Practical steps to make Ubuntu better

The problem
It happens just about once or twice a week that a new Ubuntu user starts a forum thread or posts a blog entry about what Ubuntu “needs” to do to… fill in the blank (be easy enough for “Joe sixpack” to use, win the desktop, beat Windows, gain market penetration).

The reaction
The reception to these suggestions is usually less than welcoming and can be downright hostile. Why? Why can’t Ubuntu users take criticism? Why don’t they want feedback? This is what the new user often wonders. She may even dismiss Ubuntu altogether with the notion that if this is how Ubuntu users react to criticism, no wonder most people still use Windows.

Misplaced assumptions
There are a few problems with this approach, and they all have to do with bad assumptions:

  • The attitude of Ubuntu users is the same attitude Ubuntu developers have
  • Windows won over people because Microsoft took suggestions from random forum threads and blog posts about how to make Windows better
  • Most people actually choose Windows instead of just being stuck with it
  • The “new” suggestions are not already being taken
  • The suggestions actually will be critical to Ubuntu achieving whatever fill-in-the-blank goal
  • The suggestions are valid and appropriate for Ubuntu

None of those assumptions are ones that can be taken for granted, and most are just outright wrong.

Different doesn’t mean worse
In addition to the assumptions being wrong, the conclusions are usually wrong as well. It is one thing to observe that new users have difficulty figuring out how to install software in Ubuntu. But you can’t necessarily conclude from that observation that there’s something wrong with Ubuntu or that Ubuntu needs to fix whatever the new user experiences difficulty with. In fact, those of us who have gotten used to Synaptic Package Manager and Add/Remove Programs often wonder how we got along with setup.exe files in Windows for so long. That’s not to say that software installation can’t be improved in Ubuntu (for software outside the repositories, installation can be anything from troublesome to a nightmare). It’s only to say that you cannot necessarily conclude that a different way of doing things is bad simply because it confuses the new user.

Even when there are valid criticisms (for example, pointing out Ubuntu’s need for a point-and-click way of configuring the /etc/X11/xorg.conf file), it still does not logically follow that creating such a graphical tool would cause hoards of Windows users to start downloading, installing, and configuring Ubuntu themselves. There is often a false sense of urgency about these criticisms.

Lack of humility
What brings out the hostility is not the suggestions, but the attitude with which they are suggested. There tends to be an exaggerated sense of the tragic (“If we don’t fix this, Ubuntu is doomed!”) instead of a sober perspective on the matter (“Ubuntu’s great, but I’d love to see this happen”). This kind of new user also tends to lack humility. Rarely does this new user who comes barging on the scene ask “Are there currently plans to implement said feature?” or “What can I do to help?” No, it’s usually demands. Demands and claims of new insight and assumptions that Ubuntu developers just sit on their butts, twiddling their thumbs instead of actually improving the operating system. The irony here being that this kind of new user is usually the one doing nothing to improve Ubuntu, while the developers add feature after feature, GUI (graphical user interface) after GUI, for each new semi-annual release.

Dare to be different
If you want to avoid the hostility, learn how to get some humility. You can still make observations about Ubuntu’s deficiencies. You can still propose changes. But if you come with humility to the community, the community won’t react with hostility. If you act like a primadonna, trying to shake up something you don’t really understand yet, then you’ll be shown your place. I’d love to see less of this type of post or blog

I’ve been a programmer for 30 years and have experience using Windows, Mac, and Unix. I tried Ubuntu and I have to say it’s not ready for the average user. If Ubuntu wants to win over Windows users, it has to fix these things. It needs better hardware support. Grandma doesn’t want to drop to the command-line and type some cryptic terminal commands to get her sound working. It needs to have a setup.exe. because new users can’t be bothered to compile .tar.gz files from source and track down all the dependencies.

and more of this type of post or blog

Hi, I just started using Ubuntu, and I’ve run into some difficulties as a new user. It took me a few hours to configure my sound, and I had to type a lot of terminal commands to get things working properly. I also am unable to install software. I’ve tried using ./configure make and make install, but I run into dependency errors. Is it supposed to be this difficult to use Ubuntu, or am I missing something? I’d like for Ubuntu to be easier than this. Are there any plans to help new users like me avoid these difficulties? What can I do to help make that happen?

