Support Linux by Not Writing Linux-Only Software

Phoronix ran a story today about the keynote address at this year’s Fedora India Conference.  The speech can be viewed in its entirety here, but one quote in particular is drawing attention:

The number one enemy we have today is ourselves. And I mean that with all seriousness. Too many times we shoot ourselves in our own foot, by the way we act, the way we deal with people, in our narrowminded-ness that we develop.

The quote and ensuing explanation appears around the 44:00 mark.  It’s worth a watch.

This is a great quote not just for Linux developers and contributors, but for Linux users as well.  It’s especially interesting coming from a Fedora project leader, considering the Fedora project is well-known for its very myopic rules about included software.  (FYI – Fedora does not include any proprietary software, including proprietary drivers, Adobe Flash, Skype, etc.  Is that an example of “shooting yourself in the foot”…?)

In this article, I’m not going talk about the obvious “Linux is its own worst enemy” topics.  Plenty of other people are more qualified to talk about hardware support, FOSS jingoism, obnoxious users, design problems.  No, I’d like to mention something more obscure, but still deserving of attention:

Developing software exclusively for Linux.

Linux-exclusive software should be the exception, not the rule

One of the Linux-centric software projects I’ve followed over the past several years is the OpenShot Video Editor project.  I first discovered OpenShot while researching Linux video editing software in 2009 for a series of Ubuntu articles.  At the time, I considered OpenShot the best choice for default video editor in Ubuntu 10.10.  Canonical eventually went with Pitivi instead, a decision I and many others wondered about.  To quote one article on the topic:

In my view, Ubuntu is doing desktop Linux a huge disservice by putting in basic, buggy tools and then advertising its product as having “video editing” capabilities. The short point is that it hasn’t, and users moving to Ubuntu on the basis of this promise will be bitterly disappointed, tainting their overall view of Linux.

Canonical later rethought this decision; in 11.10 they removed Pitivi from the default install.  The reasoning behind the decision?  According to the linked article:

The lack of ‘polish’ and maturity to the application was also highlighted, with one attendee wondering whether its ‘basic’ nature impacted negatively on the perception of the Ubuntu desktop as a whole.

Ironic, eh?

I don’t mean to slam Pitivi.  Collabora, the company who funds Pitivi’s development, is an incredible contributor to the open-source world and they employ a team of very talented developers.  Seriously – they just released a demo of a video editor built entirely in HTML5.  They’re incredible.

But writing desktop video editing software is tough, especially video editing software provided for free.  Pitivi continues to grow and improve, but it simply wasn’t ready for the big-time in 2009.  That’s okay.

Anyway, OpenShot continues to improve at an impressive rate.  In late 2010, OpenShot crossed what I consider the “maturity line” for an open source project – it began work on a Windows port.  The response to this was mixed, as always.  Many users realized the benefits of making OpenShot cross-platform.  Some, unfortunately, did not.  As one commenter said:

When I’ve seen projects that aim to be multi OS, the Linux version is always the second hand version. More people use Windows so new features are added to the Windows version and no one gives a shit about the Linux users. I have seen it many times, haven’t you?

Why not just use all the time for the Linux version to make it as great as possible. There are already more than enough video editors for Windows anyway.

This is a valid concern.  Take Songbird, for example.  Songbird started out as a promising cross-platform media player with top-tier Linux support.  This lasted four years, until the team made the hard choice to completely drop Linux.  It was an unfortunate loss, but it’s hard to fault the Songbird developers.  They’re a small team and audio support in Linux has never been simple to work with.  (FYI, untested nightly builds are still available for adventurous users.)

But I would argue that projects like Songbird are the exception and not the rule.  While it may seem like Linux-only projects are betraying their loyal base by developing Windows or OSX versions, I would argue that cross-platform development is actually better for Linux as a whole, better for individual software projects and their developers, and ultimately better for Linux users.

Cross-Platform Software Removes One of Linux’s Biggest Barriers of Entry

It’s been said a million times before: one of the hardest things about switching from Windows to Linux is learning new software.  This has gotten easier over time; after all, modern users are probably using the same browser on Windows that they would on Linux, and mature open source projects like LibreOffice, Pidgin, GIMP and Inkscape provide a similar experience regardless of which OS you use.  As we move to a world where more and more software lives within the browser, the switch will get even easier.

