Up to that point, I’d had a pretty good experience with Ubuntu as a general-purpose desktop OS.  I first started using Ubuntu with the 8.04 release and a fair amount of work was required to get everything working.  The 8.10 release fixed many of my problems, and 9.04 was nearly flawless as far as my hardware was concerned (two desktops and a laptop).

When I wrote that article, my biggest concern was that Ubuntu’s reasonably good stability would lead to a change of focus from stability and performance to “features.”

I think it’s fair to say that my concern was justified.  VERY justified.

As I’ve written elsewhere, Ubuntu 9.10 was a disaster.  The given explanation was that a ton a features were crammed into 9.10 so that 10.04 – an LTS (long-term support) release – could focus on stability.

So WTF happened?  Ubuntu 10.04 was one of the most feature-heavy releases in recent memory, and its stability – at least so far – is not good.  Let me linkquote some of the most poignant reviews on the matter:

Some readers are inevitably going to accuse me of cherry-picking negative reviews, and that’s not incorrect – as I’ve clearly stated, I am deliberately picking out some of the worst problems with this release.

Thing is, I could have easily sampled another hundred of these.  If I wandered into the Ubuntu forums, I’d have enough bad 10.04 experiences to fill a hundred blog entries like this one.

I’m well aware that many of you will feel compelled to leave a comment stating “Ubuntu 10.04 worked fine for me.”  Good for you.  60+ million Toyota owners had nothing to worry about with the latest recall.  The vast majority of Toyota owners have had a wonderful experience with their vehicle, and the vast majority of Toyota owners are unaffected by stuck gas pedals.

But that simply doesn’t matter.  When it comes to public perception, one very negative experience will always outweigh any number of positive experiences.  Ask Toyota.  Ask Microsoft.  (Vista, anyone?) Ask any company that’s endured a PR disaster.

I’m sure Canonical has plans to gradually work out the kinks in their software, but that is exactly the problem: as an example of a “great” desktop OS, Ubuntu is way off track.

Consider this, as an example: what was the biggest, most publicized feature of the recent 10.04 release?

Remember?

The redone Canonical branding.

Seriously.

Yes, other changes got pulled in – but again, how many of those were merely ways to increase Canonical’s revenue?  (Further UbuntuOne integration and the 7digital music store partnership come to mind.)

How about the infamous 9.10 release?  Key non-upstream features included: a new installer slideshow, the Ubuntu One debut, and the Ubuntu Software Center.

See a pattern?

Let me clarify by saying that self-serving features like these aren’t inherently bad – they’re just so much less important than the basic pillars of stability, security, and performance.  Changing the branding is awesome… assuming a distro boots at all.

Sadly, the future of Ubuntu only gets more and more worrisome.  What’s next on the horizon?  How about Windicators – one of the worst UX ideas in computing history.

Ugh.

At any rate, let me pull this article back on-topic.  Two consecutive weak releases have certainly impacted Canonical/Ubuntu’s public perception, but what of the greater Linux ecosystem?

Again, let me invoke the Toyota analogy.  Toyota’s missteps in safety and reliability certainly harmed Toyota – no doubt there – but as I quoted above, they also sent shockwaves through the entire Japanese auto industry.  When the all-star member of a team displays weakness, the entire team suffers.

So it is with desktop Linux.  Love it or hate it, Canonical has been very successful in positioning Ubuntu as THE desktop Linux distro worth trying.  In 2008, when I again decided to try desktop Linux after several years away, the obvious choice of distro was Ubuntu.  Many, many blogs pointed to it as the best place to experience Linux, and since then Canonical and its throngs of loyal fans have only strengthened that message.

Frankly, I think the users of every other distro should be concerned.  When Canonical positions Ubuntu as the best incarnation of desktop Linux, then proceeds to release multiple problematic versions in a row, it reflects poorly on ALL desktop distros.

Take the following example from John, a new desktop Linux user who left the following comment on my aforementioned 10.04 article:

Couldn’t agree more.  I’m trying to move away from Windows so I thought I’d give the “best”? distro a try.

After downloading and installing (10.04) I get to the boot screen to find something about “gconf-sanity-check-2 exited with status 256″.  As a non computer geek (no offense) I am lost already.  Now I have the problem of getting rid of the untidy boot option screen or at least setting Windows as the default.  Maybe I’ll try again in 6 months.  Maybe….

Another perspective comes from that same comment thread, this time from Les:

Let me give you an outsider’s perspective. I’ve always been Windows user, but I love the concept of Linux and just installed Ubuntu 9.10.

My ipod won’t sync. My network won’t connect. I can’t get printers to work. Installing some programs is ridiculously complicated (tar.gz, then…..what?).

I’ve spent hours on forums, and yes, there are fixes, apparently, but none of them have worked for me so far. And I’m the computer guy all my friends come to, so it’s not an aptitude problem.

I’ve already fallen for Ubuntu, and I will persevere. But when I read that Ubuntu spent the last 6 months moving the window controls from right to left and making Ubuntu more social, I wonder if they will ever reach their goal of replacing Windows.

These are great comments from the kind of people Linux desperately needs – individuals brave enough to try an entirely new OS on their own, and individuals willing to persevere despite bad experiences.

What gravely concerns me is that for every John or Les who perseveres, how many others quit?  How many potential developers, designers, and translators has the FOSS ecosystem lost because people mistakenly think Ubuntu = Linux = FOSS?

Now in preparation for the inevitable onslaught of fanboy hate mail this article will garner, let me state that this same conversation could be had for any other distro.  Perhaps Fedora and OpenSuse and Debian have scared off their own share of potential Linux contributors, and that is also sad.

But because Canonical has positioned Ubuntu as THE desktop Linux experience, their responsibility is necessarily higher.  The more publicity Ubuntu garners, the greater its responsibility to deliver an optimal experience.

Before I end, let me state that despite its relevance, this article deliberately ignores the ongoing debate regarding Canonical’s contributions to Linux, Gnome/KDE/other DEs, and other components of the FOSS world.  This is a hugely complicated topic, and one I’m not particularly qualified to comment on.  For those who have never heard of this problem (or those who have but want to get re-angered ;), here are some excellent resources:

In my book I wrote that Debian has been terminally damaged by the split [with Ubuntu]. You could even say that Ubuntu is screwing Debian twice: once by stealing people away from what should be their natural home, and again by making them dissatisfied and causing them to leave this combined community. Mark Shuttleworth could hardly have conceived of a better way to kill Debian than what he came up with.

