According to the 2007 DesktopLinux.com survey, Ubuntu is the distribution of choice for 30% of GNU/Linux users. The exact figure is questionable, but Ubuntu's dominance is not. For an increasing number of people, Ubuntu is GNU/Linux. Yet, looking at the pre-releases of Gutsy Gibbon, Ubuntu 7.10, I found myself becoming disturbed by the degree to which this popularity has translated into uncritical acceptance.
Make no mistake -- due to the energy that the Ubuntu community and Canonical, its corporate arm, have put into improving the desktop, this popularity is well-deserved. Yet, at the same time, I find myself wondering whether user-friendliness must inevitably mean discouraging users from exploring their systems or taking firm control over them. This question keep nagging me each time I installed, went through the selection of preloaded software, explored the desktop, installed new software, or examined security. Only once or twice did I find a balance between accessibility to newcomers and a feature set for advanced users. At times, too, I wondered whether the popularity might be preventing Ubuntu from finishing some rough edges.
Many releases ago, Ubuntu settled on installation from a Live CD. To begin the installation, you boot your computer with the CD in the drive, then click an icon to add Ubuntu to your hard drive.
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Little has changed in the Gutsy Gibbon release. The installer opens with a warning that you are using a pre-release version that installation of might mean over-writing existing files, then leads you through an eight-step wizard.
To its credit, the installer makes adding an operating system to your hard drive as easy as it can probably be. However, while even novices are unlikely to have much trouble if they accept the defaults, straying beyond them is difficult. For instance, in the keyboard selection step, the only way to know the differences between two U.S. English International layouts or the classical, left hand, or right hand versions of the Dvorak keyboard is to know them beforehand, to research them on another computer, or to try each systematically in the field provided for the purpose.
Similarly, at the partitioner, if you choose the Guided option, you quickly discover that it's a misnomer. "Guided" really means automatic, and gives you no choice whatsoever. I can't help comparing this lack of choice unfavorably to Debian 4.0's presentation of different partitioning schemes that you can either accept or modify as you want.
The installer does a better job with Advanced options on the final screen, tucking away controls for choosing where to install the bootloader or participate in the package Popularity Contest a button-click away from the top level screen.
Yet, for all its convenience, what most characterizes the Ubuntu installer is the lack of choice it presents. Users cannot even choose the initial software to install. This lack is not only frustrating, but violates a main principle of security. After all, you can hardly secure a system if you do not know what is going on it.
Like the installer, the desktop in Gutsy Gibbon has changed only in minor ways from earlier versions of Ubuntu. And, in many ways, that's not a bad thing, because Ubuntu's default GNOME desktop has always been well-organized. Its menu avoids overwhelming users with choices, and its organization of panel applets or logout options into several categories helps you locate what you need more easily. Sensibly, too, Ubuntu continues to offer only two virtual workspaces instead of GNOME's usual four -- enough to make users aware of the possibility of multiple desktops on the same monitor, but not enough to drag down performance on older machines. Unless you are lucky enough to benefit from some of the extra free or proprietary drivers included in the latest version, you'll probably notice few changes in general appearance and functionality.
Yet despite the thoughtfulness that shows in the basic Ubuntu desktop, it also contains what might be considered over-simplifications. By default, the GRUB menu does not appear, so users might easily miss the availability of a recover mode or memory test of an initial option. Nor do users have an option to display boot messages, although of course they can review the log file later.
In addition, rough edges remain along with the highly polished ones. Although Ubuntu is well-supplied with fonts to display international languages, the quality of fonts for Western European languages remains limited. The default terminal font displays jaggedly at higher resolutions. For desktop use the most convenient is the Bitstream Vera family, which in other company would be mediocre. Other free fonts, such as Linux Libertine, Fedora's Liberation fonts, or other of the SIL International fonts besides Gentium would give users a much better-rounded selection.Next page: Software selection and installation