But when a new Linux user can’t find a Linux version of software that he or she is used to (Adobe products, MS Office, etc), they suddenly have a very good reason to give up on the platform as a whole.  Even if a Linux alternative is better than whatever they were using before, the fact that it isn’t familiar is often enough to scare them away.

The typical answer to this is: “everything would be better if Adobe and Apple and Microsoft and everyone else just released Linux versions of their software.”  I agree.  That would be better.

But does anyone really think this is going to happen?  Do you really envision a day when you can buy a copy of Microsoft Office for Linux?  I’m afraid I don’t.

So if we can’t force companies to release their software on Linux, we have to do the next best thing – take the best of Linux software and make it available on other platforms.  In the last five years, projects like Firefox and Chrome have done way more to improve Linux adoption than the Linux-only competitors of Epiphany and Konqueror – not because either of those projects are crap (just the opposite, they’re great), but because creating software only for Linux users doesn’t help people make the switch.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  I am absolutely not saying that projects like Epiphany and Konqueror are stupid, or that they don’t serve a purpose, or that they are hurting Linux.  Both are mature, well-written, technical accomplishments from talented contributors, and they definitely fill a niche.

But when it comes to making Linux a viable competitor to OSX or Windows, Firefox and Chrome are the ones to thank.

(Note: yes, I realize that webkit came from KHTML which came from Konqueror.  This doesn’t invalidate my point.)

In the perfect world, Linux users would have access to all the same software as Windows and OSX users.  Releasing a Windows and OSX port of your awesome Linux-only project is a step toward making that happen.

As a Developer, You Will Get More Donations, Support, and Feedback from a Cross-Platform Release

Let’s return to the Songbird example.  In the team’s blog post about why they dropped Linux, they provide the following chart “for perspective”:

It’s hard to argue with those numbers.  Yes, in certain areas (like translations) Linux users contributed more on a per-user basis than Windows or Mac users.  But not that much more.  When you factor in the difficulty of working with audio in Linux, you can see why the Songbird team made the tough decision to drop Linux support entirely.

This same pattern shows up elsewhere.  For gamers, consider the Humble Indie Bundle – Linux users donated 3x more money, per user, than Windows users.  That’s an awesome statistic.  But the sad reality is that there are tons more Windows users, and for the Humble Indie Bundle that meant that revenue from Windows users as a whole was significantly larger than revenue from Linux users.

I point this out only to show that open source developers can receive many benefits – financial and otherwise – from releasing software on as many platforms as possible.  And if you as a developer get more feedback and more money, that will help you produce better software for everyone who uses your products – including your loyal Linux fanbase.

This Isn’t a Major Problem, But It’s Something to Consider

Is Linux-only software the biggest problem facing the open source community?  Hell no.  It’s probably not in the top 10 or 100 or 1000 problems.  But I do think it’s something to point out, especially for Linux projects that seem perpetually close to becoming “great”… only never quite getting there.  Several examples come to mind.

Calligra (formerly KOffice) is a promising open-source office suite developed by KDE.  Personally, I think the project is way ahead of LibreOffice in key areas, particularly the interface.  Consider their word processor, which is one of the few designed with widescreen monitors in mind:

Calligra Words screenshot. Note the very nice use of horizontal real estate. (image courtesy of http://www.calligra-suite.org/words/)

I’m not a Linux software developer, but I would love to contribute to the Calligra project as a tester.  My problem?  I spend most of my time in Windows, and I need a word processor that works in both OSes.  Calligra’s Windows version is in a perpetual state of disarray, and I don’t want the hassle of running my word processor in a VM.  How many testers and contributors is this very cool project missing out on because there is no Windows port?  Would a complex piece of software like LibreOffice or Inkscape be half as good if it had remained Linux-only?  I doubt it.

As another example – Linux video editors.  We’re finally reaching a world where Linux video editors are stable and usable (kudos to the excellent Kdenlive team and OpenShot, among others), but it has taken far, far too long to get here.  In my opinion, the biggest problem is that most major Linux video projects have remained Linux-only.  Kino and Cinelerra have always been in desperate need of testing and feedback, and by ignoring Windows they aren’t doing themselves – or their faithful Linux users – any favors.

Disclaimers

Now I realize that you can’t just click a magical button that makes your Linux-only project compile under Windows and OSX.  I get that.  If you’re an individual developer who doesn’t have the time or the resources to test and compile your code for Windows, I totally understand.  Some projects don’t make sense multi-platform, and sometimes there are very good technical reasons why a project doesn’t make an OSX or Windows version available.