Though I doubt it will help, I strongly suggest reading Is Linux Religion? before sending me hatemail.  ;)

Also note that all comments are moderated, so don’t waste your time insulting me or other commenters without some sort of factual basis for your insults.

Dear Ubuntu: I Have Some Concerns

Dear Ubuntu:

For the last couple years, life has been good.  Every time I’ve shown you to a friend or family member, they’ve compared you to what they’re familiar with – Windows XP or Vista, mostly – and by comparison you’ve looked brilliant.  Yeah, your ugly brown color scheme was a bit off-putting at first, but once people saw how secure, simple, and reliable you were, the response was almost universally positive.

But recently, things have changed.  Your last version – 9.10 – was an unmitigated disaster.  At first I thought I was the only user having issues with it (random freezes and reboots), but guess what?  Tons of people had a horrible experience with you.  My comment box is overflowing with comment after comment after comment about how you made their life difficult with your 9.10 release, and thirty seconds on any major search engine will show loads more comments to this same effect.

Normally all this would be semi-acceptable since you still provide a great alternative to Vista.

….but wait.  That’s not actually relevant.  See, my friends and family aren’t comparing you to Vista any longer – they’re comparing you to Windows 7.

And frankly, Windows 7 is a great operating system.

Out of the box, Windows 7 is very pretty.  It makes your brown ugliness look worse than ever.  I realize that your strange obsession with brown is changing with your next release (thank God), but I have to wonder – is it changing enough?

Ubuntu 10.04 (courtesy of Ars Technica)
Ubuntu 10.04 (courtesy of Ars Technica)
Windows 7 (courtesy of http://www.thinkpads.com/tag/windows-7/page/2/)
Windows 7 (courtesy of http://www.thinkpads.com/tag/windows-7/page/2/)

Windows 7 still makes you look ridiculous.  Sorry, but it’s true.

But you know what – let’s forget about appearances.  After all, I can always spend five or six hours (per computer) meticulously changing you into something beautiful.  It’s not like I don’t have anything better to do with my time.  </sarcasm>

Let’s talk instead about something you’ve ALWAYS excelled at: security.  One of my favorite things to tell new Ubuntu users is that dealing with an intrusive virus scanner is a thing of the past.  Linux distros don’t require virus scanners, and if a person wants to use one “just in case”, ClamAV won’t bother ’em at all.

People are always amazed by this, especially after dealing with the likes of Norton or McAfee or AVG.  Even the good free scanners (Avast, for example) can be surprisingly pesky.

But you know what, Ubuntu?  This isn’t as true as it used to be.  Yes, you remain pleasantly secure, but guess what – Windows 7 is quite a bit better in this regard.  Microsoft even provides their own security solution – and it’s surprisingly good.  It integrates very nicely with Windows 7 and is less resource-intensive than many of its competitors.  I barely notice it’s there.

Then there are the other steps Microsoft is taking to improve its overall security model.  They’re doing good work, Ubuntu – and they deserve credit for it.  Yes, you and other Linux distros may still have the edge in total system security, but to a casual user Windows 7 does a bang-up job in this regard.

But wait, you say – there’s still the issue of stability.  Haven’t you always excelled when it comes to stability, especially when compared to Windows?

As I’ve mentioned, I’m not sure you provide a better alternative at this point.  In my experience, Windows 7 is remarkably solid.  You, my friend, have not been.  I sincerely hope 10.04 is more stable than 9.10 – and I imagine it will be – but you know what?  The bar’s been raised.  We can continue to mock Vista for the unstable mess that it was, but when it comes to Windows 7, the average user isn’t complaining about stability.  Even corporations are convinced that it’s time to upgrade from XP. This is a good thing, Ubuntu.

True, it would be better if these corporations were upgrading to you, but frankly – I’m not sure you’re ready for widespread commercial use.  Those 9.10 stability problems still linger in my mind…

Then there are the other things Windows 7 has improved.  Windows Media Player is no longer an abomination.  It’s actually kind of nice.  Rhythmbox, on the other hand, has a long way to go before it can truly compete with the all-in-one solutions offered by software like WMP or iTunes.  IE9 looks like it could actually be a competitive browser.  I still love my Firefox, but I grow increasingly frustrated with how poorly the Linux version of Firefox compares to the Windows version.  Then there’s the frustration of being forced to wait for a distro upgrade in order to use the latest version of Firefox.  Yes, I know I can manually configure obscure repositories – and I always do this – but it’s hard to convince my friends and family that it’s worth the extra effort.  “But in Windows, Firefox just does the update for me!”

They’re not wrong.

I’m sorry this letter has turned into a rant, Ubuntu.  I didn’t intend for it to turn out like this.

But frankly, I’m concerned.

There’s one more thing I need to bring up, Ubuntu.  Something I’ve discussed in the past.

It’s called “diplomacy.”  And frankly, you suck at it.

Six months ago I wrote about three key relationships you needed to mend if you want to be successful.  I still think those relationships are in dire need of improvement, but I realize now that I left the most important group off that list.

Your developers.

Many individuals have discussedat lengththe meltdown between various members of the Ubuntu community due to your “interesting” placement of 10.04’s window buttons.  So many discussions have taken place on this that there’s no way in hell I’m going to open that can of worms again.

But what I will say is this: you need to seriously reevaluate the message you send to the free workforce that makes Ubuntu possible.

Let me quote Fewt on the matter:

As you know the change of the title bar buttons from right to left coming in Lucid 10.04 has caused quite a stir across the internets, and has taken focus in a single bug report.  Ultimately it really is trivial to change them back to the right side; a simple gconf oneliner will move them, but there is a greater issue here.

That issue is .. community.  Thousands of users across the internet are voting overwhelmingly against this change, but unfortunately it seems that it like all other Ubuntu bugs have fallen on deaf ears.  Users reporting that they do not want the change are being told that they aren’t going to get a choice or a vote in the decision, and if they don’t like it they can fix it themselves, or they can find another distribution.

What’s worse though is that Ubuntu’s #1 is personally posting in bug threads with an utterly atrocious level of condescending attitude; degrading the very users that this product is supposed to capture.  Users that care about Linux.  Questions have been asked over and over, and evidence has been provided that it is such a bad idea and rather than listening to the people that have supported Ubuntu over the years, we receive statements like “we are not voting on design decisions” and “you don’t get to second-guess their decisions”.

Ubuntu is supposed to be a meritocracy where an elite group of people make decisions based on technical ability.  Where is this technical ability that they speak of though?  How this process seems to really work is that Mark says “make it so” and his drones say “yes master”.  That’s not a meritocracy, not at all.

