The Utility of Ubuntu

Yesterday my friend Matt brought to my attention an article entitled "A Software Populist Who Doesn't Do Windows," which recently appeared in the Business Secion of the New York Times. It's an interview story on Mark Shuttleworth, the founder of Canonical, but is equally about the rise in use of Canonical's desktop Linux distribution, Ubuntu. Ashlee Vance, the author of the article, contends that Ubuntu may have the wherewithal to become a competitor in the desktop market, precisely because it succeeds in areas where Linux has a reputation for failing: user-friendliness. The fact that it comes at no cost helps too. But what Vance giveth with one hand, he taketh away with the other, arguing that usability, compatibility issues, and price are also its major stumbling blocks to success. Consider, for instance, the following statements:
While relatively easy to use for the technologically savvy, Ubuntu — and all other versions of Linux — can challenge the average user. Linux cannot run many applications created for Windows, including some of the most popular games and tax software, for example. And updates to Linux can send ripples of problems through the system, causing something as basic as a computer’s display or sound system to malfunction. (New York Times)
Parts of Mr. Shuttleworth’s venture continue to look quixotic. Linux remains rough around the edges, and Canonical’s business model seems more like charity than the next great business story. And even if the open Ubuntu proves a raging success, the operating system will largely be used to reach proprietary online services from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google and others. “Mark is very genuine and fundamentally believes in open source,” said Matt Asay, a commentator on open-source technology and an executive at the software maker Alfresco. “But I think he’s going to have a crisis of faith at some point.” Mr. Asay wonders if Canonical can sustain its “give everything away” model and “always open” ideology. (New York Times)
Press coverage of free/libre, open source software always has the potential to be a positive; you never know just whose curiosity it might pique. However, articles like Vance's seem to do more harm than good. Henry Kingman has described Vance's portrayal of Ubuntu as "the flawed plaything of an eccentric billionaire, an OS likely to appeal only to the disaffected, marginalized, deeply technical, or all of the above." I think Kingman is correct. Vance's comments about Ubuntu certainly seem to suggest that he believes it's an unstable system with too much of a learning curve for the non-specialist, that it has too many quirks to be functional, and that its sustained existence depends on Mark Shuttleworth's attention span. All this serves to scare the unsuspecting Windows or Mac user away from exploring the world of Linux. "Ubuntu may be free of cost," the warning begins, "but it's largely useless."

There are greater, ethical reasons for choosing to use a free, open-source operating system, but since Vance focuses on utility and price, I'll ignore those ethical reasons and make some brief remark on how my own experience (as well as others' experience) with Ubuntu confirms the opposite of Vance's claims.

I have used computers for a long enough time and have had enough working experience with computers that, for instance, I don't freeze at the sight of a command line interface or panic when a program needs code fixed in a text editor. Nevertheless, I'd still classify myself as a "regular user." Yet I run Ubuntu on each of my computers every day with relative ease. Others who are less "tech-savvy" than me have had the same or similar experiences with Ubuntu. Neither they nor I find using Ubuntu a "challenge" at all (including system updates and upgrades).

Moreover, I don't miss Windows programs. There are two reasons for this. Nearly every application that runs on Windows has its corollary in Linux. For Microsoft Office there is Openoffice; for Internet Explorer there is Firefox, Konquerer, and Opera; for Adobe Creative Suite there is F-spot, the GIMP, Inkscape, and Blender; for Windows Media Player there is Amarok, Rhythmbox, Mplayer, and VLC. The list goes on. However, if one fails to find, say, an adequate tax program that runs natively on Linux, he or she can always run his or her Windows tax program of choice in Linux through WINE.

So, contrary to Vance, my own experience and the experience of others stand as testament that Ubuntu is a stable operating system. Moreover, the fact that Ubuntu receives a steady stream of updates, that new versions are released every six months, and that it has an active and large community of developers and contributers indicates that Ubuntu should provide a stable system in the future as well.

Creative Commons License
The Utility of Ubuntu by Nathan M. Blackerby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.