But if you haven’t considered cross-platform support, please do.  Look for help on developer forums or IRC.  Talk to Windows packagers of other open source projects.  Follow OpenShot’s example and ask your userbase for help.  Just don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are helping Linux by not providing Windows and OSX versions of your software.

Because you’re probably not.  By releasing your software for as many OSes as possible, you are not betraying Linux or open source.  You are helping it.  If people think Linux represents a small fraction of overall users now, imagine how much worse it would be if less cross-platform software were available.

As for my fellow Linux users: please don’t troll developers when they decide to go cross-platform.  FOSS is not just about developing for Linux.  Open source can – and should – work to increase the freedom of all users, everywhere, regardless of what operating system they use.  When your favorite piece of Linux software decides to release a Windows version, don’t think of it as betrayal.  Think of it as a way to advertise the benefits of open source to your heathen, Windows-using friends.

As always, I am extremely grateful to the talented individuals that use their time and talents to provide open-source software for free.  Thanks for all your hard work.

Look for my photography in Mandriva 2010.2

Thanks to the Mandriva team for naming one of my photos a winner in their “community background contest.” For those interested, the following photo will be available as a background in the mandriva-theme-extra package of Mandriva 2010.2:

I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to one of the best Linux distros (even if it’s in an inconsequential way).

I strongly recommend checking out the other contest winners at the official Mandriva blog. OStatic also provides a list of the photos, with commentary.

If you haven’t tried Mandriva, you’re missing out. Give it a whirl at mandriva.com.

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?)

Hulu, I Love Thee

I’ve been unhappy with Hulu ever since it was coerced into blocking PS3 access, but today they’ve earned my love back with a Hulu Desktop Client for Linux.  Fedora 9+ and Ubuntu 8.04+ (both 32 and 64-bit!) are currently supported, with more on the way.  Kudos to Hulu for stepping up and recognizing that Linux users are an important part their viewership.

(Hey Netflix: I hope you’re paying attention…)

Ubuntu: One Year Later

Hard to believe, but it’s been almost a year since my first Ubuntu-themed article appeared on this site.  Last October I made the decision to try Ubuntu 8.04.  This was the end result of a number of factors, including months of trying to squeeze every drop of life out of XP.  Eventually the futility of salvaging a 7-year-old (at the time) OS hit me, and I realized that 2008 was as good a time as any to try something new.

A year later, Ubuntu is still my primary operating system.  I’ve also converted my wife’s PC to Ubuntu (at her request) and we use Ubuntu on our laptop for everything besides Netflix.  I’ve had 4 friends and most of my immediate family try Ubuntu, and more than half continue to use it as a primary OS.

Impressive, no?  Ubuntu is a fine operating system and it continues to improve in many ways.  9.04 was the first incarnation to work “out of the box” on all three of my PCs, and I am looking forward to a new batch of improvements in the soon-to-be-released 9.10 version.

But while much is good, much remains less than perfect.  (And in some rare cases, less than acceptable.)  A number of issues – many minor – continue to prevent Ubuntu from being as good as it could be, and with the recent release of Snow Leopard (and the forthcoming release of Windows 7) the OS playing field is about to become much more competitive.

I feel like Ubuntu is on a bit of a precipice.  On the one hand, it has accomplished remarkable things.  Four years ago I used Linux extensively while working through my bioinformatics degree.  It wasn’t pleasant.  At the time, the thought of using Linux at home would have been unthinkable.  XP simply worked better.

Four years later, everything has changed.  An honest Ubuntu/XP comparison proves to be surprisingly balanced.  Ubuntu offers most of what XP does and many things that it doesn’t.  This marked improvement is certainly not attributable solely to Canonical, as many individual components have seen massive gains (GNOME, Firefox, OpenOffice.org, and Wine stand out in particular).

But the Ubuntu/XP comparison is soon to become largely irrelevant.  XP may be the current market leader…but its days are numbered.  I’d wager that by late 2010, XP market share will drop below the combined numbers of Vista and Win7.

And remember – “late 2010” is less than a year away.  When it arrives, will Ubuntu stand up as well against Windows 7 as it has against XP?

…Truth be told, the answer to that question worries me.

So it is out of a desire to help that I’ve been preparing two very cool articles.

