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Why I might switch to Mac from Ubuntu

Who am I?
I’ve been using Ubuntu for almost five years now. I’ve offered some technical support on the Ubuntu Forums and been a moderator there off and on. I’ve maintained a new-user-targeted documentation site for every release of Ubuntu except the very first (4.10). I’ve also contributed to a few official Wiki pages. Even though nanotube did all the heavy lifting, I did help out a fair bit in at least the beginning stage of UbuntuZilla. I’ve filed bug reports at Launchpad. I’m not a programmer, but I feel I’ve contributed a fair bit to Ubuntu.

Why I was drawn to Ubuntu
I admire a lot of what Mark Shuttleworth has done. He has an enormous amount of wealth. A lot of people who don’t have a lot of wealth always think if they did that they would undoubtedly give away most of that money. It’s easy to give away other people’s money. It is not so easy to give away your own. My parents aren’t nearly as rich as Shuttleworth. Somehow, they managed to give a large percentage of their money away to church and to various charities, and still maintain a very comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle. My wife and I are struggling to make ends meet while also trying to give away to causes we deem worthy. To sink millions of pounds into what could have been a dead-end project is a risk that I admire Mark Shuttleworth taking. He could have been ridiculed. He could have lost a lot of money on nothing.

He had a vision, though. I liked that original vision. I liked the free CDs shipped anywhere. I liked the idea of one CD with one application per task, not a lot of confusing options, and sensible defaults. More importantly, I liked the idea of Ubuntu—humanity toward others, which showed quite well in the Ubuntu Forums. And Ubuntu was one of the few distros to try to strike a reasonable balance between the lofty ideals of Free software zealotry and the pragmatism of proprietarily-licensed software.

Where did Ubuntu go wrong?
For a while, I had high hopes for Ubuntu. Every release seemed to make Ubuntu more polished, every additional feature seemed to make Ubuntu more accessible for the Linux novice. A few things that have come up recently have made me a bit disillusioned with Ubuntu, though:

  • These days, decisions and “improvements” seem more like arbitrary changes instead of actual user experience improvements. Grub suddenly became less configurable, as did GDM. Notifications would appear and randomly disappear at odd times (for example, if my wireless reconnected, the notification would still say I was disconnected and then change to connected only about ten seconds after I’d actually reconnected).
  • My bug reports have really come to naught. A few years ago, if someone had complained on the Ubuntu Forums about a problem with Ubuntu, I would have been first in line to say “Complaining here won’t do any good. If you want to tell the developers, file a bug report.” After seeing that most of my bug reports have been unanswered or unfixed, sometimes for years, I don’t know that filing a bug report is really the best thing to do.
  • Brainstorm is a mess. Really, there isn’t an efficient way for developers to get proper feedback from users. If I, as a user, can’t make sense of Brainstorm’s thousands of ideas, how can the developers, who are busy developing?
  • I’ve seen too many hardware regressions. A lot of this isn’t Ubuntu’s fault. A lot of this is upstream. Regardless, upstream affects the Ubuntu experience. The real problem is that the Linux kernel tries to support everything well. There isn’t enough focus. So something that is in theory supposed to be Linux compatible (say, an Intel Pro Wireless 2200bg card) can work perfectly in one release, and then have random disconnects in the next two releases and then work perfectly again in the next release. Personally, I’ve had a Broadcom card that works and doesn’t work in alternating Ubuntu releases, and that makes no sense to me. If the problem is that hardware manufacturers aren’t making it easy for Linux developers to make drivers, then that hardware should never work. If, however, the hardware works in one Ubuntu release and doesn’t work in the next release, that is definitely the fault of Linux, whether it is the kernel team upstream or the Ubuntu team… or both.
  • Recent decisions have seemed to focus on whim or business more than user experience, particularly the change to Yahoo! as the default search engine in Firefox and the random moving of the window control buttons from right to left. I have no problem with change. I also have no problem with Ubuntu making money. But there seems to be an utter disregard for how changes affect users. A little more communication would help. More details here.
  • The most important thing is there doesn’t seem to be a real strategy in place for fixing Bug #1. Yes, there are power users who like to install their own operating systems and troubleshoot hardware compatibility issues. In order for your product to take off, though, it can’t be just an operating system. It has to be a product. It has to be something people can purchase. And the limited options from Dell (which recommends Windows, even on the Linux parts of its website) don’t cut it. They also aren’t created by Ubuntu. They just use Ubuntu. Recently, Google released the Nexus One as its idea of hardware matching perfectly the software in Android. There is no Ubuntu equivalent. There isn’t hardware designed to be the ultimate Ubuntu experience. I’ve heard various Ubuntu advocates propose making a Ubuntu commercial. What’s the point, though? If someone saw a Ubuntu commercial, she couldn’t just go and buy Ubuntu, especially in certain countries. The options are limited or non-existent. And hardware compatibility is iffy (Dell still uses Broadcom cards… I have a Broadcom card in my Ubuntu preinstalled HP Mini, which HP no longer makes, by the way).

