The fuss about Ubuntu

So, given that we've now heard about 2 "defections" from the Macintosh to Ubuntu, I wanted to see what the fuss is all about, so that I could comment on things. So, I downloaded (via bittorrent) the latest (6.0.6) version of Ubuntu and gave it a whirl.

My test configuration is an iMac 17 with 2GB ram and 170GB HD and I'm running it in a Parallels VM with 256MB RAM. For those who don't know what I just said, don't worry about it, except to say that I'm configuring the system as if it had 256MB of RAM and I'm not running it on the native hardware, but through Parallels.


The install couldn't be too much easier. In this case, I mounted the CD-ROM (actually an ISO image) on the machine and rebooted. It sat there at a text prompt for a minute or two and then booted into an installer screen with two icons on it: Install and Examples. Double-clicking on install took me to a 6 step installer that worked flawlessly. The look of the system is very pretty. They've taken a page or two from Apple's UI book and used a flowing background that is copper in color but is otherwise very similar to thgaie desktop patterns of the Mac. The only real complaint about the install is that when you boot to the final installed version, it prompts you to remove the install CD with a text prompt, which is a bit difficult to see if you're not reading things.

Initial Boot

The first boot into Ubunto is pretty straightforward. It takes about 30 seconds to boot, which isn't bad. The desktop is clean and uncluttered to start with, and the automatic updater shows up quickly telling you that there are new updates to install. Downloading updates was lightening fast on my connection, and all 95 updates were installed inside of 10 minutes (accounting for about 90MB) and did require a reboot.

Once done with the initial install, it was on to figuring out how things worked. The UI is relatively straightforward. It's a pretty typical Linux- looking UI, but with nicer fonts and some good placement of icons, etc. There has been attention to detail on items such as three dimensional effects and recognizable icons. The main UI has a top bar, containing the start/stop/resume button that looks like a power switch, date, time, volume control, notification box, and a menus for Applications, Places, and System that act as shortcuts to other programs. Also on this bar are web and mail buttons, which seem out of place since clicking on them results in a program launch, not a menu pull-down.

Pre-installed on the system are Firefox; Evolution for mail, calender,contacts and tasks; OpenOffice for spreadsheet, word processing, presentation, and database work; gThumb and Gimp for photo management and editing; Gaim for IM; and a variety of other applications and games pre-installed.

In general, I think most Windows users will find the software quite familiar feeling, although Macintosh users will find it similar to using a Windows machine. The system uses the multiple-menu bar metaphor (like Windows, each Window that the programmer decides needs a menu bar has a menu bar--as opposed to the Macintosh where there is a single place for menu bars).

Web browsing works pretty much as expected, but don't expect to get all of the plug-ins you would get on your Mac without some work. Flash appears available as a Linux installer on Adobe's web site, but there is no pre-packaged version. QuickTime is unavailable under Linux (it's Windows and Mac only).

In this day and age, if you aren't dealing with multimedia content and don't want somebody you can call for support, the world of Linux is more useful than it has ever been. However, the amount of variety in Linux may well be the strongest argument for the Macintosh right now. Since MacOS X runs only on Apple hardware, support is limited to specifically designed hardware with the "right" attributes, so that Apple's software groups (and those of us who develop software that runs on the Mac) don't have to worry about all sorts of bizarre incompatibilities. And, before somebody runs out and "reminds" me that Ubuntu support is available from Canonical, I'll "remind" them that it costs $250 per year and is limited to 10 cases for that price.

For multimedia work, though, there's still a lot to be said for pre-packaged systems, and the Macintosh has one of the best-integrated and easiest to use sets of included software packages out there.

For Ubuntu, you need to really know what you're doing when you step out of the realm of the pre-installed applications. With a bit of comfort with UNIX, this is OK. However, without that, it fails my primary test of an OS that I'd point people I support at: too many phone calls for simple stuff.

I have no doubt that there are programmers, especially those with a political bent that aligns them to the Free Software Foundation that find Ubuntu the first version of Linux that they can reasonably suggest is worthy of running as a replacement desktop OS. And there are certainly those whose activities are mostly using the web, email, and the occasional Microsoft Office document that will be able to use Ubuntu without difficulty.

But, for those with more varied needs, the major operating systems (OS X and Windows) will always have the pull of commercial software that is scarce under Linux.