First, I’ve just about finished a lengthy “scorecard” on Ubuntu’s progress over the last year (8.04 to 8.10 to 9.04).  (Edit: the scorecard article is now available here.)  I’m using not only my own experience, but also that of family and friends to try and make this report as objective as possible.  It examines a number of categories, from “out of the box” functionality to UI to software, and I think it’s an enlightening look at where the Ubuntu team excels and where it needs some help.  If you have your own input on this topic, send it to me ASAP!

Once that’s complete, I’ll follow it up with a second article – this one a group-generated list of features/fixes that have to happen over the next year if Ubuntu wants to remain a viable competitor in the consumer OS arena.  This list is the result of conversations with all the Ubuntu users I know, and should represent a diverse range of input.

If you have any specific requests for the forthcoming articles, I’d love to hear ’em.  What missing features are holding you back from adopting Ubuntu completely?  Is there something that has to be implemented before you can leave Windows behind?  Comment here or email me via the contact page, and once a nice list has been assembled I’ll look at passing it along to people that can actually make our requests happen.

(The scorecard article is now live, and you can expect the 2nd article within a week or so depending on how many people want to participate…)

Linux vs. Windows Hardware Support: The Truth

If you’ve heard of Linux, you’ve probably also heard the following comment (or something like it):

Linux won’t be ready for mainstream use until it “just works.”

Or maybe:

I wanted to like Linux, but after installing it my (insert hardware) and (insert hardware) didn’t work.

Some are even so elegant as to say it like this:

LINUX SUX IT DONT WORK ON MY AWSOME COMPUTER. WINDOWS RULZ!

All these arguments boil down to the same flawed perception: that getting hardware to work in a Linux environment is unreasonably difficult.

I would like to provide two examples – one, an analogy; the other, a personal experience – that help explain why Linux hardware support is much better than many people perceive.

The Analogy

Imagine, for a moment, that you have a car that’s several years old.  You like this car – the body’s in decent shape, the color is nice, it runs well – but you’re simply not getting the performance out of it that you’d like.  Rather than buy a whole new car, you make the reasonable decision to simply upgrade the engine.

So you do some shopping around, and eventually you stumble upon a website where someone is giving away brand new engines… for free.  The engine claims to be powerful (the article states that this type of engine is used on 80% of the world’s sports cars), reasonably easy to install and use, and you’re also allowed to modify the engine however you would like.  In return, the website simply asks you to donate some money to their cause if you can, and pass along word of what they’re offering.

It sounds too good to be true, but since they offer to send you an engine for free, you go for it.

While you wait for the engine to arrive, you go about stripping the current engine out of your car.  You take careful notes on the location of every hose, belt, and bolt, and by the time the new engine arrives, the car is ready for it.

With the help of a friend you drop the new engine into place and reattach all the critical parts.  After checking and double-checking to make sure you haven’t missed anything, you start up the car…and to your amazement, it actually starts!  After a couple final adjustments to get everything perfect, you close the hood and take your almost-new car for a ride.

*PAUSE*

I’ll admit – no analogy is perfect.  But I find this one both relevant and instructive.

As you’ve probably figured out, the car in this analogy represents a PC’s hardware, while the engine represents a PC’s operating system.

Like cars and engines, PC hardware and operating systems are theoretically interchangeable.  It might take a hacksaw and a welding iron, but you could theoretically get any internal combustion engine to run in almost any chassis.  Similarly, it might take some time and hacking, but you could theoretically get any OS to run on almost any PC hardware.

Unfortunately, some individuals mistakenly think that any OS should run on any hardware configuration without user intervention.  This is as foolish as thinking you could stick any engine in any car and – without any effort – have it magically work.  Mixing and matching parts that weren’t designed for each other is not a perfect science.  It will almost always take some tweaking to get everything working.

By and large, manufacturers assume the burden of ensuring that a stock engine works in its associated car.  You don’t typically buy a new car, take it home, then realize that the manufacturer has forgotten to connect three or four hoses.  Similarly, when you buy a PC, you can be reasonably sure that the PC vendor – Dell, HP, whoever – has ensured that the computer’s hardware and OS play together nicely.

To summarize:

When you purchase a PC pre-loaded with an operating system, it should always “just work”

Obviously a new computer with a pre-installed OS should be expected to “just work.”  If it doesn’t, it’s the fault of the PC vendor – not the hardware manufacturers or the OS.

Many zealots (on both sides of the aisle) fail to acknowledge this point.  Pro-Windows zealots wrongly assume that because they bought a PC with Windows on it and it “just worked,” Windows is a superior operating system.  This is a faulty correlation. It’s akin to saying “the stock tires that came with my car are superior because they just worked.”  Remember: stock parts should always “just work.”

