Grappling with Ubuntu, the free, open-source operating system.

Grappling with Ubuntu, the free, open-source operating system.

Grappling with Ubuntu, the free, open-source operating system.

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Oct. 23 2008 5:41 PM

Linux Is Making Me Insane

Grappling with Ubuntu, the free, open-source operating system.


Ubuntu is the Zulu word for a traditional African philosophy that encourages people to live and work together harmoniously. Desmond Tutu defines ubuntu as "the very essence of being human," what you say when you want to "give high praise to someone." After a week spent wrestling with the Ubuntu operating system —the most popular, most consumer-friendly version of the Linux OS—I've discovered a few different usages for the word. It works quite well as an epithet—something to be yelled loudly and often as you struggle to adjust to a computer that has neither the elegance of a Mac nor the broad utility of a PC. But ubuntu can also be uttered as a sigh of anticipation: Though this Linux-based OS is far from perfect, it does make it seem increasingly possible to do all your work on a computer whose software costs you nothing at all.

I installed Ubuntu after being repeatedly challenged by a small but vocal group of readers to look beyond my comfort zone. Whenever I write about the relative differences between Apple and Microsoft-based machines, I invariably get comments from people who are irritated that I didn't mention Ubuntu as an alternative. I usually dismiss them in much the way I shrug off fans of third-party presidential candidates. I've run desktop versions of Linux in the past, and I've found them to be as pleasant as Ralph Nader—the OS was difficult to install and learn, and there wasn't enough available software to make the switch worth my while.


Fans of Ubuntu assured me that times had changed. The OS was conceived in 2004 by Mark Shuttleworth, a South African software magnate who aims to make computers more widely available to people around the world. Ubuntu reflects that founding mission: It is designed and distributed in a way to make it easy to install and use. It has a look and feel that will ring familiar to Mac and Windows users, and it loads up on your machine with a wide range of useful apps that should allow you to do typical computer stuff: e-mail, IM, surf the Web, listen to music, watch DVDs, surf the Web, work on office documents, and surf the Web.

Still, to use Ubuntu is to realize the enormity of its mission. Apple and Microsoft invest billions in research, development, and testing, and the money's not for naught—it produces software that, while not perfect, is intuitive, graceful, and can handle a huge variety of consumer need. Ubuntu, in my testing, seemed more of a work in progress than a final product, a designation I don't think many of its fans would disagree with. It does a lot of things well, but there are enough bits of mediocrity—enough extra steps you've got to take, or extra tricks you've got to learn—to turn away large swaths of the computing population.

Take the installation process. I downloaded the 700 megabyte-plus install file last week and burned it on to a CD. Then I popped the CD into an old Pentium 4 Dell desktop. At first, Ubuntu seemed to be working—a black screen flashed, "Loading. ..." But then, nothing; I could hear the CD turning in the drive, but after 10 minutes with the screen still at "Loading ..." I went to Google looking for an answer and found that there was probably something about my computer's internal configuration that was preventing the Ubuntu installer from loading. Others who'd faced this problem recommended that I download a completely different version of the Ubuntu installer. I did that, but more and different problems ensued. The program seemed jinxed—it was only after about two hours and five burned CDs that I finally got the whole thing to work. (Click here   for an explanation of how to avoid my mistakes.)

An operating system installation is rarely a painless affair, so I won't ding Ubuntu too many points for that part. I also must note that when I tried to put the OS on another computer—a two-year-old laptop currently running Windows XP—Ubuntu easily made itself at home. (It's capable of installing itself alongside Windows; when you turn on your computer, you can choose which OS you'd like to start up.)

Once the OS was up and running, I ran into more snags—though to tell the truth, these troubles were more my fault than the operating system's. After years of using Windows and various Mac OSes, I kept approaching Ubuntu as if it were one of those systems. It took me a while to get adjusted to its unique way of doing things—and once I figured out those special ways, things became a lot easier. For instance, at first I had lots of trouble installing programs. The current release of Ubuntu ships with a Beta version of the Firefox Web browser, and I wanted the final version. So, like any Windows or Mac user, I went to the Firefox site and downloaded the latest version. But when the files appeared on my computer, I didn't know what to do with them—there was no setup or installation program, nothing I could double-click on to get it to run.