The straw that broke my camel back
This window button move in Ubuntu 10.04 is really indicative of a bad way Ubuntu is headed. Defaults matter. One of the things I liked about Ubuntu, as I stated before, is its sensible defaults. I don’t have to agree with everything the Ubuntu teams decide or that Mark Shuttleworth decides. That’s fine. You want GIMP out… I don’t agree with it, but I at least understand the rationale behind the decision (it takes up a lot of space on the disk, and most people do not need the crazy power-user features GIMP offers as a photo editor). This decision about the window controls came out of nowhere and had no apparent rationale. Instead of getting good reasons for the change, all we got was… nothing for a while. We got some people saying “Hey, it’s different” or “Just get used to it” or “You can change it back easily if you want.” These aren’t reasons for a change. These are coping strategies. If a change happens, there should be good reason for it. Look, I get Shuttleworth saying Ubuntu is not a democracy. It doesn’t have to be a democracy, though. How about, as self-appointed benevolent dictator for life, just explaining why you made a decision? People don’t have to agree with your decision, but at least if they have a reason for it, they are more likely to accept it. How about, even though you have the power and right to not listen to people, just soliciting feedback?

It took a lot of pressing from users to get Shuttleworth to talk a bit more about what kind of “feedback” and “data” he was looking for. He said at least that the decision wasn’t final, and he wanted genuine data. Based on his remarks in this bug report, it really does seem, though, that he has made up his mind that this is what is going to happen, regardless of what data and feedback people present him with—especially when people present a lot of legitimate points against the move, and then he just replies “And the major argument against it appears solely to be ‘we’re used to it here.'” For more details on those legitimate points, take a look at this and this.

Democracy v. Dictatorship = false dichotomy
In case anyone’s wondering, there are more than two options out there. You don’t have to put every decision to a vote. And you don’t have to totally disregard community input. You don’t have to try to please everyone or please no one. And you don’t have to be subject to mob rule if you offer a little transparency.

My advice to Shuttleworth for the future would be if you want to make a unilateral change, just be open about what your reasons are for it. You can be a strong leader without pissing off large segments of your user base. Just say “I want to change this a bit, because I think it offers X, Y, and Z usability improvements. I realize a change is difficult for everyone, and I also concede there are A, B, and C tradeoffs in making the change. The tradeoffs are worth it, though. Ultimately, the decision rests with me and the desktop experience team. Nevertheless, I would like to hear your concerns about the change, and the best way for you to communicate your concerns is through methods D and E.” Would that be so difficult? Any time you make a change, there will always be some people unhappy about it. You can still make the process a little less heated with just some communication and openness. After all, on your webpage, you say “Ubuntu is a community developed operating system that is perfect for laptops, desktops and servers.” Your millions of pounds help make Ubuntu happen. We all know that. Keep in mind that it would behoove you to not piss off your user base, as the success of Ubuntu can’t be bought with pounds alone. Millions of users contribute to Ubuntu in many ways as well.

Why Mac?
When I voiced opposition to this latest change in Ubuntu, I got a lot of “Ubuntu is not a democracy” and “You can always use something else.” Well, as I just explained, you can very well have a non-democracy that is still community-focused. I hope Mark Shuttleworth will reconsider for the future his approach to communicating (or not communicating, in this instance) with the larger Ubuntu communities. Really, though, if I’m going to be using an operating system maintained by a dictator, I might as well go for one who understands that 1) hardware and software planned together make for a better user experience and 2) even if users don’t agree with his design decisions, he should still have rationales for those decisions.