Which leads to my next point.

In the example above, you did some homework before sticking a new engine into your car.  You carefully removed the old engine, taking note of where each belt, hose, and bolt went.  You probably made use of all of that information when installing the new engine.

Only a crazy person would take the stock engine out of a car, then drop in a new one and expect the car to “just work.”  Obviously, some hoses are going to need to be re-attached, some belts are going to need to be hooked up, etc.

Why should a computer be any different?

It is not reasonable to drop a new operating system onto a computer and expect it to “just work.”

I don’t care what you’ve heard about Windows or Linux – if you install a new operating system onto a computer for which it was not specifically designed – and by specifically, I mean “specific down to every single piece of hardware” – there is a chance you will need to perform some manual adjustments.  Sometimes you may get lucky and have it “just work.”  But most of the time, regardless of OS choice, you will need to tie up a couple loose ends.  Such is life.

Now I know what some of you are thinking – “yeah, but I installed (insert OS here) on my computer and it just worked.”  If that’s the case, consider yourself one of the lucky ones.  Very, very few people can install an OS onto randomly assembled hardware and have it work on the first try.

It’s unfortunate that so many people misunderstand this basic issue, and they broadly label the quality of a secondary operating system based on whether or not it “just works.” Aftermarket equipment – be it software or material goods – should always be installed by a professional, or by someone capable of “reattaching all the hoses and belts,” so-to-speak. If you choose to install a secondary operating system without a firm grasp of the technology behind it, any problems that arise are not really the operating system’s fault… they’re yours. (Don’t take this personally – the same applies if you try to replace your car’s engine with a new one, despite having no idea how an engine works.)

It is my personal opinion that when all aspects are considered, the overall operating system with best hardware support is Linux.  This is a fundamentally unfair generalization, since there are actually thousands of different Linux distributions, each one with its own strengths and weaknesses – but if we’re going to broadly label whole software ecosystems by the titles “Linux” and/or “Windows,” I think it’s safe to say that Linux comes out on top.

As you may have noticed from the link in the analogy above, Linux runs on almost 80% of the world’s supercomputers.  It also runs on an ever-growing number of servers.  Desktop Linux users number somewhere in the 15+ millions.  Some 90+% of the desktops and servers in Hollywood run on Linux.  Offshoots of Linux power cellphones, traffic signals, election machines, satellites, military equipment, medical equipment, particle accelerators, digital cameras, TVs, DVD players, mp3 players, and many government systems.  If you’re interested in reading a huge list of specific uses for Linux, check out the bottom of this link.

Impressive as this is, it unfortunately doesn’t apply to the everyday user.  After all, I’m not building my own particle accelerator or traffic signal.

So the real question for most users is – how well will Linux work for me?

And the answer is, of necessity, vague.  No one can say for certain how well Linux will work for you.  The only way to know is to try it.

One of the problems with attempting to predict how well an OS will work on a particular set of PC hardware is that there are more possible hardware combinations in a modern computer than there are atoms in the universe.  (That isn’t an exaggeration, btw.)  And that’s just for major hardware – processor, motherboard, RAM, hard drive, video card, sound card, monitor, keyboard, mouse.  When you start factoring in optional hardware (like any of a million possible USB devices), the list of possible computer configurations quickly approaches numbers difficult to quantify.

So in reality, it is impossible to guarantee that a given OS will work on any system other than ones for which it has been specifically designed.

I realize that an esoteric answer like that still doesn’t answer the core question of “will Linux work for me?” For that, let me try something else – sharing a personal experience.

A Random Experiment with Linux and Windows Hardware Support

This Christmas I picked up a refurbished HP Pavilion Media Center PC.  The specs are similar to this, including:

  • 2.8ghz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5600+
  • 2gb RAM (667mhz DDR2)
  • 500gb SATA hard drive, plus another 200gb SATA drive manually installed by me
  • NVidia GeForce 9400GT video card
  • Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS sound card with recording hub (pulled from my old PC)
  • LightScribe DVD Burner
  • Memory card reader (one of those 9-in-1 or 10-in-1 things)
  • TV Tuner Card (Hauppauge 1600)
  • The usual set of ports (6xUSB, 2xFirewire)

In addition, I’d be tying the PC into an existing monitor (22″ HP LCD), 5.1 surround speakers, Epson Stylus CX8400 printer/scanner/copier, an off-brand graphics tablet, and a webcam.

