With Ubuntu hitting the main stream (don’t argue with me, being sold by Dell is about as mainstream as you can get) I’ve been thinking about their constant upgrade/release cycle among other potential obstacles that may stand in the way of more widespread adoption of my favorite operating system.
I’m a die-hard Linux and Ubuntu enthusiast. I love the OS, I love using it and I love encouraging others to do so as well. I’m not a zealot however and I’m hoping that gives me a bit of an open mind when considering some problems and obstacle that Ubuntu still has to face if we’re going to see more mainstream adoption. “Dude you’re getting a Dell” is amazing, it’s awesome, it’s wonderful and it’s not going to get Ubuntu all the way there, where ‘there’ is a significant share of desktop installs. I still use windows on a number of machines and OSX on one or two more and these operating systems have a lot going for them as well. Particularly in the realm of usability and pure and simple name brand recognition.
So what obstacles have to be overcome? The first two are obvious and have been much discussed, so I’ll mention them to get them out of the way. Games and device drivers. (Are you listening ATI? Ahem). Moving on, let’s look at some of the issues that may not be as apparent but I feel are just as important.
The first is visibility. There are lots and lots and lots of computer user out there who know nothing about Linux. And know what? They don’t really care. They buy a computer to have it turn on and do some basic activities. They don’t know much about Windows or any operating system that’s on their machine. They’re expecting not a complicated device, but an appliance. I see this day after day when I ask a user “What operating system are you running” and they say something like “Uh… office 2006” or “Osk”, which is how you’d pronounce OSX if it was said as a three letter word. They grab a random computerish name from their memory and spit it out.
While visibility is certainly an issue, the invisible OS syndrome can actually play in favor of Linux as well. If john and Jane user purchase a Dell with Ubuntu because it’s $50 cheaper, bring it home, turn it on and start surfing the web and checking email then more power too them. This is now a possibility not through a small custom install workshop, but a massive industrial giant, Dell. It could also be a problem. I recently talked a small business owner out of purchasing two Dells with Ubuntu preloaded on them, as he runs a Windows only application as his POS software. Purchasing two Ubuntu installed Dell’s would have saved him $100 and given him two computers he couldn’t really use.
The second is the 6 month release cycle. This is what really drew me to Ubuntu in the first place, before it was the much easier to use instance that we have today with 7.04. A (mostly) hard and fast rule of six months per development cycle and release ensures that serious issues are addressed soonest and that new features continue to come down the pipe in a very timely manner.
Lots of people the world over will hate this. These are the folks who are running Windows XP and haven’t quite made the move to SP2 yet. Why? Not because they’re lazy but because they don’t want to have to change things on their computer, either through fear or ignorance. You don’t have to update your TV every month do you? Why do it to your computer, which in many mind sets is just another appliance. On the one hand, there’s the combination of automatic updates (and alerts) without having to reboot each time. On the other hand, in order to get the latest and greatest, albeit free upgrades, you’ll need to do a complete system upgrade at least twice a year or stick with a Long Term Support versions of Ubuntu.
Granted there’s a shift in computer literacy right now, as more and more kids grow up with technology and computers present in their lives from day 1. This may ameliorate the upgrade effect a bit in the future but we’re going to have to wait until these folks are purchasing computers for themselves en mass. Here’s a population group that’s going to have to get used to a new and better cell phone every week, they should be fine with two upgrades a year.
I’m all for the popularization of Linux in general and Ubuntu in specific but I’m also very curious to see how well the Dell deal plays out and what sort of complaints we’ll get both from new Ubuntu users and those long time users in the forums and groups who may have to deal with a sudden influx of folks completely new to Ubuntu and who may not have expected to dive head first into Linux. Yeah, it will be their “fault” for purchasing an Ubuntu machine, but we as a community would do well not to act with exasperation when the pop up in the forums asking questions that are answered in the FAQ’s or complaining that MS Office isn’t available. Here’s our chance to educate and accept a new face in the crowd. We shouldn’t see them as at fault, rather we should look at the opportunity to educate and increase acceptance. Hell, apply that to lots of areas in our lives and we’d get a lot further.