The end result (like many of their other internally created components ie – Computer Janitor) is a half baked implementation of a theme that looks worse than the theme it is replacing.

I choose to vote with my feet, and maybe I’ll even host a burn your Ubuntu merchandise day since I have quite a bit of it myself.  None of it will ever see the light of day again anyway.  My talent and knowledge is far more valuable elsewhere contributing to projects that actually improve the open source community.

The comments on that thread are also interesting.  Again, I’m not going to debate who is/isn’t right in this case (though it’s hard to argue with Fewt’s POV), but let me say that the damage this issue has done to Ubuntu’s reputation among developers is extensive.  QUITE extensive.

Because if there’s anything a developer hates, it’s having their input ignored without offering a legitimate counterargument.  If a FOSS developer wanted to be treated like that, they’d go work for one of your far-more-successful competitors and make a lot more money for their efforts.

Ubuntu may not be a democracy.  That’s fine.  But when free labor is involved, the free laborers must be given some element of control – otherwise, they are absolutely justified in investing their time and energy elsewhere.

I still have hope for you, Ubuntu.  I like the against-all-odds spirit you espouse.  I believe consumers everywhere could benefit from a strong third-party OS offering, and I still think you are capable of merging your corporate and FOSS interests into a cohesive whole.

But I have concerns, Ubuntu.  I have concerns with your design, your stability, your community, your leadership, and your roadmap for the future.  10.04 looks to have some interesting changes – but are they enough to make you a viable alternative to Windows 7?

Ask me in a month, I guess.

Sincerely,

-Tanner

(Author’s Note: Let me clearly state that I love FOSS and I love Linux.  However, I’m starting to have serious doubts about whether or not Ubuntu is a good representative for Linux and FOSS as a whole.  To anyone who visits – I’m currently looking for a great KDE distro NOT based off Ubuntu.  Any suggestions based on personal experience?)

Why I Use and Promote Ubuntu Linux

I’ve been pretty hard on Ubuntu lately.  Considering that the product is free, is it appropriate for me to do things like insult its appearance and request huge lists of fixes?

I believe it is.  The first statement in the Ubuntu Philosophy reads:

Every computer user should have the freedom to download, run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees.

The “Contribute to Ubuntu” article on the Ubuntu wiki takes this a step further:

Ubuntu is most of all a community. All of the software, artwork and documentation in Ubuntu has been created, tested, used and discussed openly by people around the world participating in the Open Source community made possible by the Internet. Anyone who uses Ubuntu is part of this global community, and we invite you to help shape Ubuntu to better meet your needs. To make it yours!

Anyone can help shape and improve Ubuntu…

While I am a programmer, I have yet to try my hand at contributing code/coding to the Ubuntu project.  It seems to me that while open source can always benefit from more developers, the free software ecosystem is already chock-full of quality software written by some of the best coders in the world.

Free and open source software is not held back by a lack of coding prowess.  If anything, many pieces of proprietary software have a long way to go before they can compete with the technical accomplishments of their open source counterparts.

What I think most FOSS projects lack are things far more difficult to fix than rooms full of talented coders.  Many FOSS projects lack strong leadership.  They lack vision.  They lack designers.  They lack pragmatists.  They lack true communities.

These aspects – while more nebulous than raw coding talent – are what truly prevent free and open source software from directly competing with proprietary software.  If I examine the most successful FOSS projects (Apache, Firefox, WordPress, Wikipedia, MySQL), I see a collection of projects that may not be the most technically advanced, but that represent an excellent mix of design, leadership, vision, pragmatism, and community.

Which – not coincidentally – are the same reasons I use, advocate, promote, and attempt to improve Ubuntu.

Leadership

Mark Shuttleworth is a complex man with many fans and at least several less-than-fans (frenemies?).  But love or hate the man, it is difficult to argue with his leadership techniques.  In five short years he has turned Ubuntu from a pipe dream into the most popular desktop Linux distro on the planet (a distro even Penguin Pete is willing to try).  As a server, Ubuntu has attracted clients as large as Wikipedia – the 6th most-visited site on the internet.

A project as ambitious as building an entire OS cannot succeed without strong leadership (think Steve Jobs), and no other desktop Linux has a man like Shuttleworth at the helm.

Vision and Design

Vision is a difficult thing to quantify.  For one, I believe vision is about more than just “wanting to make the awesomest thing ever.”  Almost every FOSS project has that goal.  (Otherwise, why would they exist at all?)  But vision isn’t just about having a goal – it’s about having a firm framework in place to make such a goal possible/probable.

In 2008, Shuttleworth stated a two-year goal for desktop Linux surpassing Apple in usability.  To quote from the linked article:

“The great task in front of us over the next two years is to lift the experience of the Linux desktop from something that is stable and robust and not so pretty, into something that is art,” Shuttleworth said to applause from the audience. “Can we not only emulate, but can we blow right past Apple?”

However, he made no mention of whether Apple intends to simply sit idly by while desktop Linux catches up to and surpasses the user experience that Apple has become so well-known for.

“I see this [need] for free software—beautiful, elegant software. We have to invest in making this desktop beautiful and useful,” Shuttleworth said of Linux.

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you’ll know I have many concerns about Ubuntu’s current user experience.  But things like the 100 papercuts project and this commentary from Ivanka Majic, the leader of Canonical’s design team, give me hope:

Serdar Yegulalp (of InformationWeek): UIs in open source apps, Linux especially, are a common source of complaints from the uninitiated. What can be done about that?

Ivanka: “I don’t think there’s a silver bullet. Being able to spend the last 7 months working with our own in-house developers, getting the language right (if I change an icon, is that a “bugfix”?), feeding into the process at the right time, figuring out the release schedules, all those things. Right now, there’s not much to see — there’s a kind of shallow level of change from a visual perspective, but that’s because we’re just getting started. Nobody can do everything in six months but we can make it a little better. I think a brand-new design team can’t possibly have gone ‘ta-da!’ and handed you a brand new super shiny Ubuntu. But I think Ubuntu does get better with every release. Karmic has a kind of smoothness to it that Jaunty didn’t have. You can already tell the difference. And I’ve got massive hopes for Lucid…”

Other (read: almost all) Linux distros have prettier default themes than Ubuntu, but user experience is about more than just looks.  If 2010 passes and Ubuntu remains ugly and partially usable perhaps I’ll reevaluate my loyalty – but until then, I’m excited to see what Shuttleworth’s hand-picked team provides.

