Turns out that going to a Web page and downloading an app is just not how things are done on Ubuntu. Instead, the OS runs an application called a "package manager" that keeps track of all the programs running on your system. If you want to install Firefox, you go to the package manager and type in "firefox"—the system will search vast online repositories of free software for your app. Then, you just click Firefox there, and the package manager downloads and installs it automatically. Once you get accustomed to it, this technique of adding programs actually seems easier than the Mac/Windows method. (On the downside, Ubuntu's free software ethics sometimes limit the programs available; if you want to install a proprietary program like Skype, for instance, you've got to go into the system and explicitly add an address to Skype's servers, forcing Ubuntu to check there when you search for Skype.)
Once you've installed your program, then what? On Windows, the new app goes into your Start menu, while on the Mac OS, it goes into your Applications folder. Ubuntu has an applications menu, but not every program that I installed ended up there. Neither did the programs produce any clickable icons on my desktop or files that I could find anywhere else on my machine. How do I run the blasted program I just downloaded? The answer: ALT+F2. Googling revealed that this shamanistic combination of keys brings up a list of software on the machine. I also found that it's possible to manually add programs to the applications menu and to create desktop shortcuts.
If it's looking to appeal to Mac and Windows converts, Ubuntu would be wise to flag such differences for first-time users. It should load up with a tutorial showing you how to perform the most common tasks—maybe some how-to videos like the ones Apple produces for the iPod and iPhone—and to let you know where to look for help. This would ease the transition for newbies, people whom I suspect won't be as patient as I was in learning Ubuntu's ways.
Millions of people around the world use Ubuntu, but they're a relatively tech-savvy group. I think that with a few simple changes to its interface and presentation, it could also appeal to the rest of us, even computer novices. Ubuntu has a real opportunity to succeed now because of the declining importance of the operating system in our daily computing needs. With more of our software moving online and being offered across multiple platforms, we aren't tied down, these days, to any particular OS—you can switch easily from Mac to Windows and back without losing a shred of your personal data, which is all stored out there in the Internet cloud anyway. I'm not a Mac, you're not a PC—we're both Google. If Ubuntu can market itself as the Internet OS—the system that'll keep your computer safe and running, but will otherwise get out of your way while you go online—it could get many adherents. Why send your money to Apple or Microsoft when a free OS does the same thing?
At the moment, though, the fact that it's free—both monetarily and philosophically—is about the only reason I can see for running Ubuntu. Nothing about Ubuntu is an advantage over anything in either Mac or Windows—it has no more features, no better stability, no greater speed. (Ubuntu crashed several times while I used it.)
And yet, I'm intrigued by its possibilities. Shuttleworth, the South African magnate, continues to invest in Ubuntu; he seems to want to become the Steve Jobs of the free software world, an advocate of better usability and design among peers who consider text-input command line apps to be the zenith of computing. I'm glad Shuttleworth's pushing a new path, and I'll continue checking in on his progress. He's just got a really long way to go.