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.


  1. I think the ethical aspects of using open-source software should have been mentioned. That's crucial.

  2. I read the Kingman article a couple of days ago too. I was intrigued by his observation, but I quickly snapped an opinion about it. There is some truth in the "quixotic plaything of a billionaire" that I can't help but relate to. In fact I think Kingman hit the nail on the head, more so, than Vance, with regard to how I feel about Linux, Ubuntu, and FOSS.

    Strangely, I am accustomed to the way this Vance guy is writing, I mean, it was published in the business section of the NY Times. Though he does make a few blanket statements that bother me, I have to conclude from a bigger perspective, there is some truth in his stability and challenge statements.

    I have used Redhat off and on, for about 10 years. I have never, not once, had a problem with updating my system that would disable my computer. On the other hand, I have used Debian, Ubuntu, and Gentoo (deeply my favorite in many regards), but all of them have had problems because of changes in the distribution trees that have made them unstable. It is the typical software engineering issue of features vs. stability.

    As for "challenging", it may simply be because of the distribution model that so many American consumers are used to. They want to buy tax software, but there isn't any made. Content from the latest and greatest games is almost always purchased, and some (maybe much) is really not sold for Linux. Strangely, I think X Box and playstation may be one of the best things to happen for Linux. It may just create a clean enough demarcation between business & pleasure, to let linux flourish on the desktop.

    As for the big picture, I think Kingman is offended that somebody would critique Ubuntu specifically. Where, as for me, I came to terms with the fact that Apple is growing in the United States and we are a really rich country/culture, that doesn't quite "get it" with regard to Linux. For several years now, I have thought that this revolution would build in the 2nd and 3rd world. Europe, I think, will adopt faster than us, but it will be slow and steady.

    Microsoft's already having it's problems in the US and Europe, but it is still going to be years and possibly several more generations of MS Windows before Linux truly becomes main stream in the US. All the while, I have had my doubts wether Ubuntu will survive, but I am still very confident Linux will build slowley and steadily.

    You eventually came over to the good guys, lol, I always knew my freinds would get this eventually. For that, I am happy. :-)

    Scott M

  3. Thanks for the comments Matt and Scott.

    Redhat is a commercial product. One would expect it to be more reliable in terms of support and stability, since the reputation of their product fails or flourishes largely as a result. In comparison to Redhat, Ubuntu and others such as Fedora, Gentoo, etc. appear more hobby-like, something to tinker with. For instance, support comes largely through online forums or through friends and acquaintances who have greater Linux knowledge and experience. Quickly skimming the forums will also reveal that upgrades to new versions sometimes breaks the system. I think it's also true that those who are currently motivated enough to download and install a Linux distribution are the type of people Kingman mentions. These facts are there for everyone to see. However, I still think these two things are true:

    1) For the average users computing needs, such as browsing the internet, checking e-mail, using a word processor, listening to music, watching videos, and playing basic games like solitaire and chess, Ubuntu delivers the goods just as well as XP, Vista, and OS X. It is easily just as easy to use.

    2. Though far from being flawless, Ubuntu is relatively stable from update to update.

    Yet the tone of Vance's article leaves one with the misleading impression that (1) and (2) are false. I wanted to provide some reassurance that Ubuntu isn't quite as bad as Vance makes it sound.

    As for Vance's larger point, context is important here. Vance wrote his piece for the business section of the New York Times, with a business mentality in mind. The ideas that a desktop can thrive without supporting the software that consumers demand, and that it can maintain its competition with the current leader of the market by giving its product away without providing official support, are certainly unorthodox from a business perspective. One would obviously have low expectations for such an enterprise. But analyzing much of the Linux world, and specifically the no-cost desktop versions, in terms of business might be a category mistake. Desktop Linux distributions currently seem to be some third thing between business and hobby, since Linux users use them for both productivity and play. What's amazing, however, is that something both functional and carrying all sorts of unique innovations largely arises out of that play. Perhaps that is most confounding from the perspective of current business orthodoxy.

    At any rate, I came over to the good guys only after in-depth consideration of the ethical arguments. For that I can be counted as one who is disaffected with the very idea of proprietary software on moral grounds, not only with regard to performance. Such moral reasoning can't be adequately analyzed in terms of dollars and cents, however, so I don't (yet) expect the business world to understand such a decision. Strange, isn't it - one chooses a product on a moral basis (not just in terms of its attractive features and utility), and all of a sudden he or she is considered "disaffected." Is this a sign that we're slowly creeping towards Idiocracy?

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