To hear fans talk, without Ubuntu, Linux desktops would be still be basic window managers. Even Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu's founder, recently implied that those who questioned him held the view that "Linux is supposed to be hard so it's exclusive."
Such attitudes always remind me of how the Soviet Union once claimed to have invented every major scientific theory and new piece of technology in the twentieth century. True, Ubuntu did increase awareness of usability on the Linux desktop, but that does not mean that Ubuntu and its Unity desktop have a monopoly on usability.
The truth is, long before Ubuntu, other distributions were stumbling towards usability. Although Ubuntu's ability to grab headlines accelerated their progress, other modern distributions have arrived at very different usability philosophies than Unity.
Some of the usability details of other distributions seem superior to Unity's while others are inferior. But observing them debunks any idea of the objectivity of usability theory.
The question arises, "Easy for whom?" The new user, who, given the ubiquity of computers today, may be overdue to appear in the CITES Appendices as an endangered species? Or for regular users whose main priorities are productivity and working the way they prefer?
Such questions inevitably came to mind last week as I followed Ubuntu's usual course through the free software media while exploring the release of openSUSE 12.3.
Many may have forgotten, but fourteen years ago, SUSE was where Ubuntu is today. Especially in Europe, SUSE was considered the most usable desktop Linux available, and its cliques of users around the world could be every bit as devoted to it as Ubuntu's are today.
That was some time ago, but openSUSE remains a major distribution. Available in both GNOME and KDE installation versions, it offers alternative views of usability to the one presented in Unity. That is particularly true in the KDE version, which from installation and first impressions to desktop features and philosophy offers a package that is often no less usable than Unity — although it is very different.
The main difference between Ubuntu's and openSUSE's installers is the details. Both installers require minimal input from users and have text-based modes for more customized setups. The options vary — for instance, Ubuntu offers to encrypt the home directory, while openSUSE offers a choice of a desktop. However, these differences do not favor one over the other.
At the most, openSUSE's installer has a small edge in that its help function is placed directly in the dialog window, making it quicker and easier to access.
The Ubuntu Desktop
At first, the two desktops appear radically different. However, that impression is due chiefly to the default wallpapers — Ubuntu's colorful gradient and openSUSE's basic black. Which users prefer is entirely a matter of taste, and, at any rate, the wallpaper is usually the first part of the desktop that any user changes.
The openSUSE Desktop
Similarly, Ubuntu's launcher and openSUSE's desktop folderview give users roughly the same number of places to explore, although openSUSE's welcome screen offers more initial guidance.
The only problem is that, once the screen is closed, some of its most useful features, such as the link to an introduction of the KDE 4 desktop, are buried a couple of clicks down from the desktop, where users may take some time to find them. All the same, Unity has no equivalent to openSUSE's welcome screen, perhaps out of the belief that it is too simple to require a similar guide.
Users may also take a while to find openSUSE's main menu on the bottom left of the screen. The link to Unity's dash at the top of the launcher is far more conspicuous. Even though openSUSE's menu is placed exactly where experienced users would expect it, its icon is too small and too undifferentiated to bring it immediately to notice.
Nor is the difference in applications apt to seem that large. Some default applications, like LibreOffice and Firefox, are identical. The system settings and software installers are also similar, although openSUSE's are not only less glossy, but sometimes less graphical, especially when you choose Yast rather than some of the alternatives for package installation and system updates.
Others show the difference between GNOME's preference for minimalist features and KDE's tendency to throw every possible feature into each dialog, but otherwise offer the same basic functionality. The resemblance, of course, would be even closer if you choose to install the GNOME desktop on openSUSE, since Unity is a shell for running GNOME.
Otherwise, for the first few minutes, the experience on both Ubuntu and openSUSE is so similar that you might wonder why anyone would bother to mention the minor differences.