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One of the signs of Ubuntu's soaring popularity is that the computer press enthusiastically credits the distribution with anything that happens to be new in its release. A case in point is Wubi, an application for installing Ubuntu in Windows as a loopmounted device. The truth is, while Wubi installs a copy of Ubuntu whose performance is first-rate, the assumptions it makes about users' knowledge probably work against its goal of encouraging Windows users to try Ubuntu.
Contrary to the impression you might get from media coverage, Wubi is nothing new. GNU/Linux distributions have been co-existing on Windows file systems at least since Monkey Linux in 1997, and other distributions, such as Damn Small Linux, have the same capacity today. Moreover, Wubi is largely a front-end for Lupin and Ubiquity, two Ubuntu-related projects that have existed for over a year. Basically, it is a user-friendly refinement, rather than a milestone in functionality.
You can use Wubi in two ways: either by selecting the option Install inside Windows from an Ubuntu 8.08 CD started in Windows, or by downloading the installer from the project site while running Windows in an account with administrative privileges. Since the installer downloads the version of Ubuntu it installs, rather than using the CD, you can save a few minutes by running it directly from the hard drive.
The interface and the audience
The Wubi wizard starts with a series of choices. Most of these are relatively straightforward, although if you miss the mouse-over help, you might miss the fact that the default size of 15 gigabytes can be lessened to 8 -- which the help describes as a "comfortable" size -- or to a minimum of 4. Windows users, who often do not bother to set up an account with limited privileges, let alone to use passwords, may also be puzzled by the need to do so with Wubi, all the more so because the user name "root" is displayed by default. In addition, those who need accessibility options might miss them, since they are tidied away behind a button at the bottom of the window.
Once these choices are made, Wubi connects to the Internet and begins downloading files. Given that the application is aimed at the curious, the lack of any package selection seems a reasonable choice, but a message or two that explains what is happening might be reassuring to the target audience. The audience might also appreciate a warning that, if they are using any firewall, they will have to give Wubi permission to access the Internet, not least because "Wubi" is not mentioned on the wizard but is detected below the graphical interface level, and looks to the casual eye like the sort of name a virus might have.
After the files are downloaded, you must reboot. If you are using GRUB, you will notice that, on selecting Windows, you are presented with another copy of GRUB that offers you a choice of Ubuntu or Windows. By the time the installation is completed, this second copy will also include any other operating systems you have installed, but, before that stage, you have to wait for another ten minutes or so of installation to complete before rebooting for a second time.
Performance and uninstallation
Despite Wubi's lack of a focused effort to consider the knowledge-level of the intended audience, the results are worth waiting for. Although the Ubuntu CD menu warns that, when installing inside windows, "disk performance is slightly reduced," any loss of performance is minimal, amounting to a few percent at the very most. The resulting Ubuntu installation cannot go into hibernation, and its bare desktop could do with a few icons to help guide the curious, but otherwise, you could easily forget that you are running from Windows.
Uninstalling the Wubi-installed version of Ubuntu is also straightforward. Its files are installed in a single directory in Windows, and you can remove it the same way as any other program -- by clicking Add or Remove programs in Setup. The removal is thorough and clean, although unsophisticated users might wonder why Windows gives them the message that "Wubi has been uninstalled from your computer" when they believed that they were removing Ubuntu.
Wubi is designed as though its audience were GNU/Linux users of intermediate experience. It needs an an overhaul of the interface -- in particular, with more explanation and consistency in the use of names (probably, "Wubi" should be replaced everywhere with "Ubuntu). With these changes, though, it should be a useful addition to the Ubuntu repertoire. Probably, as with the live CD install, it will encourage other distributions to offer the same functionality within the next six months, starting with the other Debian-derived distributions that can use Wubi without major modifications, then extending to those with other package systems a month or two later.
But will Wubi succeed in its goal of encouraging Windows users to take Ubuntu for a test run? That is hard to answer. On the one hand, a Wubi-installed version of Ubuntu gives users a better sense of its speed than a version on a live CD does. Unlike a live CD, it also offers users a chance to explore aspects of a GNU/Linux system such as package installation.
Yet, on the other hand, unsophisticated users might be more comfortable with a live CD than in making changes -- even temporary ones -- to their operating system setup. And although Ubuntu emphasizes that a Wubi installation requires no partitioning, that fact is beside the point, because obviously neither does a live CD. Moreover, a Wubi install takes at least as long as a CD install that includes repartioning, so unless you have a deep-rooted fear of partitioning in general -- which some Windows users may very well have -- it has no advantage over a dual-boot installation.
Still, free software is all about choice. What matters, really, is that Wubi gives non-GNU/Linux users an additional way to satisfy their curiosity about the operating system. With any luck, the more choices that are available, the more Windows users will actually act on that curiosity.