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.

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Ubuntu

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.

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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.

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.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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