Saturday, August 22, 2009

Some thoughts on a month with Ubuntu Linux

So after I brought home the computer mentioned in the previous post, I repartitioned it with a small Windows XP install (of minimal use -- I think I only used it for a couple of setup tasks) and 25GB of Ubuntu. I picked Ubuntu for a couple of reasons, primarily because the circle of people I can turn to for support are overwhelmingly Ubuntu users, but also because I don't really like the current direction that Knoppix (the distro I ran on the old PC) took in version 6 by being a complete rebuild with LXDE instead of KDE. (I do not actually mind LXDE; it's the fact that Klaus Knopper decided to turn Knoppix 6 into a testbed for a couple of of his pet projects without really acknowledging that he'd created an entirely new product in the process that bothers me. Well, that and the excessive use of special effects in the GUI.)

So where to start? I already had an older version of Edubuntu, but I definitely wanted newer software, so I grabbed the latest version (9.04/Jaunty Jackalope, x86-32) and installed it. The first thing I noticed about it is that it is very overwhelmingly orange; this comes largely from the default theme (the Human-Clearlooks theme), but it's still a drastic change from the grey of MacOS and the blues and greens of Windows XP and Vista. Installation is beyond trivial, which is good since it seems to be the largest issue for new Linux users to get hung up on. The standard desktop is GNOME, which is odd territory for me since I've mostly stuck to KDE on my system, but it's not actually bad. However, it's pretty much the whipping boy for this entire review since, as many people less than enamored of GNOME can tell you, there's a lot of stupid mistakes.

The issue essentially comes down to control vs usability. I've been a Mac fan for over fifteen years now (my first solid experience being System 6 in my old high school) and I've always liked the way the Mac culture enforces a consistent interface between applications. But GUIs do inevitably come in for criticism, since it's very hard to make a spatial/gestural command language Turing-complete; even a macro system like QuicKeys doesn't do more than record keystrokes and mouse events, which is why for many professional Mac developers back in the day, the Macintosh Programmer's Workshop package, despite its high price, was the system of choice for its high scriptability and flexibility in automating the build process, something Think C and Think Pascal (the hobbyist IDEs of choice in the early 90s, before CodeWarrior) had only to a very limited extent. When Apple shipped AppleScript, with an event model that made it remarkably easy to operate applications like marionettes and the ability to use OSAXen (plugins similar to Unix command-line tools), the MacOS finally hit the sweet spot of full graphical control along with powerful automation and access to virtually everything a properly-written application could do.

GNOME... well, the desktop wars are probably the latest flashpoint in a long, long history of religious wars in the Unix world. GNOME has a leg up in one regard, since it's the desktop of choice for Solaris and Fedora Linux, but there are many people (KDE fans in particular) that will tell you that GNOME is a toy interface that hides necessary functions from you. It certainly fails at its attempts to be Mac-like, with a menu bar at the top that does not actually hold application menus (those, like any other X environment, go in the app windows themselves).
And as is often the case in Linux distributions, Ubuntu gives you just a little too much without ever really giving you quite enough, and the Synaptic interface for apt-get is, while usable, rather nonstandard in design and even rather clunky. I suppose that's how it is in the open source world, but did they really have to leave out a device manager app (trust me, lspci is not even close to what is needed) and include a screensaver control panel that doesn't let you adjust anything?

That said, it's not at all the clunky mess older versions like early Slackware or Red Hat were. There is a decent selection of application software included, including OpenOffice and The GIMP, and it's no harder to get up and running than Windows or MacOS. Nautilus is as good a file manager as you're going to find, mostly similar to the MacOS X Finder though it lacks the column view, and accessing network facilities is, if anything, even less annoying than it is on the Mac. Synaptic is nonstandard, but if you've got a sufficient internet connection largely painless.

Ubuntu is doing a valuable service for Linux users by making a concerted effort to create a system that anyone can manage. But it does irk me that after all this time, there are still so many rough edges and roadblocks. Considering the time it's been out there, shouldn't it be a little closer than almost there?

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