Thursday, 30 August 2012


I hesitated writing this, because the subject of Linux distributions is a sensitive one.  When writing about Ubuntu, the fact that this is a system beloved by a large number of people is on my mind.  Let us not forget that Ubuntu is also the first experience of Linux for many, some of whom will move on to other Linux distributions, some of whom will stick with Ubuntu.  For many, and certainly in sections of the media, Ubuntu is not a Linux distribution: for them, Ubuntu is Linux and Linux is Ubuntu.

I should set out my stall by detailing my own experience with Ubuntu.  After starting out with Mandrake (before it became Mandriva), moving through SuSE, Fedora and CentOS, I came to Ubuntu.  I didn't want to like it.  It had become, by that time, so popular that large sections of the Linux community had come to despise it.  However, it stayed on my hard drive for a long time.  I liked having a system that practically looked after itself, and was configured for usability upon installation.

Then, it all started to go wrong.  Like many, I resented Canonical's insistence on changing the location of the minimise, maximise and close buttons to the left of the window title bar.  I quickly discovered how to change back to the traditional way of doing things (I changed GNOME theme), but it worried me that the default would be so unfamiliar to new users, who may never have explored Linux again.  Ubuntu 11.04, given the codename Natty Narwhal, is where Ubuntu and my hard drive parted company.  I moved to Linux Mint, through Linux Mint Debian Edition (still, in my view, rather excellent) and finally, on to Debian.

The change of button location was forgiveable.  To varying degrees, Linux distributors create custom themes for their distributions, and Ubuntu is no different.  If you don't like it, you can always change it.  Mark Shuttleworth's comments about users just having to put up with it, because Ubuntu is not a democracy, however, set many free software advocates against him.  For me, and many others, the last straw was Unity.  It is still the default in version 12.04.

Linux is all about choice.  In all fairness, I can choose to use something other than Ubuntu, and that is exactly what I did.  I resented Canonical imposing their vision of how I should interact with my computer: that is something for which the Linux community have criticised Apple and Microsoft.  To be honest, it didn't help that Ubuntu 11.04 was released with what seemed like a multitude of bugs, and I assumed that Unity had been released half-finished, to be patched later (another Linux community criticism of Microsoft).

The instability of 11.04 is what led me to explore distributions based on more stable implementations of Debian.  For those of you who don't know, Debian forms the basis of Ubuntu and many other Linux distributions, though Ubuntu seems to be moving further away from the distribution it is based on.

Anyway, I was looking at jobs within the computer industry recently, and I saw that a local company was looking for a server administrator.  To my surprise, the advertisement mentioned that the server is running on Ubuntu.  It seems like a strange choice to me.  I know there is a specific server version of Ubuntu, but I still found it strange.  I question the wisdom of running a company server on an operating system that is so popular (and therefore a known quantity and viable target for hackers) and is not, to my mind, as stable or secure as some other Linux distributions.  In short, it would not have been my choice for a company server.  Still, it prompted me to take another look at Ubuntu.  It's lucky that I have some CD-RW discs or, with my propensity for testing Linux distributions, I would have used up my stock of CD-R long ago.

On a positive note, the Ubuntu Software Centre will be relatively easy to use for new users.

There was a time when the concept of software repositories caused problems for new Linux users: the Microsoft Windows method of downloading installers from a website or physical medium was the accepted norm.  Now, the arrival of Android devices with Google Play/Market, and the apps store of Apple devices, have made the concept of the software repository familiar.

If there was a problem, it was with Skype.  As a Debian user, I am probably on shaky ground here.  Debian don't support Skype, even in their non-free repository, so it is necessary to download a package from the Skype website and install it manually.  Ubuntu does support Skype, indirectly, so upgrades to the software will be installed automatically.  In the Ubuntu Software Centre, I browsed the internet section, and looked at chat clients - no Skype.  Searching for Skype gave the message that the package was not available in the current section.  I can imagine a new user giving up here.  What I had to do was go back to "All Software" and search from there.

Bingo!  I clicked through to Skype and Ubuntu Software Centre informed me that a repository with software from Canonical partners (Skype are one of these) would be added.  After agreeing to this, I was given the option to install Skype.

To be honest, I didn't explore much more.  I tried to correct the annoying placement of the window controls, but I could find no way of doing this in the default install.  I know at least one friend who is an Ubuntu fan, so it seems this is not an issue for some people.  Maybe the ease with which everything else works is more of a factor for those who don't wish to explore beneath the surface.

I'm glad that Ubuntu exists.  For many, it has brought the benefits of open source without the steep learning curve (despite the odd decision regarding window controls).  One of the main benefits of open source is the ability to choose Ubuntu or an alternative.  As I use GNOME 3 on my Debian Wheezy install, I can give you my opinion on the ongoing GNOME Shell vs Unity debate.  There is no clear winner.  The window controls, specific to Ubuntu as far as I know, are a little disconcerting.  However, both interfaces have their good points as well as their fair share of annoyances, which will hopefully be ironed out in time.  For me, the known stability of Debian (even in testing form) is the deciding factor, but I also prefer GNOME for its wider community acceptance: it is something of a standard across many distributions.  Ideally, I would use something like XFCE or even LXDE, as they are closer to the classic desktop paradigm, but I must accept that the way we interact with technology is changing.  If I decide to pursue a career in Linux system administration, familiarity with standard ways of doing things would be a definite advantage.

So, Ubuntu is no longer my distribution of choice.  I favour stability over having the latest software, as I assumed most businesses would.  I can't condemn Ubuntu, however.  It is probably still the best distribution for beginners.  Linux Mint arguably has a better "out of box" experience, but it seems that a complete reinstall is the recommended upgrade method for each new release, so Ubuntu is probably still the ultimate beginner's choice.