Ubuntu 12.04

Believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be inflamatory. This is an honest reminder of showstoppers that persistently prevent Ubuntu from becoming what I really do want it to become, and what I think it has a chance of achieving: a complete replacement of Windows or OSX.

In fact, I will confess that I like the user interface on Ubuntu more than one on Windows, and find it almost on par with the one in OSX. You might even find me proclaiming Ubuntu as the OSX of the PC world. It at least could have the potential of becoming that.

Unfortunately, a lot of this enthusiasm is over a combination between that which Ubuntu actually is, and what I want it to be, and I would argue what a lot of people would want it to become.

It is a mature operating system with an unique and modern user interface that is almost on par with that of OSX, and (at least to me) actually better than that of Windows. It is the only operating system which wont attempt to lock you into a single platform ecosystem. It is more open and flexible than anything else yet still quite easy to use. And it is free, with free updates forever. If that’s where the story ends it would almost be too good to be true, but alas these showstoppers derail the achievement of its full potential; the few pesky things that make it a no-go for all too many people.

1. Hardware Support

When hardware is supported it is supported out of the box, providing a seamless experience thanks to the tradition of all available drivers built right into the system out of the box and enabled as needed. But when drivers are missing then you are usually out of luck. Unfortunately this issue, while many might expect to no longer exist, persists.

Obviously, you wouldn’t notice this issue if you happen to have the hardware that is supported, and might think that Linux no longer suffers from this problem. Being a Mac user for the last two and a half years my hardware purchasing decisions stopped giving Linux special consideration. So I bought an external audio interface with expectations that everyone in 2012 would have; that it would just work, no questions asked. Of course, this expectation is completely supported by OSX and Windows.

But when I booted into Ubuntu with the audio interface connected I was in for a rude reminder of where Ubuntu (and Linux in general) falls short. The interface is completely dead, it doesn’t even get power from the USB port. There is no sound unless I unplug it and use the onboard chip instead. When I did what most people probably wouldn’t bother with, and searched the internet for solutions, I found none. With a professional and not-so-cheap audio interface in my set up settling for a poorer onboard chip is simply unacceptable, so this issue alone makes Ubuntu a complete no-go for me. Not to mention that my speakers (studio monitors) can’t even be plugged into the onboard ports.

You might say this is a special case, that it only applies to a certain niche of users, but that would be a terrible marketing pitch for an operating system that vyes to be a complete replacement of Windows or OSX. In other words, for Ubuntu to live up to these expectations this simply shouldn’t happen, ever.

I understand it is up to the hardware manufacturers to support Linux, so we can’t blame Canonical and other vendors directly. This is, however, little consolation for people who find themselves in this situation. It just might be a poor excuse too. Certain initiatives may be necessary to address this problem directly, perhaps a program that encourages hardware manufacturers to provide support for Linux, by both making is as easy as possible to do so, and puts forth arguments as to why this would be to their beneift, or at least cost very little. Partnerships and lobbying could be a part of this effort. Whatever the solution, it certainly isn’t putting hands in the air and surrendering.

2. Professional Applications

This is in some ways an extension of the previous problem. The best, and often industry standard applications for a variety of fields just don’t support Linux, and alternatives are typically far behind. Electronic music production is a good example. We have Logic Pro (Mac only), FL Studio (Windows only), Cubase, Ableton Live, and Pro Tools as top contenders, and none of them work on Linux. All of these have a dedicated following of producers who simply aren’t willing to compromise with anything less. For them Ubuntu is simply a no-go, not even an option.

Again, music production and my case specifically is just one example, but it is not limited to this field. It is a well known fact that some professional users, and even casual or hobbyist users of some types of applications, are pretty much shafted on Linux.

And just as with hardware support I understand it is up to application vendors to support Linux, but this is an equally hollow consolation, and potentially a bad excuse with a similar need for proactive initiative aimed towards addressing the problem.

Furthermore, the Linux world in general suffers from a culturally and philosophically fueled animosity towards proprietary software. This does just the opposite of encouraging these developers to support Linux. Even if you entirely eliminated copyright you wouldn’t eliminate proprietary software. Some developers simply wont find it in their interest to give away the source code, and they have every right to make such an offer, whether you accept it or not. The largely irrational Free Software purism is a completely unnecessary impediment to finding a solution to this problem.

The advantage of Ubuntu is that it has positioned itself as the de-facto flagship Linux platform, which solves at least one problem; the question of which Linux distro to develop for. If the idea is to develop for all of them then there is a need to deal with all of the various idiosyncrasies of different distributions, which is a yet another turn off. With Ubuntu having a dominant share of the Linux world, the shortcomings of this fragmentation are diminished. And once support for Ubuntu is added, enthusiasts of other distributions will more easily port it to their Linux OS of choice than they would if support for Linux was never added in the first place.

This is why Ubuntu picking up most of the official support by application developers actually isn’t a bad thing for other Linux flavors. Developers who are successfully lured in by Ubuntu might never even consider a Linux OS if it didn’t have a dominant flagship variant like Ubuntu.

3. Gaming

This is one area where we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel, with Steam officially coming to Ubuntu, and an increasing number of high quality games being ported to it.

While gaming is just a past time, or a hobby, it has shown itself quite important for the attractiveness of a given OS, albeit one could argue that consoles and smartphones have somewhat dulled this fact. In any case, games were for the longest time among the top factors that kept people running Windows, and a lack of certain games represents a similar problem as a lack of certain productivity applications on Linux. If something you want to play doesn’t run on Linux, then you can’t use Linux for that. It’s as simple as that.