Yeah. I know I’m dreaming. I know the second kind of post will happen once in a dark-blue moon, but the first kind will keep happening just about every week.

So what can someone do to make Ubuntu better?
Even though the second kind of post will garner less hostile responses, it probably won’t bring about any real change. If you want to make a real difference, take one or more of these steps to actually improving Ubuntu instead of just starting a flamewar:

For more details, visit You can whine about how Ubuntu could be better… or you can make a difference—you can actually help make Ubuntu better.

Edit: Thanks to 23meg for the links in the suggestion list.


  1. (Damn wiki is down at the moment!)

    The HelpingUbuntu wiki page is a good place to start, but the biggest problem I find as a relatively new user to Linux (late 2005) is the perception that a bug is a fault. But it seems to be the case that a bug can also be a feature request.

    It’s been about a year since I logged a bug in Lauchpad, so maybe it’s changed, but I don’t remember any clear way to indicate the “fault” that you’re logging is a personal request for a feature to be added.

    This is bad news if it’s still the case, since I bet many, many people will refrain from logging a bug out of fear that someone will close it immediately with a line like “You moron – that’s not a bug, it’s a lack of a feature – go sponsor a developer if you want that”.

  2. I can’t believe I’m about to disagree with you Aysiu. I almost always agree with you, at least as far as I have ever read your posts. If you don’t like the “what Ubuntu “needs” to do to” style post in and of itself, that’s fine, but they will exist either way.

    You would like a bit more humility, but you see, the very act of posting to a blog or forum is an act of arrogance. It’s an assumption that complete strangers care what that person – me in the case of this comment – thinks. I think the very concept of posting on a blog or forum is the antithesis to humility, but that’s just my arrogant opinion. ;)

    Now, as for the nature of the question. There are a few more things that need to be understood about internet posting. One is that people tend to have a greater limit to their time than they need for in depth answers. Posting one comment means one article less I get to read. There’s a trade off, so many people tend to be as brief as possible in their response, when they even bother to leave one, if they’re arrogant enough to want to leave one.

    So, a comment thread begins on what needs to be done to improve Ubuntu. Posters are going to indicate what they, in their arrogant opinion is wrong with Ubuntu. It’s also partly the nature of the question. It does not ask for what is right. It’s essentially asking what’s wrong, and needs to be improved or changed. This goes back to the first point. You probably just don’t even like the concept of such a thread to begin with.

    Let’s say someone asked what a TV network could do to get more viewers. I would expect a lot of not-so-humble responses about what people think is missing. I would not at all expect to see people say, “I like a lot of the programs on Network X, and I very much enjoy their selection of programs. I understand that writers and producers are hard at work developing new shows for me to enjoy. I wonder what I can do to help.” More likely you will see, “Maybe they shouldn’t have so many stupid, boring shows, and should have more of the shows I like.”

    Do you see why the type of comment you would like to see is so wildly unlikely? It’s just the nature of the beast.

    Good luck with the blog!

  3. I disagree. If Ubuntu doesn’t consider end-users and their criticism, why bother with the project at all? You mention “marketing” Ubuntu as a way to help it, but what’s the purpose in marketing it if new users aren’t happy with what they’re seeing? And it’s often new users who are the ones doing the most complaining.

    If I wanted to use an unintelligible development desktop, I’d download one. I use Ubuntu because I believe that the community is the most important part of Linux and that community includes the whiners, for good or ill. Besides, someone can be a contributor and also a complainer. These two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

    You make it sound like new users’ first impressions are irrelevant. That’s a load of bull. First impressions are important, especially for a distro that claims to be for “human beings.”

  4. People generally don’t want to contribute effort to make something better of something that is free.

    They normally want to pay money so that it works first time. I believe this is what is carried over to the open source movement by people who do no know what open source is about.

    Unfortunately not everything works out of the box in Ubuntu, and the main reason is, that it’s free.

    So when it sounds like people are “demanding” features in Ubuntu, it’s because they’ve already been used to it in products that they have paid for, and more often than not, it works first time without them spending 4-5 hours in forums trying to figure out how to use that new USB gadget that they’ve bought.

    I also agree with FIAR, you want people to more humble so that you have less problems to deal with.

    Unfortunately, “It’s just the nature of the beast”. You’re dealing with Ubuntu! A different beast with every release!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *