Ubuntu has a lot going for it. A rich benefactor cum space tourist, a huge and rapidly growing user base, a sleek look and an easy install. So why is it the best in Linux operating systems? Simply put, it’s not. That’s right, Ubuntu is not the best Linux distro. Read more on Linux section of ArsGeek.
Is that a strange concept coming from a die-hard Ubuntu user like myself? Let me explain a bit. I’ve installed Ubuntu on three of my laptops, and at least five desktops that are in use by me. I use it as a server, a filer, a desktop system and my laptop’s primary OS. I’ve also deployed it to a number of faculty, staff and graduate students at a prestigious, ivy league university. The reaction I’ve gotten from users who run the gamut from temporary staff assistants to CS professors who teach kernel hacking has been overwhelmingly positive.
I’ve also worked in many other distros, including Debian, FreeBSD, Gentoo, Red Hat, CentOS, IBM’s AIX, Suse, Knoppix, Damn Small Linux, LinSpire, Mandrake/Mandriva, DesktopBSD and for a period of several months, Linux From Scratch. That’s a bunch of different distros and each of them have their high points and their low points. Technically some aren’t even Linux (the BSD systems). Some are ultra-configurable. So configurable in fact (LFS) that you have to compile everything from scratch. Some are not very flexible on the surface (RH, CentOS, Ubuntu, LinSpire) and come with much sleeker installs and a larger base of premade packages ready for install.
Let’s face it though, they’ve all got a kernel under their hood and a bunch of applications and daemons that run on top if it. Eye candy is optional. User experience varies as much as the users available. The most complex distro to install, arguably Linux From Scratch, can look ultra slick and extremely polished. I’ve also seen some god-awful looking Ubuntu installs out there.
The point I’m moving toward here is that there is no best in Linux. There’s options. Configurability, ease of install, control over your outward appearance, control of the inner workings of your machine. What will translate into a good user experience for those in the Linux community differs throughout our community. Some favor complexity and control, others favor minimal configuration and ease of use. Many of us use Linux not only to accomplish tasks on our computers but to learn more about the inner workings of our computers.
So why is Ubuntu becoming so popular with many, and so overdone with some? It’s got several things going for it that have pushed it into the realm of the public conscious and past the eyes and ears of Linux hackers and so-called hobbyists.
First, Ubuntu has an astronaut. Seriously. There’s something glamorous about a person who’s looked down at the Earth from a place only an extremely small fraction of the human race will be. When that person who’s attained this almost mythic position in our collective conscious then says something to the effect of “hey, I’ve got an idea!” lots and lots of people listen. Even when that idea has to do with something complex like an operating system or something hard to market, like an operating system that’s not Windows or OSX.
Second, it doesn’t hurt that this astronaut paid his way into space with his petty cash. There’s a lot to say for a rapid launch and good development when the specter of the bill collector isn’t hanging over your shoulder.
Third, it was a good idea. Make an operating system that’s based on proven technology (the Linux kernel and the Debian distro) and then make it so easy to install that my brother-in-law can do it and he can cause a toaster to go into complete system failure. Take all of the complexity that seems to lay on the surface of Linux and bury it under a layer of GUI goodness and menus.
That right there is what started the popularity of Ubuntu skyrocketing and is also the very point that niggles some *nix users. But it’s a sound strategy. Hell, it worked for Microsoft and Apple and I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t work for Linux. The biggest difference here is cost. As in, there isn’t any to go out and get an Ubuntu CD shipped right to your door. That’s amazing. It’s revolutionary and it’s working quite well.
In fact, there’s only three reasons why I still have Windows installed on my laptop. The license was purchased by my employer, I need to support users on it, and I like playing Medieval: Total War. Other than that, I can do anything I would normally do in any other OS in Linux. And more specifically in Ubuntu.
Yes, you may be sick of hearing about Ubuntu. Yes, we who know a little about the Linux world know that it’s based on Debian and that Linux is a kernel, not an OS. However, Ubuntu is doing things that are making Linux really, really accessible to the average user. The people who think of computers as smaller, more expensive radios or televisions. Computers have been marketed as appliances, not complex tools. When Jane or Joe average user buy a computer, they expect to turn it on and go – and their expectations have been set by the pay-per license OS makers we all know and love, Microsoft and Apple.
Ubuntu brings Linux a lot closer to this expectation. I’ve watched novice computer users install Ubuntu. I’ve seen everything that’s needed to check email and surf the web just work. The only place I feel Ubuntu is lacking for the new user is it’s support for 3rd party codecs out of the box. They do things the legal way and that can make it tougher on the new user. That’s the one area where I generally take over after the install and show them how to get video, dvd and mp3 playback working.
That’s also a complaint I hear from seasoned computer users. Some of the programs they expect to find in a Linux distro aren’t present. Such as a C compiler or Make.
Ubuntu is really designed as a desktop OS. A replacement for Windows and to a much lesser extent OSX. As such, most desktop users will never need or want to write a program or compile something from source. Not including ‘extra’ software also alows Ubuntu to keep their install to 1 CD, allowing the internet to handle new packages and updates. Remember that a lot of this functionality is not needed by the average computer user. However, being a Linux distro, these utilities are not hard to track down and install on your computer.
Is Ubuntu for everyone? Absolutely not. In the Linux user world there are just as many reasons to use another distro as there are users who use other distros.
Is Ubuntu a great choice for users who don’t want to know a whole lot about computers, are new to Linux or like myself, enjoy ease of use? Yes it is.