They say you’re not supposed to upgrade to alpha pre-releases of Ubuntu on your main computer. Unfortunately, I have only one computer (my HP Mini 1120nr netbook) to test on, and it has a 16 GB SSD, so dual-booting isn’t even really an option. I just took the plunge, downloaded the latest Lucid Alpha .iso, “burnt” it to USB using UNetBootIn, and then installed it over my Ubuntu 9.10 (Karmic Koala) installation.
I have to say I’m not impressed. Yes, I know it’s an alpha release, but I’ve done alpha releases of older versions of Ubuntu, and it’s usually not this bad so close to the beta release.
A few things I didn’t like
- Broadcom drivers can’t be fetched without an internet connection. Okay, so this was true with the last Ubuntu release also, but I know in previous versions Ubuntu would autodetect I had a Broadcom wireless card and then prompt me to activate the necessary drivers and then have it just work (which is what Ubuntu is supposed to do). What does Lucid do? It tells me there are drivers I need to install. When I click on the little green square icon to launch jockey-gtk and try to activate the driver, I get told that the driver can’t be fetched from the online repository. Why should you need an internet connection to get your internet connection working? That’s silly. I’ve filed a bug on it: 535824.
- Applications crashing left and right. I’m a bit more hopeful on this one. This does tend to happen in alpha releases. Nevertheless, it’s ridiculous with Lucid. It’s not even the application launches and then crashes. It crashes even before it launches. That happened for Gwibber, for Ubiquity, for Software Center.
- Wireless slow to reconnect after resuming from suspending. This bug was annoying and in Intrepid and Jaunty. It seemed to go away for Karmic, but now it’s back in Lucid. Look, the whole point of suspend-to-RAM (also known as sleep) is that you can put your computer into a battery-saving state that can be quickly used again without a long wait. If I wanted a long wait, I’d have shut down and then booted up again. It honestly would be quicker than waiting 30 seconds to a minute for wireless to reconnect. Same old bug: 274405.
- Internal mic settings not autodetected. Another thing that appeared in previous releases but you think they’d have fixed by now. Nope. The hardware detection isn’t the problem. It’s the settings configuration. By default, Ubuntu uses the microphone selection to use the microphone. Really, though, my internal mic is the line-in selection. Shouldn’t Ubuntu be able to tell that for certain models the internal mic is the line-in selection and just select that by default? Bug previously filed: 441480.
- General problems. To be honest, I just don’t have the motivation to file bugs on all these, since most of the bugs I file get ignored (or acknowledged and then not fixed). When I resume from suspend, in addition to wireless taking a long time to reconnect, the battery icon for gnome-power-manager appears and disappears from the taskbar like a blinking light. I also get an error message about the monitor configuration. Update manager is holding back certain updates, but the updates still appear. What’s up with that? I had to explicitly go to Edit Connections on Network Manager to get it to automatically reconnect to my wireless network. Shouldn’t it try to automatically reconnect by default? That’s what it did in previous versions.
Another worthy critique
Someone on the Ubuntu Forums linked to 16 things that could be improved in Ubuntu 10.04, and I have to say it’s brilliant and very thorough. I don’t agree 100% with it (for example, Control-Alt-Delete needing to launch gnome-system-monitor). I do, however, agree with most of it and the general sentiment, which is that a lot of the decisions the Ubuntu devs made seem to have absolutely no rationale. It’s not that it’s a rationale I or others disagree with. It appears to be a totally non-existent rationale.
I’d like to elaborate on a couple of points here.
First of all, I don’t have a problem with the window buttons being on the left, as opposed to on the right. I’ve used both Windows and Mac OS X extensively, and I can use both just fine. Here’s the real issue, though. On Mac OS X, the window buttons are the left but the close window button is on the absolute left. On Lucid Lynx, the button group is on the left, but the close button is on the right of the group. That means if you want to close a window with your mouse, you have to move the mouse over to the middle-left of the window instead of the absolutely left corner of the window. Believe it or not, for most users, closing the window is the most common action used with the mouse (not maximizing/restoring or minimizing). Whereas you have easy key combinations to switch windows (Alt-Tab or Cmd-Tab) or minimize windows (Control-Alt-D, Windows-D, or Cmd-H), there isn’t really an easy and consistent way to close windows. Sometimes in Ubuntu it’s Control-W. Sometimes it’s Control-Q. Sometimes you have to do the awkward Alt-F4. Also, it’s safer to use the mouse to close a window since you’re less likely to close the wrong window. I’ve more than once Alt-F4’ed (in both Windows and Linux) the wrong window (thinking it was in focus when it wasn’t).
Someone brought up in the comments that a smaller font may be better for netbooks but isn’t great for larger desktop monitors. Well, Ubuntu seems to be able to autodetect my screen resolution is 1024×576. I’m sure for a lot of large desktop monitors it can autodetect your screen resolution as 1600×1200 or whatever. Would it be that difficult to have the defaults auto-adjusted to your screen resolution? So if you’re using a netbook, the default font would be 8pt or 9pt, and if you’re using a large monitor the default font would be 12pt or 14pt. Hey, there’s an idea.