In all honesty, I consider this to be a pretty nasty adventure for any OS.  That’s an eclectic mix of hardware ranging from almost brand-new parts (the video card came out August 2008) to relatively old parts (my sound card was purchased in 2002).

As for an OS, because the system was refurbished it came without a pre-installed OS.  I made the choice to install Ubuntu 8.10 to the 500gb drive and Windows XP on the 200gb drive.

Here’s how it all went down.

Ubuntu 8.10:

By and large, Ubuntu 8.10 worked shockingly well.  I had to manually configure only the following three pieces of hardware:

  • Hauppauge 1600 TV Tuner card (simple process using these instructions)
  • Epson printer/scanner/copier (my model is CX8400, to make it work you just have to select the CX7800 model – found that by a quick googling).
  • Graphics tablet (using this guide)

Windows XP:

Unfortunately, Windows XP was a different story.  Upon install my ethernet refused to work, which prevented me from using any automated means of updating drivers.

After some serious google-hunting on a separate laptop, I finally tracked down an NVidia installer that got my ethernet working (apparently that ASUS motherboard utilized an NVidia chipset).  With that fixed, I set about finding and installing drivers for the following devices:

  • NVidia GeForce 9400GT (video card worked, but to change any of the settings and enable 3D acceleration I had to download and install specific drivers)
  • TV Tuner Card (non-functional until I tracked down official Hauppauge drivers online; however, I don’t have any recording software, so the card is still technically useless).
  • Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (sound worked, but to get surround sound I had to find the CD that came with the card and install specific drivers)
  • Epson Stylus printer (printing worked, but to access printer-specific settings I had to find the CD that came with the card and install specific drivers)
  • Graphics tablet (non-functional and drivers not available for download; fortunately, I had a Windows driver CD that came with the tablet)
  • Webcam (non-functional until I used my webcam installer CD).

After a lot of restarts (five, I think), I eventually got my XP install up and running.

What’s the Point of This Story

My final point is this: with some determination, you can get both Windows and Linux to run on almost any hardware.  If you have driver CDs for every piece hardware, Windows should be fairly trivial to install.  Linux is much more a function of googling, since very few hardware manufacturers include Linux drivers on their included CDs.

In my specific case, installing Ubuntu 8.10 was a much more pleasant experience than installing Windows XP.  Part of this is because Linux is specifically designed to be installed on random hardware.  Very few computers come pre-installed with Linux, and many hardware manufacturers don’t provide comprehensive Linux support. Linux has evolved to deal with this as elegantly as it can, and in many cases it is surprisingly successful at self-configuring new hardware.

Installing XP was ugly because XP was not designed to be dumped onto untested computers.  Microsoft goes to great lengths to ensure that hardware manufacturers comply with Windows hardware-compatibility requirements, as well as requiring PC vendors to ensure that pre-installed (or OEM) copies of Windows are properly configured.  XP has very few drivers pre-configured, since they rely on hardware manufacturers to provide install CDs with their hardware.  Since my refurbished machine came with no install CDs, tracking down the necessary drivers was a nightmare.

In Conclusion

Maybe this is your first time seeing an example where installing Windows was significantly harder than installing Linux (in the form of Ubuntu 8.10).  If you bought a computer with Windows pre-installed, chances are that it will work better “out of the box” than Linux will.  Don’t be surprised, and don’t fault Linux for that.  Besides – if you’re installing Linux solely for better hardware support, you may not know what you’re doing.

For this particular set of hardware, I found it well worth the effort to get Linux up and running, and I am indebted to the hard-working developers that provided me with an open-source operating system and accompanying software that helped this particular PC be much more enjoyable and productive to use.

Will Linux do the same for you?  Who knows! If you’re feeling adventurous, head to www.ubuntu.com (or any other Linux distro’s homepage) and give it a try.

Just remember the analogy from the start of this article: like replacing the engine in a car, you may have to do a bit of work to get Linux working just the way you like it, and you’ll definitely have a better experience if you go in prepared.

But for what it’s worth – if you’re willing to put in a little extra work, I think you’ll find Linux well worth the effort.

(After this article was released, I went back and edited it for accuracy and clarity. Out of fairness to certain commenters [including myself], I have deleted comments no longer relevant to the updated article. My apologies for making ex post facto changes.)