I can’t even tell you how many design decisions I disagree with Apple about (resize only from bottom right corner, zoom instead of maximize, disk image mounting for software installation, dock icons in poof of smoke when dragged off dock, etc.). You know what, though? Each one of those decisions I disagree with I also understand the rationale for. More importantly, I like how Apple doesn’t like to tackle too much at once. Instead of trying to support all hardware and then having regressions on various theoretically “supported” devices, Apple realizes it’s better to have a great experience on a limited number of devices.

And the attention to detail is impressive. The magnetic cord I love. I am a total klutz and can’t tell you how many cords I’ve ruined by tripping on them or tugging them the wrong way. In fact, I just broke my HP Mini cord this weekend and had to order a replacement cord. Not so with the magnetic cord on my wife’s Macbook Pro. When the Macbook is sleeping, the power light fades slowly in and out instead of doing a hard off and on blink. The power button is flush with the frame of the laptop and not jutting out. The sound quality is always good on Mac laptop speakers. There’s a lot to admire about Apple approach. It is one great way to present an integrated hardware-software computer experience. My hope was that someone would present another great way. We’ll see if that ever happens.

Am I abandoning Free software?
Not really. First of all, I don’t know that I’m going Mac. Macs are expensive, so I’d have to save up for one. Even if I do go Mac, though, my Mac experience would be very different from my wife’s Mac experience. For one thing, I might dual-boot with Linux Mint. And even if I stick with Mac OS X, I will use Thunderbird instead of Mail, Firefox instead of Safari, OpenOffice instead of iWork, and my Android phone instead of an iPhone (Cyanogen’s rooted rom has made me really appreciate the Android platform even though the iPhone has its advantages too). No change has to be permanent, though. If Ubuntu comes around or changes the way it does business, or if some other Linux distro focuses its energy on preinstallation and proper marketing/distribution, and thorough hardware compatibility testing on a few select models, I might make my way back. In the meantime, if I go Mac, don’t worry—I’ll still be making my Ubuntu tutorials. A bad decision though the window control switch is, it’s probably not bad enough for most Ubuntu users to actually abandon Ubuntu at this point. For me, it was a tipping point. It’s been a good five years.

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How else can Linux fail in the consumer space?

Many Linux advocates and Linux bashers still think the success or failure of Linux in the consumer (not server or embedded) space rests on technical merits. Implementation, marketing, pricing, inertia, vendor lock-in—no, of course, those have nothing to do with whether people decide on Linux as opposed to Windows or Mac OS X. Would it help to work on the technical merits of Linux? Sure. Will that alone make Linux a success for consumers? Hardly. Technical merits will get technical users into it (Network admin, want a server? Use Linux. Hey, TiVo, want a free operating system for your DVR product? Use Linux).

Linux had a few good opportunities to succeed, but flubbed on the execution:

