Is Ubuntu the Barack Obama of Linux?: Page 2

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Over the last few years a legion of newbies have flooded into the previously tiny fiefdom of Linux, drawn in by Ubuntu (much as Obama drew in a robust legion of new voters). These Linux newcomers have swarmed to Ubuntu. And just as Obama’s rapid success created massive resentment – the Clintons in particular grumbled long and hard – Ubuntu’s magnetic appeal created deep resentment among some Linux partisans.

I remember back in 2006, it seemed like virtually every day a story about Ubuntu on Digg would get about 900 Diggs, because everyone was so excited about this young distro. And if you read through the comments, you’d see plenty of resentful Linux old-timers saying, “What, another story about Ubuntu?” Adding insult to injury, many newbies thought Ubuntu was Linux – they had no idea other flavors existed.

(Even worse, the history of Google searches reveals that Linux has been falling while Ubuntu has risen. Damn! It’s enough to make a Gentoo user’s blood boil!)

And how did Ubuntu attract its many fans? By reaching out to the other side, by realizing where the mainstream was and moving toward it. Ubuntu embraced the traditions of diehard Linux users and moderated them, creating a distribution capable of reaching a mass of users.

Historically, the phrase “user friendly” has never been synonymous with Linux. Instead it’s been a true computer enthusiast’s operating system. Diving into the OS and tweaking things was part of the pleasure – in fact it was required. Linux advocates, to promote migration, always explain, “If you get stuck you can get help in a forum,” as if trolling for help with a down PC is anything but a drag (and how do you get online when your machine won’t work?) Notice how they never say, “Oh, don’t worry, you won’t get stuck. Just point and click and it’ll take care of itself.”

But Ubuntu, even at its debut, made great strides toward the point and click user-friendly OS needed to reach the mainstream. At the time, Debian had only a text-based installer – sure, that’s ideologically true to the spirit of GNU, but it’s anything but an Obama-style gesture of inclusiveness. (There’s a joke that says that Ubuntu is a South African word meaning “can’t install Debian.”)

Indeed, Ubuntu’s original focus on the easy usability of proprietary OSes contrasted greatly with many distros. So much so that some diehard Linux users called Ubuntu the “dumbed down” distro.

For instance, here’s a forum comment by an experienced Linux user who complained about how simple Ubuntu has made things. He wrote:

“As a user's knowledge and experience go up there is a joy in getting under the hood of your system and completing more difficult tasks. I learnt a lot when my son and I set up a home network running a samba server and when we set up a firewall and gateway when we went onto a cable internet.

With standard Linux setup all information can be found easily so why does Ubuntu think it is making things simpler by doing things different.”

On one hand, that’s a sweet sentiment; he’s working on PC stuff with his son. But I would respectfully say, Sir, the vast majority of PC users take no joy in “more difficult” tasks; in fact, difficulty on their PC is something they curse. A home network running Samba? How about getting email to work?

When I spoke to Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth a few months back, he noted that his goal is to push the Ubuntu GUI up to the level of Apple’s. He conceded that Ubuntu, at this point, isn’t quite there. “Our goal, very simply, is to make sure the Free software ecosystem can deliver a Mac OS-like experience,” he explained.

He was, in other words, acknowledging that Linux had to reach out, to transcend its traditional roots, if it is to reach a mainstream audience.

When was the last time you heard a Fedora user wishing that his distro’s GUI more closely resembled Apple’s? It’s possible that sentiment has never been voiced in the history of GNU.

Continued: Ideologues and pragmatists

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Tags: Ubuntu, Debian, GNU/Linux desktop, politics

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