5 stars for this Ubuntu/Linux commentor

As a recent Ubuntu convert, I’ve spent the last couple weeks scanning the web for quality Linux-friendly blogs.  A number have turned up, but one is so good that it deserves special attention.

iTWire is a great tech commentary site out of Australia.  One section in particular – The Linux Distillery, by David M Williams – provides an informative, amusing commentary on general Linux (and often Ubuntu) topics.  Below are quotes from (and links to) some of my favorite articles.

From “100 reasons Linux beats Windows

…2. If you change your hardware and re-install Linux you don’t have to call someone to justify it.

…5. And they didn’t give $10m of your hard-earned cash to Jerry Seinfeld.

…17. You don’t need to defragment Linux. At all. Ever.

…22. …Over 80% of the top 500 supercomputers in the world run Linux. Windows just doesn’t have the capability for high performance computing.

…86. You won’t have your father calling you to ask why RUNDLL32.EXE is crashing and expecting a quick answer as to precisely what the problem is.

From “Top 5 Linux references in pop-culture

#3 – The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix is my all-time favourite movie. It was brilliant. Then the little matter of two crap sequels ruined it. Nevertheless, the writers certainly did know a thing or two.

You’ve all seen movies where computer hackers somehow break into a computer with ridiculous animated eye-candy scenes. Why, in Independence Day you can even upload a virus to an alien spaceship with an unplugged Macintosh laptop. Luckily they had no security on the ship’s Wi-Fi network, hey?

…Yet in The Matrix Reloaded when Trinity sits down to hack, she really does hack. Faced with the problem of breaking in to the city power grid Trinity whipped out Nmap version 2.54beta25 and probed for a vulnerable SSH server. She exploited this with the SSH1 CRC32 exploit which was publicised in 2001 (although the script used, sshnuke, is fictional.) Curse the city network for being unpatched!

From “I didn’t know you could do that in Linux!

Here are 12 tips, tricks, tweaks and techniques to make you say “I didn’t know you could do that in Linux.” Sure, not every one may be your cup of tea but here are 12 items to help you have the most positive Linux experience you can and to show why Linux is a superior operating system to other alternatives…

From “Linux incognito part three: Windows Vista

Here’s how to skin Linux to give a Windows Vista appearance. You can help provide a familiar look and feel to your Windows-trained friends and family as you coax them towards Linux. Or you can enjoy the satisfaction of having something looking like Vista actually run with stability.

From “5 reasons to upgrade from Windows Vista to Linux

Most readers will no doubt have upgraded the operating system on their own computer at some point, whether from Windows ’95 to Windows ’98 or Windows XP to Windows Vista or some other step.

Yet, an operating systems upgrade doesn’t necessarily have to wend its way through the range offered by one vendor. After all, just as you can replace the software that drives your computer in the first place so too you can replace it with anything that targets the same hardware.

This gives rise to many a possibility. You might love the look of the Apple MacBook but prefer Microsoft Windows over MacOS. No problem; Apple even make available a CD of Windows drivers for their MacBook hardware. Of course, I happen to think there’s another operating system you might want to consider, and here are 5 reasons why you would benefit from upgrading your Windows Vista computer to a modern Linux distribution like Ubuntu…

From “Face off part two: Windows vs Linux real world RAM and disk tests

Last week I put Windows Vista Ultimate and Fedora Linux 9 to a test. The article hit the front page of Digg but received a lot of criticism by those disappointed with the performance of Internet Explorer. So, let’s dig deeper and use Firefox to see if Internet Explorer’s memory footprint is actually a Windows Vista “feature” or not. It’s time for the ultimate smackdown: Internet Explorer vs Firefox on Vista.

As you can probably infer from this spattering of quotes, Distillery is a great blog for recent Ubuntu/Linux converts.  Enjoy!

Linux, Day 1: Picking a distro

Upon making the decision to test out Linux, my first job was to find the right distro for my needs.  A distro is to Linux what a flavor is to food.  Distros are different flavors of Linux, and they come in all shapes and sizes.  Some distros are designed specifically for servers, others are for hardcore programmers or developers, while others are aimed at the general public.  I wanted a distro that was similar in style and functionality to Windows XP, since that has been my OS of preference for some 5 years now.  Also, I wanted several OS features to be automatically (or very easily) available:

1) Hardware compatibility with my eclectic system (various parts ranging in age from 0-10 years old)

2) Proven stability

3) Strong online help resources

4) Wide software support, including an easy method for installing/removing/updated programs

