ubuntu avatarFor the past two weeks I have been using Ubuntu 7.10 on my desktop PC. I used to install Linux distributions frequently to see which distros were better. But that was a few years ago. When I bought a new PC I decided to jump into the world of Linux once again and see what all the buzz is regarding Ubuntu. I downloaded the 64 bit version of Ubuntu so that I could benefit from my new AMD 64 bit hardware and got it burned to a CD and was ready to go. I rebooted the system and was greeted by the Ubuntu logo as expected.

Installation was quick, I guess it took maybe 10 minutes for the OS to be installed and rebooted. Compared to an installation of Windows, this is quite impressive.

My first thought about Ubuntu was. “Wow. It recognized my wireless card.” I was connected to my secure wireless network within a few seconds of booting up. I opened Firefox and was on the web checking my email and utilizing the PC for just about everything that I needed it to do. OpenOffice was also installed automatically so I had a full Office Suite at my fingertips as well. I opened up Evolution and configured my email accounts with ease. Evolution connected to my work Exchange server and my personal email’s IMAP server with no difficulty. Evolution even synchronized with my Exchange Calendar at work. Very nice.

Now it was time to get the printer working. But after a few attempts it was clear that Ubuntu simply did not want to see my network printer. This was very frustrating. My Mac OSX system connects easily with my Brother Laserjet via my network print server without problems, so I figured Ubuntu would be able to do this as well. But for some reason Ubuntu doesn’t even see that particular network device. I have chalked this issue up to my somewhat strange hardware configuration with a dated printer and an obscure network print server. So, I moved on…

The next stop was Eye Candy. I kept seeing all of these amazing videos of Ubuntu performing some really cool window transition effects. I knew I had to have these as well. Vista has eye candy, so I wanted to see how easy it would be for Ubuntu to look better than… well…. a dated system. I found that Ubuntu 7.10 has something called Compiz installed by default and you can turn on desktop effects to get some cool effects. This was easy to enable and was found quickly in the menu system. However, it didn’t give me the options that I expected. I had wobbly windows and that was cool, but I wanted the ‘Cube’, and windows burning out of view when you minimize them. The things I kept seeing in the videos. To accomplish this I had to delve into the terminal. Note: This could be done with the synaptic package manager but it wasn’t obvious that a package was missing to allow settings to be changed. Now this annoys the heck out of me. I absolutely can’t stand having to go to a terminal session to accomplish something. I feel that this is very backwards. I know the terminal is ‘powerful’ but it feels like going back to the days of DOS. Regardless of my frustration with the terminal I followed some directions I found in posts from the Ubuntu discussion forums and was able to get the advanced settings enabled by running a few commands. And WOW!, the Eye Candy is absolutely amazing. There are more options for various effects than I could ever describe here. It truly makes Vista seem like it has a dated interface. However, I don’t get why the advanced settings are not available right out of the box, but once enabled the GUI that Ubuntu uses is absolutely amazing.

So, I have Eye Candy and now it is time to install some other programs. I noticed that Skype has a Linux version of their program so I downloaded it and followed some cryptic commands I found in the Ubuntu discussion forums to be performed in the terminal and got it working relatively quickly. Nice. I then noticed that flash was not installing in Firefox 2 64 bit. Frustrating. So I found some help on the Ubuntu discussion forums and got a 32 bit version of Firefox installed in my 64 bit Ubuntu with Flash and Java and I was all set and ready to go. Again this involved a bunch of commands in the terminal to accomplish this. I installed some other native Linux applications, some from the Add/Remove menu in Ubuntu and some from downloads and then using terminal commands to install them. The Add/Remove system in Ubuntu works very well, and helps you easily install tons of various software applications. And all of the software in it is legally free! However, needing to use the terminal for applications not found in the Ubuntu repositories is very annoying.

So at this point I have a system that I am really starting to like. It looks great and does everything I want it to do. I have had a few headaches regarding the terminal, but I have followed directions from other Ubuntu users and have succeeded at getting software installed. This still left me with a computer that couldn’t print so I ended up sharing the printer on my MAC and then Ubuntu was able to connect to it through the shared printer on the MAC. Not the ideal installation, but since my MAC is always on this works fine for me right now.

So – now I finally get around to answering the question I posed in the title of this blog entry. Is Ubuntu ready for the mainstream? I want to answer this with some clarification. Ubuntu 7.10 is my main Operating System at home. I enjoy it and won’t be using Vista or Windows XP as my main system any longer. I have made the switch to Ubuntu. I feel that Linux has come far enough that it is very usable for me. However, I do not feel that Ubuntu or any other Linux distro that I have ever used is ready for the masses. Why? Because no one should ever need to go into the terminal to install something, ever. I can not be any more emphatic about this. Until the Linux purists, or elites or whatever other name they may call themselves, understand this, Linux will never become mainstream. Linux will remain a toy for geeks, not a tool for the masses. I understand issues with vendors not making their software easy to install, or providing installation files for a particular distribution, or hardware simply not working because a company won’t provide drivers. I understand these issues. But a GUI needs to be created to guide users through compiling a program that they want to install and have all dependencies get resolved automatically behind the scenes. We can’t expect companies to make a Linux version for every distribution out there, but we can expect the installation process to be easy for the end user. Users want to download and click for installation. Not download, open terminal, and then find terminal commands from the Ubuntu forums and cross your fingers that you don’t run into an error while compiling. A GUI should be available for typical things that currently involve opening the terminal. Installing software that you download is certainly one of these scenarios. I do not want to get rid of the terminal, but if you need to open the terminal to accomplish typical operations, then in my opinion, something is lacking.

On the positive side the Ubuntu discussion forums are an amazing resource with helpful people. I found the overall mood there very positive and open to newbies. Linux in the past seemed to have communities of people that hated newbies and refused to help or simply wanted to prove their IQ with a bunch of techno babble that only a MIT student could understand. The Ubuntu discussion forums are very welcoming and helpful.

I believe that Ubuntu is moving in the right direction and with a 6 month release cycle I anticipate great strides within the next couple of years. In my opinion, Microsoft should be very concerned about Linux now. Linux is getting more mature and looks like it will be maturing far faster than Windows. Maybe Microsoft should stop re-inventing their OS and simply create their own brand of Linux to sell to the masses?

Addition: If there could be a wizard that would handle the creation of a .deb from a source tarball in the background, and then install that .deb, I believe that these issues could be resolved. The application could easily be removed via synaptic later on if it is installed via a .deb. And the created .deb would be ideal for the users system and could be wiped out after the install if needed. Installing directly from source can be painful for someone to remove. I think this idea could really help Linux (particularly debian based versions) bridge the gap and make software far easier to install for the less technically inclined. Maybe someone with more skills than me could use the guide on this link as a base for creating the system that would create the .deb and then have the .deb installed via normal means once created.