Why Ubuntu / Linux isn’t Really Ready for Consumers… Yet.

Update: Hey Reddit! This post has much nastier things to say about Ubuntu than the one below, so I think you’ll like it more. No, I’m not a Microsoft astroturfer. Wish I was though, I wouldn’t mind the money. Honestly, I want to like Ubuntu / Linux in general. This is why I tried Ubuntu again after it sucking the first time, and why I bought an Eee PC running a Xandros variant without even considering putting XP on it. But you guys don’t make it easy.

As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I’ve recently been trying to install Ubuntu on my desktop.

On the whole it’s not that painful, the LiveCD lets you get a feel for the system, the installation is mostly painless even if you want to dual-boot etc, the interface is clean and easy to use, almost everything you’d ever want is already installed and almost anything else is available from the package manager. It’s great when it works. Really great.

The trouble is, often it doesn’t. For example the wireless card on this machine seems to have issues. Sometimes it won’t connect to a wireless network, sometimes it totally hangs the machine. The solution to this seems to be to dive in head-first into config files and the command-line, rip out the provided open source driver, and whack in a layer that will let me use a Windows driver.

My first attempt to do this just disabled wireless on the machine entirely, which wasn’t a forward step. I was honestly quite lucky to get it back to where I started from.

Software support can also sometimes be iffy. Stuff that should be simple like Adobe Air seemingly requires a trip through the terminal to convince to work. Another rather significant downside is that a lot of applications you’re used to using don’t have versions for Linux. You can use WINE to get Windows applications working, mostly, but it’s not an ideal state of affairs. And you can forget about playing games; support is even more dire than Mac gaming. That is unless you once again want to press WINE into service; frankly though it feels slightly iffy running Spotify, let alone TF2.

So my point here is three-fold:

  1. Hardware support is patchy.
  2. Proprietary software can be hard to get working / unavailable.
  3. If something goes wrong, it requires a lot of scary stuff (command-line, etc.) to fix.

See, I’m sure that if I had a working machine and a few months I’d start to learn the Linux-fu necessary to deal with this, but it’s just a pain if something as essential as Wi-Fi doesn’t just work, or if you can’t play your favourite games.

They’ve got a long way to go with hardware support, and it’s going to be an uphill battle every step of the way. There’s a lot of hardware manufacturers who aren’t going to provide Linux drivers, and there’s a dogmatic craziness in the Linux world that THOU SHALT NOT distribute non-free drivers with your distribution, which means that nobody just provides Windows drivers, or makes it easy to get Windows drivers. It’s totally daft, and it’s not helped by nutjobs like Richard Stallman. I guess you can put me into the camp who doesn’t like the GPL. Give me the BSD license any day.

The software difficulties are as equally hard to overcome; you’d have to deal with the horrible Balkanisation of the Linux distros for one thing so that people would have something simple to compile binaries against. Idealism isn’t going to get people to give away the source code to everything.

However, there’s certainly a market for Ubuntu / Linux systems where you can be sure of the hardware configuration and fix all the problems in advance. This means that something like eeebuntu works really rather well, and is supported rather better than Asus managed to support the Eee themselves. It’s a pleasure to use, and makes me see myself using my Eee a lot more in the future.

Similarly, if all the software you could ever want, literally, is encompassed by the repositories of your chosen distro, then it’s also a very comfortable experience where you can be reasonably sure that everything will just work, which is literally the ideal consumer experience.

So, if you lie within some narrow definition of “consumer” then Ubuntu is going to be perfect for you. If you lie just a little to the edges, it’s going to suck. There’s really no middle ground between “idealised consumer” and “pretty hardcore techie”. I guess that’s why they’re going to carry on working with it. If they can expand that consumer window, this could be heading somewhere.

4 thoughts on “Why Ubuntu / Linux isn’t Really Ready for Consumers… Yet.

  1. Yep. Still they have trouble detecting widescreen monitor ( in my case Samsung N920W) I had to patch it.

    Now I have random issues using firefox.

    But still, Ubuntu is my default OS.

  2. you”re wrong. As many people when windows fails you consider it inevitable, when linux does you say “not desktop ready”.

    I was under the same illusion. But since 2 years, we have both ubuntu & windows at work on the same configs. windows is not the clear winner.

    Both kind of installs have pb but from our data (2 years, ~10 pcs) windows is slightly behind. Windows 7 may change that we had excellent experience with it on one pc (in test for now).

  3. Don't know if you've fixed you're wireless issues yet but here is the first two things to try.

    1. uninstall all of the Gnome Network Monitor software and panel applets in synaptic, they are flakey and cause no end of troubles.
    2. Replace it with WICD from the repository, a much better wireless monitor

    In my case I had to uninstall all the Gnome default managers and configure the card with a simple shell script. Now however it is rock solid.

  4. If Windows failed by hanging the machine, I'd be pretty angry at it, too. The 9x family was terrible in that regard! This is 2009, though; nothing should ever totally freeze my machine.

    I stand by my point, though. For a computer to be useable to a consumer (Mom & Dad at home, etc.) no problem should ever require a trip to the command-line to fix. I shouldn't have to rip out bits of the system and replace them, they should work out of the box.

    Hell, this is the first time I've ever actually convinced Ubuntu to even boot on this machine, I had to update some motherboard controller firmware to even get to the point where a dodgy wireless driver hangs my machine.

    I will admit that an anecdote is not data, but I'm just posting my experiences.

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