Ubuntu could actually be a perfect alternative to Windows for PC gaming. While Mac OS X has a considerable selection of top tier games easily available directly from the Mac App Store or Steam for Mac, the limited selection of expensive and hard to upgrade Macs is a significant impediment to Mac being a major gaming platform. You have to shell out through your nose and ears for an iMac you could call an equivalent to a gaming PC, and still be easily surpassed by actual gaming PCs.

Ubuntu, and Linux in general, simply doesn’t have this problem. It will run on any PC you put it on, and take full advantage of its power, provided that the graphics drivers are solid. With the latest push by Valve in porting Steam to Linux, and bringing Nvidia onboard with improved graphics drivers, which also encourages more game developers to consider supporting Linux, Ubuntu could perhaps reach the level of support we currently see on the Mac, and that wouldn’t be a bad start at all.

But we’re not quite there yet, and to get there we will need the newfound support for Linux gaming to persist and expand. Hopefully Valve has started a snowball effect that will get us there.

4. The Devil in The Details

The key word in my reviews of Ubuntu over the last two releases was “quirky”. In the last review, that of Ubuntu 12.04, I called it “less quirky”. After trying out Ubuntu 12.10 I would have to backtrack on that and say it’s more quirky again, because performance actually regressed. When will it be that I can call Ubuntu a truly smooth sailing all over, even excluding the above mentioned showstoppers and simply focusing on what it does support?

This is about the details, many of which might seem minor on their own, but which together easily create an impression of an OS that doesn’t quite always have it together. Some are the built-in quirks in the UI itself, some of which are due to dubious decisions by the developers. Example is the hiding of the menus and buttons for closing, maximising and minimising windows. Other issues that tend to creep in include weird UI bugs like Launcher menus not responding, some UI rendering issues, programs not remembering their workspace etc.

Then there are traditional Linux idiosyncrasies seeping in from the background whenever you need to step a little bit out of the designed comfort zone of Ubuntu, or just use it for an extended period of time. For example, I don’t know how any PC user with an Nvidia graphics card can settle for just what Ubuntu provides out of the box, which seems to be the open source and still not-so-great driver for nvidia cards. In the last release I found myself digging through the Ubuntu Software Center to install the proprietary driver, which also comes with the Nvidia configuration utility, which in itself can be confusing to new users.

There are just times when it becomes a little more obvious that Ubuntu is, after all is said and done, still Linux, that quirky old OS created by geeks and originally for geeks, not for “normal” human beings that Ubuntu is actually targeting. It’s not so bad, but it’s far from perfect, and while your mileage may vary it can easily be argued that the overall experience still lacks behind Windows, and especially OSX.

Even if I am to some extent judging it too harshly on this front, I am speaking from personal experience, but more importantly, I think that an OS that wants to replace Windows and OSX not only needs to be a complete equivalent, but actually better. It has to be amazing. It has to be a killer; a Windows killer, and an OSX killer.

Just being an equivalent might not be enough for many. It could simply mean that, while it could indeed replace what they are used to, it’s not necessarily going to be so much better that it’s worth the hassle of switching. Yes there is an exciting new user interface, and yes it is free, secure, arguably faster etc. But a series of minor quirks that add up, again even excluding the major showstoppers listed previously, could create a counter-balance to these potential benefits.

Amazing Potential

At this point I really don’t know if Ubuntu is even capable of fully living up to its potential before it no longer matters, but the potential is there. What it could be is actually amazing. Imagine if none of the mentioned problems existed: hardware makers regularly support Ubuntu out of the box, major application developers port their apps to Ubuntu by default, and a large selection of games including top tier titles are readily available for it. Imagine if all of the remaining quirks are polished out, and Ubuntu’s stability and usability brought to the level of OSX or beyond.

If all of these were accomplished what would the result be? We would have a free operating system that does everything Windows does, everything OSX does, but with none of the trappings of either of these platforms, and many of the benefits brought by its unique design and open nature. It seems like the perfect blend; the best of all worlds. Even more flexibility and openness than Windows, combined with all of the smoothness of OSX, but running everywhere and available to everyone.

Instead of being a yet another closed ecosystem, or a walled garden, it would be a meta-platform you can easily tune into wholes or parts of any existing online ecosystem. In that sense it could turn the OS into a commodity rather than a bargaining chip in the ongoing ecosystem wars, which actually suits a largely online world, where the real value is in the network itself, not the client connecting to it. The OS should take full advantage of the hardware, and integrate it with the network, but not interject with its own wishes in the process.

When you use Windows 8, you’re pushed into the Microsoft ecosystem. They want you to use the Microsoft Account, the Bing search engine, the SkyDrive cloud storage solution, and so on. On Mac it’s all about the iCloud, and getting you to buy other iDevices to get the truly seamless computing experience.

Ubuntu could provide a refreshing change from this. Its job isn’t to hook you into any single ecosystem, merely to seamlessly connect whatever you choose to connect, and proceed to make it just work without question. To imagine what kind of difference does this make imagine the contrast between social integrations in iOS and Android. In iOS you can only easily share things via Facebook or Twitter, because those are the integrations Apple explicitly built into it. In Android it’s a different story. Google didn’t explicitly build Facebook integration in. Instead you simply install the Facebook app, and it instantly becomes an option for sharing throughout the system wherever it makes sense. In a way, it is you who chooses what your system will hook up with, and what you don’t want anything to do with. Ubuntu follows a similar philosophy.

Unfortunately, all of this great stuff is of little value if you cannot use this great OS because of the above mentioned showstoppers. That’s why I call this “The Ubuntu Heartbreak”. So much awesome, but then it just disappoints, and you have to go back to reality. Some settle for a rather annoying compromise of dual booting, but for someone who can’t even have sound in Ubuntu even this isn’t an option.

And the world keeps on turning. Will the potential ever be reached or is Linux simply doomed to the position of a permanent outsider whose value and promise many will never discover?