(And for those unhappy with Ubuntu’s usability: are you aware of any other distro that employs a corporate-funded design team of fourteen people from different disciplines (visual/graphics designers, interaction designers, and more)…?)

Pragmatism

The free software world is chock full of idealism.  What most large-scale FOSS projects lack is not idealism, but a solid dose of pragmatism.

Pragmatism: character or conduct that emphasizes practicality.

Take Fedora, for example.  I think Fedora is a fine distro, especially for users who want a cutting-edge desktop Linux experience.  But have you ever seen Fedora’s forbidden item list?  This is a list full of ideology, not practicality.  Fedora will never become THE desktop Linux distro because proprietary drivers, like them or not, are an unavoidable necessity for at least 5+ more years (maybe longer for certain hardware vendors).  OGV is a great format, but recommending it instead of DVDs is not practical for anyone.

Please do not mistake my commentary as a slam against ideological individuals or distros.  I think the free and open source world benefits greatly from its strong ideological background, and I hope it never loses support from ideological purists.  But in order to compete with Windows and OSX, any potential mainstream Linux desktop must sacrifice certain ideologies for the sake of practicality.  If it doesn’t, it will be forever doomed to obscure usage among tech-savvy individuals only (which may be what many ideologists want, but that’s another matter entirely).

Ubuntu does an admirable job of walking the fine line between ideology and pragmatism.  It ships only a handful of questionable packages by default, and for heavily-used but patent-encumbered software (mp3, DVDs, etc.) it provides easy installation with full disclosure of the risks involved.  I have mixed feelings about Mono and Moonlight, but if they can someday get me Netflix Instant Watch on Linux I’m all for supporting them.

Ubuntu has also extended its hand to commercial developers via the forthcoming Software CenterThis could be the best thing desktop Linux has done to attract developers. I have no idea how well the Software Center will perform in this regard, but its creation is absolutely an excellent usability move with a great deal of potential.

What other desktop Linux distros actively strive to engage commercial developers?

Community

I’ve discussed the Ubuntu community at length elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning again.  I am not aware of another desktop Linux community that offers a breadth of information comparable to Ubuntu’s.  Extensive documentation, a huge wiki, paid support options, lively forums, IRC, mailing lists, LoCo teams, books, fan sites galore…

Need I go on?

Ubuntu has rallied an impressive combination of professionals, developers, and casual users to its cause.  With so much at stake, I worry that if the Ubuntu project can’t provide a viable competitor to Windows and OSX, will any other desktop Linux ever have a chance?

Conclusions

I am deeply concerned with the stagnation that has consumed proprietary desktop OSes over the last ten years.  Hardware power has grown in leaps and bounds, but how well have mainstream operating systems evolved to utilize such power?  Viruses and overall security remain a rampant problem, general OS usability is no better than it was 10 years ago, and even the visual presentation of OSes has made only minimal progress toward something truly artistic and not just “functional.”

I believe that a competitive desktop Linux distro could change this.  If all software developers wrote and designed software for OSes they could actively contribute to, we could see massive improvements across all forms of software in a remarkably short period of time.  If all hardware drivers and software formats were standardized and open sourced, how much more time could be spent improving hardware and software instead of just getting it to work at all?  If consumers weren’t forced to pay hundreds of dollars for an OS that was mediocre at best, they could instead spend those hundreds of dollars on software – potentially leading to more jobs for software developers, not less.

Look at the improvements that have come about because of a simple standardization like USB.  Love or hate the spec itself, does anyone really want to go back to the days of competing serial/parallel/PS2/SCSI/etc. interfaces?  Would the internet be what it is without open standards and open source software?

A functional, reliable, usability-focused desktop Linux distro has the potential to redefine desktop computing (which – despite the hype behind cloud computing – will still be around for many years, particularly in developing nations).  Proprietary OSes have had 20 years to give us a better desktop experience, and have they succeeded?

Ha.

I use Ubuntu because it provides me a better desktop experience than Windows.  I promote Ubuntu because I know it can provide others with a better desktop experience.  I advocate Ubuntu not just because free and open source software can save people money, but because FOSS represents an excellent long-term investment in improving the human condition via technology.  I attempt to improve Ubuntu because without honest criticism, it cannot meet any of its stated goals.

I apologize if this post comes across as melodramatic or hammy.  I don’t mean for it to be anything but sincere.

Ubuntu is an excellent distro and I will continue to praise it when it excels.  Conversely, I (and many others) will criticize it when it falls short.  (For the record, I much prefer the former.)

And to any developers that I have implicitly insulted via my critiques: I apologize.  I mean no disrespect.  Your work is absolutely appreciated.

But please – take my criticism for what it’s worth, and use it to improve your project.  If I unfairly characterize something, please correct me.

Because at the end of the day we’re all working toward the same goal: a better desktop computing experience.  I’ll do it my way.  You’ll do it your way.  And hopefully, the end product will represent the combined best of all our efforts.

Day 10 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is the final day of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 10 – Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts

I believe that the One Hundred Paper Cuts project will end up being the most significant thing Ubuntu contributes to the Linux ecosphere.

Yes, that’s right – more significant than PPAs, Launchpad, Upstart, or any other Ubuntu innovation.

Think that’s crazy?  Rest assured that it isn’t.

Here’s why.

There is no “one flaw” that explains why Linux has yet to reach mass market adoption.  People can talk about any number of individual problems – be it hardware support, marketing, stability, whatever – but at the end of the day it is impossible to argue that either Windows or OSX surpasses Linux in all of these areas.  For every person who argues that hardware support is better under Windows, another person will argue that it’s better under Linux, and the same could be said for any other macro-level problem.

So if there is not a “master flaw” that keeps Linux distros from becoming mainstream desktop OSes, what are other possible explanations?  In my opinion, the primary problem is not any one failure in particular, but the sum total of a number of very small, almost-consequential-on-an-individual-basis problems.

I’m talking about paper cuts.

Ask yourself, for a moment, why Apple is commonly referenced as the de facto standard of technological usability.  (I realize this is up for debate, but clearly the mainstream media and general public – at least in the U.S. – believe that Apple represents a high point in usability design.)  Is it because of some singular feature?  Some singular design?

No.  It is because Apple sells products with a singular design focus: a simple, cohesive user experience.  Every program looks and acts roughly the same under OSX.  An iPhone doesn’t have twenty different interfaces for twenty different system menus.  Your new iPod works in a way that is logical and easy-to-understand, even if you don’t know anything about the underlying technology.