  1. OLPC. When I heard about the One Laptop Per Child project, I got giddy. It was marketed as the $100 laptop. It was going to be durable. It was going to use Linux. It was going to help kids in developing countries learn. If that had been what really happened, Linux would have really taken off, at least in certain demographic segments of the world. What really happened? Well, the laptop was nowhere near $100. It was more like $200. And if rich folks wanted them, they had to pay $400 ($200 to get one, $200 to give one). It also was a pretty ugly laptop, with an extremely crippled version of Linux.
  2. Dell. When Dell started up its Idea Storm section, it probably had no idea the section would be bombarded by Linux users demanding Dell start offering Linux preinstalled. Well, Dell half-heartedly gave in and offered a couple of select models with Ubuntu preinstalled. This half-hearted effort doomed the new venture to failure. Dell hid Ubuntu away so no one could see it on their website without a direct link or clever Google searching. Dell priced the Ubuntu laptops more than spec-equivalent Windows laptops. Dell “recommended” Windows on all the Ubuntu laptop pages (it still does). Dell still used Linux-unfriendly hardware (Broadcom, anyone?). To sum up, Dell was not invested in really selling Linux preinstalled. It just wanted to sort of, kind of appease the Linux community (most of whom continue to buy the cheaper Windows-preinstalled laptops and then install Linux for themselves).
  3. Netbooks. I love the idea of netbooks. The execution was terrible, though. They were not heavily advertised. Early netbooks had 512 MB of RAM and 4 GB SSD drives with 7″ screens. The battery life was poor. The keyboards were cramped. The screen resolution was practically non-existent. Worse yet, all the OEMs included crippled versions of Linux… Linpus Linux Lite, Xandros… installing software became in reality the nightmare that Linux haters often misrepresent it to be. It would be like having apps for the iPhone without an App Store. Yes, you could install a regular Linux version yourself, but that’s not what the everyday consumer is going to do. Microsoft slammed the years-familiar XP down on netbooks, and—suffering from a bad implementation and no marketing or advocacy from OEMs—Linux on netbooks floundered.
  4. Android. In many ways, Android is actually a success. But it is not the success it could have been. When people were saying various Android phones could be the next “iPhone killer,” I thought, Hey, maybe they could be. We’ll see. I wasn’t surprised to see that the G1 did not kill the iPhone, the MyTouch didn’t kill the iPhone, the Hero didn’t kill the iPhone, nor did the Droid, nor did the Nexus One. I have a MyTouch 3G with Android, and I love my phone. I understand very well why it didn’t kill the iPhone, though. Apple understands how to make an excellent user experience, and Google doesn’t. That’s the bottom line. I’m not an Apple fanboy. I actually disagree with a lot of the design decisions Apple makes. What I don’t dispute is that Apple has a vision. Every decision, whether I agree with it or not, has a rationale that makes sense. Yes, there are pros and cons, and Apple weighed them and decided the pros outweighed the cons. With Android, though, and with various HTC phones using Android, I see various bad interface implementations that have no pros at all. I just don’t see anyone properly testing these things. For example, on the MyTouch and the Nexus, the speaker is on the back of the phone. Why? On some of the Android text dialogues, you have to tap into the text field (even if you have no hard keyboard) to get the onscreen keyboard to appear (shouldn’t it appear automatically if the text field is in focus?). Those are just a couple of examples.

Just yesterday, Steve Jobs announced the iPad to much ridicule. People made fun of the name. People said it would be useless without Flash, a USB port, without a front-facing camera, without multi-tasking. They called it an oversized iPhone. They said the 4:3 aspect ratio wouldn’t be good for movies. The LED screen wouldn’t be good for reading in sunlight or for long periods of time.

I kind of liked it. I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. I wasn’t drooling. But I can see the appeal. It looks like a slick device, and it’s priced a lot lower than people thought it would be (most of the speculation saw it between $700 and $1000). If it’s a standalone device (doesn’t need to hook up or sync to a Windows or OS X computer with iTunes), I might consider it.

I would be curious to see if any OEM is going to step up to the plate here, though, and give Linux a real chance. I doubt it. It would be quite simple, though. Create a tablet just like the iPad (has to include proper multi-touch, though… no backing out for fear of so-called patent infringement, Google). Run a Linux-based operating system that is mainly open source (but can have some proprietary programs on it). Include multi-tasking. Include a proper software repository. Use a regular hard drive instead of SSD drive. Include USB ports. Have better screen resolution or a widescreen aspect ratio. Then price it just a little below the iPad… oh, and give it a proper name… one people won’t make fun of.

How simple is that? Will it happen? Probably not. A bunch of iPad imitators will pop around, sure. They’ll each have serious flaws, though. Many will lack multi-touch. Most will be too bulky. Some won’t have a sensible user interface. Some will be too expensive. Then I can tack it on as yet another way Linux has failed in the consumer space.

Mark Shuttleworth, if you’re reading this, it’s about time you realized Bug #1 gets fixed once you create a full and unified software-hardware user experience. Hoards of Windows users aren’t going to download the Ubuntu .iso, set their BIOSes to boot from CD, repartition their hard drives, install Ubuntu, and then troubleshoot hardware compatibility problems. You (or someone with your savvy and financial resources) need to be the open source Steve Jobs if Linux is going to succeed in the consumer space.

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Linux Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality Ubuntu

The varying degrees of rich

I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in its state. If you told people you were from my town, they’d call you a “Richie.” Nevertheless, many people in my town identified themselves as “middle-class” or “upper-middle-class” instead of as “upper-class” or “rich.” There were many people in my high school who, when applying to college, applied for and qualified for financial aid.