5) Modern/pretty desktop interface

6) Solid user community

My search started here: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,297509,00.html

After perusing that overview, I compiled a wide variety of data from Google,Wikipedia, Linux-specific resources (like linux.org), and my own personal experience.  Eventually I was able to toss out a lot of distros based on their lack of key features.  For me, these included:

Fedora: used it in college, didn’t like it (and using it would bring back too many bad memories…)

Slackware: too old-school

Linspire: I don’t want to pay $49.95 for a “supported version”

Gentoo: most annoying fanbase on planet earth… ;)  …and wayyy too much command-line

openSUSE: heard bad things about SUSE, and not a huge fan of Novell products anyway

Other distributions were considered, but in the end it came down to two: Mandriva and Ubuntu.  I decided to try Ubuntu first, primarily because of its large installed userbase, strong corporate sponsorship, and frequency of updates.  If something went wrong, Mandriva would be my plan B.

The Ubuntu website was extremely straightforward and easy to navigate.  I downloaded the ISO file (which FLEW, largely because the nearest mirror was 15 minutes from my house) and burned a quick CD.  One of the best parts of Ubuntu’s install option is that the CD generated from this ISO serves as both an install CD and a Live CD.  The Live CD meant that I could reboot my computer with the Ubuntu CD in the drive, and it would launch Ubuntu completely off the CD – no install, no permanent files, nothin’.  This allowed me to test all my hardware and make sure that I could get things running quickly, and Ubuntu didn’t disappoint.

After my hardware passed all the requisite tests, the last thing to do was the install!  I’ll discuss this tomorrow, so stay tuned…

Ubuntu 8.04: Taking the plunge

Well, a big day has arrived at the Helland home.  I have officially taken the plunge and installed myself a Linux-based OS (Ubuntu 8.04).  For those unfamiliar with what this entails, in simplest terms it means this: I’m replacing Windows with a free operating system.  More information on Ubuntu is available at its homepage: http://www.ubuntu.com

What prompted such a change?  Many things, in fact:

1) Vista.  Vista is an abomination to computing in general.  I could go on for some time about why this is, but the primary reason is simple: it makes my daily tasks more difficult, not easier.  Computers are tools that exist to simplify and enhance my life – not bog it down with uninformative, useless UAC warnings.

2) Price.  OSes aren’t getting any cheaper, and I refuse to pay for a piece of crap like Vista.  XP is now 7 years old and I’ve been looking at upgrades….but nothing catches my eye like a free OS.  (And NO – I’d rather die than switch to Mac OSX, not to mention the hardware such a switch would require.)

3) Speed. I love XP – and frankly, I couldn’t be happier with it – but XP’s time is drawing to a close.  I have tweaked my XP install in every way I can concoct: registry cleanup, defrags of every kind, removal of unnecessary software.  I’ve even gone so far as to disable a bunch of semi-necessary services in an attempt to get it to run a bit snappier.  After all that, XP is still too sluggish for my tastes – so barring a clean install or hardware upgrades, I’m outta ideas.

4) FOSS is awesome.  I love the idea of supporting the free, open-source world.  Programs like Firefox and OpenOffice.org have made my life and job 100x easier, and I’d love to be able to contribute something back to that scene.  I’ve tried to support that world with my free programming tutorials and source code (some of which is available here), but with my programming down to a trickle, it’s time for something bigger and better.

5) Need more storage and don’t want to migrate XP.  I picked up a new SATA hard drive to replace my aging 80gb PATA one, and because this will be the 4th hard drive I’ve had to migrate my XP install onto, I’ll have to call Microsoft to reactivate XP.  I hate doing that.  It’s a legal install, I have a key, these have all been personal hard drives in the same frigging box – so no, I’m not sticking XP on my new drive.  I was originally going to use the new drive solely for file storage, but the SATA interface will almost certainly help my overall OS speed.  It’s a shame Microsoft had to implement activation.  Had they not, they might not have lost a happy, legal user like myself.

6) Prettiness.  XP is great, functional, familiar…but not so pretty.  One thing I will give Vista is that it looks very nice.  But – as always – those looks come at a horrible performance trade-off.  Short of strange unstable hacks, I’d like to bring my computer desktop into the 21st century.

Over the coming days, I’ll detail some of my observations in making the switch from XP to Ubuntu.  If there’s anything in particular that you’re curious about, please let me know.  I’d be more then happy to help anyone else repeat the experiment.