Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ubuntu, the State of the Art in Easy Linux

There's a new version of the Linux distribution Ubuntu out now. Codenamed "Feisty Fawn" it is, according to current conventional wisdom, the easiest of all the Linux versions. I'm a developer, and a geek, and I've made attempts at going the Linux route before, though I've always given up in the face of too much day-to-day hassle. So I thought, maybe I'll try this hot new Ubuntu thing out, maybe, just to see for myself.

Or maybe not, after reading this review of Feisty Fawn. It reveals a lot about what Linux users consider "easy to use".

We start off with this glowing intro (emphasis added):
For people wanting simplicity from their Linux distribution, Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn) may well be the best release ever from any Linux company. While using Feisty Fawn from the late beta stage and right on up to upgrading to the final version, I kept thinking “Feisty is so easy, my mom could use this!” Not to say you can’t get more obtuse with command line syntaxes in Feisty, but for the folks that wants their Linux distro to work with a minimal amount of fuss, Feisty Fawn is a smashing success. The installation is really as easy as 1-2-3 and from there you can set up your desktop with a minimal (and I mean minimal) amount of fuss. In fact, I found setting up Feisty Fawn to be far easier than Windows Vista or XP in that department. There’s no need to hunt down drivers and software from the internet and things just work out of the box.

Sounds amazing, right? But soon we start to see how low this guy's standards are in the first place:
A great example of how Ubuntu is making Linux more accessible for non-Linux folks is the manner in which proprietary codecs like mp3 are installed. Because of licensing issues mp3 codecs are not installed by default in most Linux distributions. For the end user, sometimes this creates confusion, but not in Feisty Fawn. As soon as you click on a mp3 file in Nautilus or Konqueror file browsers, a pop window appears asking you if you would like to install the proprietary codecs necessary to play the file. Very well done Ubuntu.

For the record, here's the dialog he's talking about:
Ubuntu MP3 codec dialog

Now, I don't know about this author's mom, but in my experience, most folks who aren't very familiar or comfortable with computers have a hard time understanding what an MP3 is in the first place, let alone what the hell a codec is. Now throw in an intimidating-looking dialog like this -- complete with a warning about "software not officially supported by Ubuntu" -- and I'll bet most "moms" would click the "No" button faster than you can say "I am what I am because of who we all are".

And go back again to that quoted bit, where he says, "As soon as you click on a mp3 file in Nautilus or Konqueror file browsers". That's another crucial problem right there, that most Linux geeks don't even see as a problem. Most non-computer-expert users have the barest concept of what a file browser is in the first place. In my opinion, Microsoft certainly didn't help when they quasi-merged Windows Explorer (the file browser) with Internet Explorer (the web browser). But in Linux-land, these users not only have to figure out what one is, they have to pick from more than one. For god's sake, why?

In summary, god bless the Linux people. Especially the ones, like Ubuntu, who are trying to improve usability. It's come a long way, relative to where it was even a few years ago. And this particular distribution does seem to have come a long way, relative to others. But for people who claim this level of usability can even remotely hold a candle to Mac OS X, or even to Windows, for that matter, I have to say, no. Not even close, guys.


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