Where Apple has excelled is in selling the idea that their products are fun and simple to use.  Microsoft tries to do this, and so far has failed.  Linux…

…well, I’m not sure how Linux distros attempt to portray this.

At the end of the day, Apple teaches us something very interesting about technology: that most consumers really don’t care which product is more technologically advanced.  They care which product is more fun and simple to use.  That was the real innovation behind the iPod, and arguably the innovation behind most of Apple’s products.

Now I am not an Apple fan, and I don’t think the Apple business model is the only way to operate.  But it is difficult to argue with Apple’s general marketing prowess, particularly when it comes to their carefully crafted messaging of Apple products as being both the most fun and the most usable.

So why the lengthy rant about Apple’s marketing success?  Because Mark Shuttleworth, the owner of Canonical, has stated that by the end of 2010 he wants Ubuntu to be competitive with OSX in terms of user experience.  Not coincidentally, this article series is about the last Ubuntu release of 2010 (Ubuntu 10.10).

Some macro-level features have already emerged in Ubuntu that will address this competition in grand fashion.  (Ubuntu’s Software Center versus Apple’s AppStore, for example.)  But Apple has not achieved its status in the tech world because of any one magical feature, so while the arrival of these macro-level features in Ubuntu is clearly good, such features alone are not an indicator of the project’s future success.

The real measure of Ubuntu’s competition with Apple will be in the way that minor, seemingly inconsequential interface problems are resolved.

Or said another way: the real measure of Ubuntu’s future success will be the way it deals with desktop Linux’s many, many, MANY paper cuts.

Really, I view the resolution of paper cuts as the ultimate purpose of individual Linux distros.  Major feature development is often best left to specific development teams (such as kernel, KDE/GNOME, or application developers).  Distros must focus more on rolling other group’s major pieces of software into a coherent whole.  Ubuntu has yet to do that as successfully as they need to if they want to compete with Apple the way Shuttleworth has outlined.

As an example, consider the paper cuts being addressed in the upcoming 9.10 release (Karmic Koala). Some of my favorites include:

  • F-Spot puts photos in Photos folder not Pictures folder
  • Changing workspaces via scrollwheel on desktop is problematic, especially when using touchpad
  • Default folders inside Home Folder (e.g. Documents, Music) should have special icons/emblems
  • “Auto eth0” confusing for most people
  • The thumbnail of an image should not be bigger than the image itself
  • Spellcheck in Gaim, Evolution, gedit etc doesn’t recognize “Ubuntu”
  • Annoying beep on shutdown using “System -> Shut down…”
  • ‘Open With’ Nautilus list is unsorted

Note that none of these paper cuts are likely to be mentioned in any of the major 9.10 release announcements or reviews.  Additionally, no new user is likely to drop Ubuntu because of just one of these issues.

But when you look at the sum total of them (and this is but a sampling of the ~100 being addressed), you realize that those are some pretty damn annoying quirks, and all of them together represent a major barrier to the viability of Ubuntu as a major desktop OS.

So please take me seriously when I say that Ubuntu’s ability to deal with paper cuts will represent its single greatest success or failure.  Canonical must know that specialized distros will almost always surpass Ubuntu in terms of hardware support, performance, stability, and any number of other macro-level features.  As such, I hope the Ubuntu community doesn’t spend an undue amount of energy trying to compete with other distros/OSes on those merits alone.

Because if desktop Linux is ever going to truly succeed, it will not be because of some as-of-yet undiscovered “killer feature.”  It will not be because of tremendous technical prowess.  (If that were the case, you can bet it would have already won.)

It will be because it has successfully dealt with its many, many, MANY paper cuts.

Conclusion: The most important Ubuntu 10.10 feature will be the successful resolution of as many “paper cuts” as humanly possible.

<< Day 9 – Renewed Focus on Marketing

Day 9 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 9 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 9 – Renewed Focus on Marketing

Many people have thrown out opinions as to why Linux companies don’t market directly to the masses, and the opinions usually settle on a handful of ideas – Linux is already free, so marketing is irrelevant.  There’s no money to be made with the Linux desktop, so Linux companies should focus on servers and services instead.  Hardware support still isn’t where it needs to be, so marketing is premature.

I find all of these excuses irrelevant.  Given the time, money, and energy Canonical has invested into the desktop version of Ubuntu, the company clearly stands to benefit from a profitable desktop Linux distro.  Whether that money comes from direct sales, support plans, or added services is irrelevant from a marketing standpoint, because every one of those mechanism’s profits is directly proportional to the number of people using Ubuntu.

So today’s feature request is simple: between now and Ubuntu 10.10, I’d like to see Canonical invest some resources in true-to-life marketing.  This could take any number of forms, and not necessarily “conventional” ones (tv, radio, google ads, etc).  If anything, I’d love to see an entirely viral marketing campaign, or at least some resources invested in a community-based effort.

Apparently marketing efforts have been discussed in the past, because Ubuntu does have a Marketing Team.  However, according to that page their next meeting is on July 5th…2008.

Clearly the Marketing Team could use a little help.

Interestingly, there is also a DIY Marketing page.  This page contains links to posters, icons, CD sleeves, and more… but the bulk of the links are for v7.04 and earlier.

So what can be done?  For starters, why not hold a contest and allow community members to submit their best marketing ideas?  Select a few winners, then encourage people to use the winning marketing messages in any art form they can concoct.  Encourage fans to stick posters up at their local university computer lab.  Give out a prize to the creator of the best Ubuntu-related YouTube video.  Amass hundreds of cool images that can be used on websites, t-shirts, hats, gear, or anything else people can dream up.

As an example, here are three .pngs I whipped out in a matter of minutes:

i_ubuntu
Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes) refers to this as "verbing"
ubuntu_love
Based on a true story
ubuntu_programs
Makes a nice impression, doesn't it?

If I – an amateur – can put those together in a matter of minutes, imagine what the many talented artists and designers of the Ubuntu community could do.

<< Day 8 – Better Online Video Experience

Day 10 – Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts, Paper Cuts >>

Day 8 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 8 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 8 – Better Online Video Experience

Today’s topic is a diverse one, as there are really several issues at play.  So bear with me as we tackle each component of the currently lacking Linux online video experience.

Improvement 1: Get Everyone to Embrace <video>

HTML 5’s <video> tag is a brilliant idea.  The gist of <video> is to make using a video in a webpage as simple as using an image – simply place <video src=”http://…”></video> in your page, and HTML5-compliant browsers will handle the video playback directly (as opposed to using a crappy 3rd-party plugin).  The <video> tag is currently supported by Firefox 3.5+, Safari 3+, Chrome 3+, and most likely the next version of Opera (v11?).