Many times people use the term rich as a monolithic one. The rich are rich and the poor are poor. To a certain extent, that’s true. Even if you’re on the lower end of rich, you are in a very, very small minority percentage-wise of the US or world population. But there are still varying degrees of “rich,” and they do lead very different lifestyles.

What got me thinking about this was a thread on the Ubuntu Forums asking what will happen when Mark Shuttleworth’s money runs out. Mark Shuttleworth is the founder of Ubuntu Linux, and his initial investment was about US$10,000,000. He also spent, before he set up Ubuntu, about US$20,000,000 to fly into space as a space tourist. In 1999, he sold his company Thawte for about US$575,000,000.

Now let’s think about the typical rich town resident (like the people in my town). My parents were both university professors, so we were barely rich enough to live in the rich town, but we did. A lot of my friends’ parents were doctors or lawyers. Doctors and lawyers can make a lot of money—six-figure salaries, maybe eventually a million a year. If you were a millionaire, you were rich, even in the rich town.

But there is a huge difference between being even a millionaire and being a half-billionaire.

If you’re a millionaire, you can afford a nice house in a rich town, but you’re probably still paying a monthly mortgage. You can go out for meals at fancy restaurants every now and then, you probably own a couple of expensive cars, and you can pay your kids’ college (that’s university, for you non-Americans) tuition without taking out a loan. You’ve still got to be mindful of your money, though. You can’t spend recklessly, and you can’t just quit your job.

If you’re a half-billionaire like Mark Shuttleworth, you don’t have to work. You can invest your money, and the interest you earn on that money per year is probably more than most people earn in a lifetime. In other words, Mark Shuttleworth has about as much money as five hundred millionaires. If he lived to be 100 years old, never invested any of his money, and just had the US$575,000,000 from the original Verisign deal, he could spend US$21,288 every day and run out of money only a little after his hundredth birthday.

That’s more than half my yearly salary he could spend every day and not go broke for another 65 years. Do we have to worry about Mark Shuttleworth running out of money? I highly doubt it. And, hey, he set up Ubuntu on the Isle of Man for a reason. The guy is not dumb. I don’t know if Ubuntu will ever be profitable, but I know it’s not going to die in my lifetime for lack of funds.

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Apple and Mac OS X Computers Linux

Ubuntu: The Open Source Apple Challenger?

Mark Shuttleworth’s vision
I know I’m not the only Ubuntu user blogging about Mark Shuttleworth saying he wants to make Ubuntu better-looking than OS X in the next two years. He also says

I can’t say we will succeed at this, but we will make a significant attempt to elevate the Linux desktop to the point where it is as good or better than Apple. We’ll also open up the debate to a broad community, rather than just software engineers—we’ll preserve the bazaar, but also redefine what success means for this particular crowd, so things are not just stable but also lovely. We can’t outspend Microsoft or Apple in terms of user-interface studies or the like, but we can invest in this.

I have a lot of respect for Mark Shuttleworth. He made a lot of money off open source, saw and filled a niche in the Linux community, and recognized the need for a balance between being a total corporate sellout and a total free software zealot.

But I think he’s either, in recent interviews, not sharing his total vision for Ubuntu, or not realizing why people like Mac OS X.

What’s so great about Macs and Apple anyway?
My wife is a Mac user. She has her Macbook Pro (recently traded up from a Powerbook), her iPhone, and her iPod (now a portable hard drive, since the iPhone is now her music player). I love Ubuntu and my Eee PC on which I’ve loaded it. I know, though, that no matter how much I like Ubuntu, my wife is having a better computing experience. It doesn’t have to do with software quality or availability, pretty looks, or hardware peripherals support.

In one of his recent MacWorld Expo keynotes, Steve Jobs talked about recognizing the importance of tightly integrating software and hardware. I don’t like how he’s locked people into his hardware with his software (right now Apple has already filed suit against Psystar, which recently began selling Mac OS X-preinstalled non-Apple computers), but he is right about how important that tight integration is.

What Apple offers you, and you realize this the moment you walk into an Apple store, is a total experience. You want a computer? They’ll sell you computers that are designed to work with the software on them. You want a portable music player? They’ll sell you one that’s designed to work with the music software on the computer they just sold you. You want a TV accessory for watching YouTube videos and renting movies and TV shows? They’ll sell you that, too. The software programs all talk to each other, and the software talks to the hardware, and the hardware is all meant to complement well the other hardware.