The Future of Ubuntu
Pretty soon, I’m almost finishing up my fifth year with Ubuntu. I started Ubuntu in May 2005 with Ubuntu 5.04 (Hoary Hedgehog). I’ve used every release since then: Breezy Badger, Dapper Drake, Edgy Eft, Feisty Fawn, Gutsy Gibbon, Hardy Heron, Intrepid Ibex, Jaunty Jackalope, and Karmic Koala. I’ve posted literally tens of thousands of times on the forums to help new users with their problems. I’ve filed bug reports. I’ve written documentation (both official and unofficial). Over the years, I’ve seen Ubuntu improve a lot. In the old days, there were separate live and installer CDs. The installer CD didn’t even have a point-and-click interface. You couldn’t enable the extra repositories without manually editing the /etc/apt/sources.list file. You couldn’t safely write to NTFS. There was no bootsplash. There was no Wubi to allow a 99.9999% safe dual-boot setup with Windows. I like the recent logo rebranding, too.
With all that vast improvement, though, Ubuntu still hasn’t come significantly closer to fixing Bug #1. There are a few good reasons for this, the main one being that Ubuntu still hopes people will download, burn, install, and configure Ubuntu on their own. This isn’t the way to penetrate the market. And the preinstalled Ubuntu options are not appealing to the general public for various reasons. Dell doesn’t advertise Ubuntu well or price it competitively to Windows. Dell also does not sell Ubuntu on higher-end models… or even in very many countries. You cannot find the Ubuntu-preinstalled Dell models in a physical store to try out. You have to buy it sight-unseen. Same deal with System76 and ZaReason for that last part. If I’m going to be shelling out hundreds or thousands of dollars on a laptop, I want to be able to try it out and see how it looks and feels. With my last two purchases, I had to do it sight unseen (Xandros-preinstalled Asus Eee PC 701 and Ubuntu-preinstalled HP Mini 1120nr). It wasn’t fun having to scour the internet for various reviews and then realizing there were always one or two quirks that no one mentioned that I later discovered.
I don’t know if Jane Silber or Mark Shuttleworth will ever stumble upon my blog, but I wrote two years ago what I believe their best strategy would be, and I still believe that to be true: Ubuntu: The Open Source Apple Challenger? You need a store. You need a physical store with well-designed custom fully Linux-compatible laptops. It has to be as sleek as the Apple Store but with Ubuntu’s unique branding and, more importantly, a more open philosophy. Yes, we highly recommend you use this Ubuntu laptop and this Ubuntu phone and this Ubuntu MP3 player and this Ubuntu printer, but you may also find Ubuntu works well with many other devices. These are the ones we guarantee will work. No kernel regressions. Lots of extra testing.
When you file a bug report for Ubuntu, you’ll have to post lspci and other stuff only if you’re using a non-sanctioned model. Otherwise, Launchpad will automatically know exactly what model you have.
I can hear the Ubuntu zealot backlash in my head now. “How can you complain about something that’s free?” “Why don’t you just get a Mac?” “Ubuntu just needs more polish.” No. No. No. That’s not it. See, as I’ve pointed out before, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to say that which is free is not worthless, you have to stand by the quality of that which is free, which means you have to accept that there can be criticism of that which is free. Otherwise, you have to say free is necessarily inferior to that which is non-free. Besides, I have devoted hundreds of hours to helping Ubuntu. Maybe I didn’t pay money for it (except that one time I donated to the forums), but I certainly have donated enough of my time and energy to the project to be able to voice a criticism or two. I’ve certainly filed my fair share of bug reports and posted my fair share of brainstorms. And, sure, Ubuntu could use some more polish, but polish won’t save the day if people are still supposed to download and install Ubuntu themselves. For more details on that, see Linux-for-the-masses narratives.
Should I get a Mac, though? I don’t know. I have a lot of problems with Macs. I don’t like how you can resize windows from only the lower-right corner. I don’t like how there is a universal taskbar. I don’t like how accidentally dragging an icon off the dock makes it vanish in a poof of smoke. I don’t like how you can’t get a new finder window by pressing Cmd-N. I don’t like how Enter renames and Cmd-O opens. I don’t like how minimized applications don’t restore when you Cmd-Tab to them. I don’t like how closing the last window of an application doesn’t quit the application.
You know what, though? Even though I don’t agree with how Apple set up the interface, I understand the rationale behind each and every one of those decisions. I don’t have to agree with the rationale to understand it. For some of the Ubuntu or Gnome teams’ decisions, I cannot see the rationale at all. They just seem like bugs or arbitrary decisions. They don’t all follow a consistent paradigm or vision. More importantly, Apple does have some great innovative things. Love the multi-touch implementation on the new Macbooks. Love the magnetic power cords.
I guess we’ll see what happens when I’m next in a position to buy a new computer. If, by the time I buy a new computer, Ubuntu has physical stores with well-polished and properly marketed preinstalled laptops, I’ll probably get one of those. If, by the time I buy a new computer, Google Chrome OS netbooks are actually a good option, I’ll probably get one of those. If, however, we’re still in the same place we are now with Linux preinstalled, I may be getting a Mac. Don’t let me down, Jane and Mark. I admire so much of what you do, but Ubuntu really has so much more and different to do to get across that Bug #1 threshold. It isn’t just about improving software. It’s about an entirely new business approach.
P.S. I’m not threatening to leave Ubuntu. I’m simply stating what I believe to be a practical approach. If it’s been two years and I go to Google Chrome OS or Mac OS X, I’ll probably still be doing Ubuntu tutorials to help new users. They’ll just still be primarily for Windows ex-power users and not the so-called masses (aka “jane six-pack,” aka “average user”).