This solution alone solves the biggest problem with online video in Linux – the ever-terrible Flash plugin.  Adobe’s Linux-compatible Flash plugin is slow, cumbersome, prone to errors, and there is still nothing better than an alpha version for 64-bit platforms.

Fortunately, the <video> tag leapfrogs most of the Flash debacle by negating the most common purpose of the Flash plugin: online video.  The tag becomes even sexier when used as part of a full video solution, such as Kroc Camen’s excellent Video for Everybody.

With Firefox 3.5 appearing in Ubuntu 9.10 and excellent improvements happening to the Theora encoder and decoder, widespread adoption of the <video> tag could be the best thing to happen to the online Linux video experience in a long time.

Improvement 2: A Better Official Flash Plugin

No need for extended commentary here.  Basically, Adobe needs to quit screwing around and release a Linux Flash plugin that performs as well as the Windows and Mac versions.  I can get smooth full-screen Flash playback in Windows – so why not in Linux?  (And don’t blame my video drivers, because I’m using the same proprietary nvidia drivers on both installs.)

I wish this is something that a company other than Adobe could solve, but alas.  Proprietary software is just that – proprietary.

Nevertheless, I’m all for Canonical lobbying Adobe if they think it would result in any improvements.

Improvement 3: Better Gnash and Swfdec Performance

I have to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to Gnash and Swfdec.  Both are free “replacements” for Adobe Flash, but at present both are quite a ways away from being full-featured Flash replacements.

I’ve heard that Swfdec works with more online video sites then Gnash (can someone verify this…?), but Swfdec hasn’t issued a new stable release since last December.  Gnash released their latest version just last week.  I’m also encouraged by recent work from Splitted Hardware Systems on getting H.264 hardware acceleration into Gnash.  According to that link (courtesy of Phoronix), 1080p playback with the proper Gnash patch is now better than Adobe’s own Flash 10 player.  Sweet!

Even if Improvement #1 takes place, Linux users would still benefit greatly from an open-source plugin to replace the non-video parts of Flash.  I’d love to see Ubuntu ship either Gnash or Swfdec by default, which would increase awareness of both projects and result in more widespread testing and feedback.

Improvement 4: Netflix on Linux (via Moonlight, perhaps…?)

Talking about this improvement only serves to upset me, I’m afraid.

But it must be mentioned.  AGAIN.

I’m a big Netflix fan.  “Instant Watch” is a great feature.  “Instant Watch” doesn’t work on Linux.  It won’t for a long time, thanks to Microsoft’s unwillingness to port their DRM stack.  I doubt that Canonical could put much pressure on Microsoft to port that code (though it might be humorous for them to try), but I wonder if Canonical could leverage its weight and perhaps convince Netflix to put the pressure on Microsoft.  If Netflix threatened to go with a non-Silverlight implementation for “Instant Watch,” I bet Microsoft would respond.

In the meantime, all we can do is sign petitions, rally support, and laugh at the irony of Netflix’s Roku device running on Linux.

Sometimes the world is a sick place.

Conclusions

I’d love to see all the above improvements take place, but if I had to pick just one it would be continued adoption of HTML 5’s <video> tag, because anything that halts the spread of Adobe software is a good thing in my book.  I also believe that the potential of online video is greatly held back by Adobe’s unwillingness to improve Flash in a timely manner, and <video> won’t just solve that for Linux users – it’ll solve it for the entire internet.

<< Day 7 – Mend Key Relationships

Day 9 – Renewed Focus on Marketing >>

Day 7 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 7 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 7 – Mend Key Relationships

Today’s article does not discuss a “feature,” per se, but it’s something so crucially important to the continued success of the Ubuntu project that it’s worth discussing here.

Ubuntu has a lot of fans, and rightfully so.  It’s a great distribution that continues to do great things for The Linux Desktop.

But as time passes, the opponents of Ubuntu become more and more vocal.  In order to ensure continued growth and support, Canonical needs to mend three key relationships.

The Women of FOSS

If you haven’t heard of the recent uproar caused by Mark Shuttleworth’s LinuxCon speech, you eventually will. Though I have yet to see an official transcript or video, word on the street is that Mark made a comment along the lines of “we need to make Linux easier to explain to girls.”  Some in the Linux community have taken this opportunity to question whether or not Shuttleworth is a chauvinist, while others have gone so far as to discuss boycotting Ubuntu.

Personally, I (and others) like to believe that we live in a world where people should be considered innocent until proven guilty.  A video or transcript of the speech has yet to emerge, so anyone jumping the gun on this issue needs to take a deep breath and wait until details emerge.  Even if it turns out that Shuttleworth did say something along these lines, let the man have a chance to explain and/or apologize.  I highly doubt he was using this statement to claim that no girls understand Linux.  Women are a key part of FOSS and Ubuntu has a thriving women’s organization.

But regardless, this is a relationship that needs to be mended as soon as possible.  By the time Ubuntu 10.10 rolls around, the Ubuntu project would benefit enormously by re-establishing itself as an organization that greatly values women and their many contributions to FOSS.

Upstream (Especially Debian)

Bad blood between Debian and Ubuntu goes way back.  In 2006, ITWire posted a great article that analyzed some of the emerging discontent between the two groups.  Nearly three years later, not much has changed.

It’s well-known that the Debian project is home to any number of loudly outspoken individuals, and these individuals have only polarized further and further as the project continues to wrestle with a number of ideological issues.

But I think it’s difficult to argue that either Debian or Ubuntu is going anywhere but forward.  Contrary to what some may say, Ubuntu is capable of bringing great value to the Debian project – but they need to make it a priority.  In the next 12 months, I’d love to see Canonical continue to make strides to repair its relationship with Debian.

And they shouldn’t just stop there.  The Ubuntu project needs to make it abundantly clear that they take their upstream relationships seriously. The start of the Ubuntu Upstream Report last year was a good idea, but it remains in beta and needs additional work before it can really be demonstrative of a “serious” upstream commitment.

Users of other Distros

Some amount of distro fanboy/girlism is inevitable, but Ubuntu seems to polarize the Linux userbase more than your average distro.  The majority of Linux users I’ve met are either big fans of Ubuntu or they think it’s the worst thing to hit Linux since binary blobs.  A recent tuxmachines.org survey related to boycotting Ubuntu reveals some intriguing numbers – if the site were to boycott Ubuntu, 40% of respondents would visit less or not at all, 40% would visit the same, and 14% would visit more.  Think other distros would generate a similar response?  I don’t.