Yes, I have my criticisms of Apple and Mac OS X, just as many Ubuntu fans do. I don’t find Mac OS X intuitive at all. I don’t like DRM in the iTunes music store. I don’t like how they actively fight against people trying to use non-iTunes software to sync iPods. I don’t like how their end user license agreement makes you use only Apple computers with Mac OS X. Nevertheless, they’re doing something way beyond making good or beautiful software.

The Canonical store
This is what I would love to see, Mark Shuttleworth, and maybe it might take more than even your hundreds of millions to get set up, but I’m dreaming here. It’s okay to dream, I hope. For Ubuntu to surpass Apple, there should be a Canonical store—a brick and mortar store. You can start with a couple of them—maybe one in London, one in New York—and expand from there.

A Canonical store would be much like an Apple store. There would be computers on display that ran Ubuntu and were guaranteed to work with Ubuntu in every way (no non-working resume-from-suspend, or no it-worked-in-a-previous-version-but-after-you-upgrade-there-might-be-a-sound-problem). There would be portable media players that were designed to work well with Rhythmbox and vice versa. These would also be on display. There would be Canonical cinema displays that played nice with Xorg, so all you would have to do is plug it in, click on an icon on the Gnome panel to auto-detect displays and have an extended desktop with proper screen resolutions on both your Ubuntu laptop and the Canonical cinema display. You would be able to buy Ogg and MP3 songs from major and independent music labels through a Rhythmbox plugin (the Magnatune and Jamendo plugins they have now are a good start). More importantly, all the printers and other peripherals sold at the Ubuntu store would be guaranteed to work with Ubuntu.

Ubuntu’s fruit would be free
How, some of you Ubuntu users are wondering, would this be any different from the Apple store? It sounds like an exact clone of Apple. We don’t want to be Apple. We want to be Ubuntu. We want to be different. We are not Windows. We are not Mac OS X. We are a Linux distribution. If people want a Mac, they should get a Mac. Leave them to their iPods and Apple TVs. This would be different, though, my dream Canonical store. It would be different in the only important way that Linux is different from OS X and Windows—the software would be open source.

It’s about software freedom, and that’s what the Canonical store would provide you with. Yes, there would be a limited number of default and recommended hardware combinations available at the Canonical store, but if Psystar (provided it still exists after the Apple lawsuit) wanted to sell Ubuntu preinstalled computers, instead of suing Psystar, Canonical would partner with Psystar. People could buy hardware from the Canonical store if they wanted their hardware to be guaranteed to work well with Ubuntu, but nothing would stop geeks from buying Linux-friendly hardware from NewEgg or TigerDirect (they could scour the out-of-date entries in Ubuntu Wiki entry on hardware support while the general public would walk into a Canonical store and not worry about doing all the research). Rhythmbox would be designed to work well with whatever portable media player Canonical sold, but the specs would be open so that anyone could use a regular MSC transfer on other portable media players.

If Ubuntu sets that up, I think they might actually have a chance of beating Apple, but it also means getting into the hardware business (or setting up a very close partnership with a hardware vendor).

What direction will Canonical go?
Of course, one could argue that Canonical could go the way of Microsoft and stay a software company (only with free software instead of proprietary software), but Windows can work that way because vendors support it instead of Windows supporting itself. You end up having to install a lot of drivers and software after a Windows installation just to get basic functionality. An Apple approach would be much more in line with a Ubuntu user experience, especially since the Linux kernel provides the drivers for hardware and package management provides all the software for the end user.

The Microsoft approach is “We make the operating system and very little else. All you hardware and software companies better just make sure your stuff works with our operating system.”

The Apple approach is “We make the operating system and the computers and the software. We’ll bundle it all together and make sure it works well together. It’d be awesome if you third-party people made your stuff work with our stuff, too.”

What should Canonical’s approach be? In my dream world (and I hope Mark Shuttleworth agrees with this), it would be “We make the operating system and highly recommend these computer configurations in order to work well with our software and will bundle everything together, but we have opened up the source code and specs for everything, so if you want to go a way other than our way, go for it. We fully support you in branching off and using something else.”

That might take care of Bug #1, or at least help Canonical surpass Apple.