I’m not sure what Ubuntu can do to address this issue, though mending the two relationships already discussed wouldn’t hurt.  Popularity will always incite some amount of bitterness, but I (and others) would love to see Ubuntu gain more respect from the entire Linux userbase.  Strong performance numbers, quality releases, and continued unique contributions should all help in this arena.

Conclusions

Ubuntu 10.10 is more than a year off, and I’m sure all the relationships mentioned above will continue to evolve between now and then.  Canonical can’t maximize its success without support from all the groups mentioned in this article, so I stand by the notion that mending the above relationships should be a key “feature” to implement by the time Ubuntu 10.10 releases.

<< Day 6 – Simple, Reliable, Integrated Backup Tool

Day 8 – A Better Online Video Experience >>

Day 6 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 6 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 6 – Simple, Reliable, Integrated Backup Tool

Today’s article is a bit more to-the-point, largely because it has been detailed in great length (95 pages) elsewhere.  Linux offers many potential options for backing up your data, but no GUI-based options are included in a default Ubuntu install.  Windows’ System Restore has been around since Windows Me (2000), and Windows Backup – though flawed in many ways – has existed since XP launched in 2001.  Apple users got Time Machine as part of Leopard (October 2007).  Ubuntu still doesn’t ship with an out-of-the-box backup solution, and a new user is going to be completely overwhelmed by all the options presented in the official help documentation for “back up your system.”

I would like to see three backup options emerge by the time Ubuntu 10.10 rolls around:

  1. Automatic silent backups, as in a more comprehensive  “System Restore” or “Time Machine” equivalent
  2. Improved on-demand and automated cloud backup tools (think Ubuntu One, Dropbox)
  3. On-demand total backup tool (primarily for use with removable/network drives)

Note that in a perfect world, these would all be components of one master backup tool.

“System Restore” or “Time Machine” Equivalent

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they need backups until it’s too late.  If Ubuntu has real aspirations of becoming a mainstream OS, it needs to provide some sort of automated system snapshot tool with an easy interface for rolling back lost or corrupted data.

Unlike Windows’ “System Restore”, it would be nice if you could customize what Ubuntu’s System Restore backs up.  I’d also love to have the option of backing up data to a dedicated partition, a tarball, external drive(s), network locations, FTP, or even an Ubuntu One or Dropbox account.

Online/”Cloud” Backups (Ubuntu One, Dropbox, etc.)

Despite the controversy surrounding its inception, I think Ubuntu One is a great idea.  Unfortunately, the 2gb it offers freely (and 10gb if you pay) isn’t nearly enough for a comprehensive backup solution.  I imagine larger solutions will emerge in the future, but the fact of the matter is that “cloud”-based backups are probably not a great option for the average user.  The time required for an initial backup of a 500gb-1tb drive over DSL (or dial-up, god forbid) is simply not practical.

However, businesses, universities, and individuals with great internet connections may like to see “cloud” options more tightly integrated into a full backup solution.

Personally, I don’t consider this to be a huge priority – but if it happened it would be cool.

On-Demand Backups

On-demand backups are the simplest kind to implement.  The first time they’re performed, a full backup should be done.  Every backup after that point should be instead considered a sync.

A number of GUI-based and CL-based tools exist, so this type of backup software is the most likely to end up in a default Ubuntu 10.10 install.  However, Ubuntu One is clearly a focus for Canonical, so maybe we’ll see some updates on that front over the next year.

The “System Restore” or “Time Machine” equivalent seems least likely to happen, but given that Microsoft and Apple have implemented this, Ubuntu can’t afford to wait 2-3 years before offering something similar.

(Note: if you would like a backup solution before Ubuntu 10.10 arrives, my current recommendation is Back in Time.)

<< Day 5 – Solid, Functional Video Editing

Day 7 – Mend Key Relationships >>

Day 5 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 5 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 5 – Solid, Functional Video Editing

One of the recurring comments submitted to me while researching this article was the current lack of a great Linux video editor, and I have to agree.  The last 10 years have seen video editing move from the professional to the hobbyist to the casual user realm, and people with almost no computer experience are now using software like Windows Movie Maker and iMovie to compile home videos, travelogues, and wedding slideshows.

Unfortunately, Linux remains a mixed bag when it comes to video editing.  There are a lot of video tools available, but not really a “best” option.  Lifehacker’s recent Ubuntu wishlist described the problem thusly:

“In Linux, there are a range of options, almost none of them with a finished feel, and all of them front-loaded with codec, dependency, and interface headaches galore… While Ubuntu isn’t in the video software business, the many folks who contribute time, thought, and sometimes money to the project could consider this a serious missing link in the Linux application space.”

Lifehacker certainly isn’t the first to bemoan the lack of a go-to Linux video editor.  You can find essays on this same topic going back many years (here’s a good one from 2004, for example) – and most of them sound exactly the same: “Linux offers a lot of options, but none feel complete.”

So now, in late 2009, what kind of state do we find Linux video editing in?  In some ways, much has improved – a number of new programs have arisen in recent years, for example – but in other ways we’re in the exact same spot.  The same old programs have the same old problems (I’m looking at you, Kino) and there’s still not a good “go-to” app for video editing.

But this article series isn’t about where Ubuntu is today – it’s about features we want to see by the time 10.10 rolls around.

To that end, I’m going to give a quick assessment of 5 promising Linux video editors – Cinelerra, Kdenlive, OpenShot, PiTiVi, and Kino – and what I think the likelihood is that any one of these will become “the” Linux video editor.  (Note: there are many other options for Linux video editing, but I think these 5 are the most likely to fit the bill for this article – possibilities for default inclusion in Ubuntu 10.10.)

Cinelerra

Cinelerra is arguably the biggest, baddest video editor you’ll find in Linux.  Its feature list is impressive, it offers both a corporate and community supported version, and its screenshots make it look competitive with most multi-hundred dollar commercial offerings for other OSes.

The downsides?  It’s user interface is ridiculously confusing, it has a very complicated licensing structure, and to use it in Ubuntu you’ll probably need to compile it from scratch.

Verdict: no way does Cinelerra fit into the same category as Windows Movie Maker and iMovie.  It’s only for the hard-core and extremely patient, neither of which seems to be a key demographic for Canonical. Also, the Lumiera rewrite is a promising idea, but until it becomes stable it’s impossible to predict how the effort will payoff.

Kdenlive

Kdenlive is arguably the most popular video editing option for KDE users, as many distros include it by default.  Its interface integrates nicely within the KDE environment, and even beginners should be able to make sense of the default layout. Kdenlive also supports a wide variety of formats via the ffmpeg library, direct video import, active development, and – gasp! – it even has a user manual.

Downsides? For Ubuntu users, the KDE factor makes it an unlikely default choice. Stability issues are an ongoing factor, no gstreamer, and at least in my experience I’ve found the program unfortunately sluggish.

Verdict: Kdenlive is a promising program with a ton of potential, but too many dealbreakers exist for it to be a likely contender for Ubuntu 10.10’s default video editor.

OpenShot

OpenShot has a classic FOSS story – a developer tries Ubuntu, likes it, looks for a video editor, can’t find one that fits his needs, so he resolves to write his own.  Most of those stories end with “it didn’t work out,” but not OpenShot.  This month the young project passed the 10,000 mark for its .DEB installer and development continues at a frantic pace.  OpenShot’s feature list is shaping up nicely, the developers quickly comment on every bug and feature request in Launchpad, and the use of gstreamer and GTK is ideal for Ubuntu inclusion.

Downsides?  OpenShot isn’t available via PPA, which has prevented large-scale testing (though one is supposedly in the works).  It’s written in Python – a beautiful language, but bytecode-implemented and notoriously slow, not to mention that multi-threading in Python typically requires use of C extensions (not sure how the OpenShot team feels about that).

Verdict: OpenShot is a strong contender for a default Ubuntu 10.10 video editor, but much hinges on the type of large-scale testing that’s just beginning to take place.  Also, if multiprocessor support cannot be easily supported, performance may become an issue.

PiTiVi

Our next strong contender comes in the form of PiTiVi, another GTK+ and gstreamer-based video project written primarily in Python. PiTiVi has the strong bonus of being sponsored by Collabora, a company who has already contributed enormously to gstreamer, telepathy, and other key components of the modern Linux desktop (thank you, Collabora!). PiTiVi has the advantage of lead developers with proven gstreamer experience, a very smart modular design, plus a PPA for individuals interested in testing.

Downsides? For a five-year-old project, it’s unfortunate that transitions, titling, and effects are still on PiTiVi’s wishlist.  PiTiVi’s gstreamer integration is second-to-none, but without these basic tools it is currently little more than an experiment in the most basic elements of video editing.

Verdict: I have huge hopes for PiTiVi, but development pace continues to be a concern.  The 0.13 line has brought some welcome improvements, but the likelihood of PiTiVi reaching feature parity with other entry-level video editors by Ubuntu 10.10 is very, very slim.

Kino

Last but not least, we have classic Kino – one of the most commonly recommended entry-level video editors for Linux.  Kino is built with GTK+ but not gstreamer and is heavily based upon the premise of importing DV via firewire.  The latest version (1.3.4 as of this writing) has a solid feature list, and Kino boasts the most comprehensive user manual I’ve seen for a Linux video editor (although it’s only accurate through v1.0).

Downsides? Kino development has lapsed greatly since its primary contributor switched his focus to MLT (an excellent decision on his part, IMO). An aging codebase and architecture make it an unlikely candidate for forking, and my experience with the software has been plagued by frequent freezes and/or crashes.

Verdict: Kino continues to provide service to the Linux community as a simple entry-level editor, but its time has passed. Unless forked and/or rebuilt largely from scratch, I think Kino’s future contains only basic maintenance, not innovation.

Conclusion

Despite my complaints at the start of this article, there is actually a lot to be excited about when it comes to Linux video editing.  GStreamer and MLT in particular have made the likelihood of an excellent Linux video editor much more probable, and within the next 12 months I expect great things to happen in this arena.

In my opinion, OpenShot and PiTiVi are the most likely contenders for Ubuntu 10.10’s video editor of choice.  OpenShot offers a great vision, growing community excitement, and a rapidly-progressing feature set. PiTiVi offers a technically advanced backend, excellent architectural design, and a team of proven developers.

Which will win out?  I’m no psychic, but if I had to bet – my money’s on OpenShot. :)

But this is open source we’re talking about, so things can change rapidly.  Personally, I’d love to see PiTiVi, Kdenlive, and OpenShot all blossom into solid, proven projects by the time Ubuntu 10.10 rolls around.

For more information, each project’s homepage is available here:

And a more complete list of available Linux video editors can be found here:

<< Day 4 – Real Wine Integration

Day 6 – Simple, Reliable, Integrated Backup Tool >>

Day 4 – 10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests

Today is day 4 of my “10 Days of Ubuntu 10.10 Feature Requests” series.  See the series introduction here.

Day 4 – Real Wine Integration

(See official documentation for this project here.)  I discovered today that ways to address this issue are already being discussed, but it deserves a special call-out.

The transition from Windows to Ubuntu can be very pleasant.  (Yes, that says pleasant.)  Analogs exist for most standard software (browser, audio player, etc.), but many people will find that at least one or two of their favorite pieces of Windows software have no direct correlation in Windows.  This is especially true for gamers.

In many cases, the software in question can be run under Wine.  Some Windows software is so reliable as to receive a Platinum Rating, which the Wine AppDB describes as “Applications which install and run flawlessly on an out-of-the-box Wine installation.”  Today’s Top 10 Platinum List includes games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy XI, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and more.

Unfortunately, Wine is not integrated into an out-of-the-box Ubuntu install.  I am not sure of the reasoning behind this (though I suspect that free install CD space is a factor), but Ubuntu is missing a golden opportunity by not using Wine to its fullest extent.

In the perfect world, I envision a user putting in his World of Warcraft CD and being greeted by the following dialog box:

How cool would it be to boot up Ubuntu, insert your World of Warcraft disc, then see this dialog?
How cool would it be to boot up Ubuntu, insert a World of Warcraft disc, then see this dialog?

Yes, I realize that an implementation like this is likely more difficult than it seems (particularly in languages other than English).  However, I also don’t think it should be dismissed out-of-hand.  Wine’s AppDB is quite extensive, and if .exe titles on inserted CDs could be matched up with their corresponding AppDB entry, a dialog box like this wouldn’t be unreasonably difficult to generate.

Just imagine the look on your friend’s faces when they install Ubuntu and their favorite Windows games work just fine.  Impossible?

Not necessarily.

<< Day 3 – Improved Visual Aesthetics

Day 5 – Solid, Functional Video Editing >>