After a somewhat belated New Year’s resolution last year, I did manage to complete my goal much more easily than I previously thought possible. In the last 9 months, I can probably count on my two hands then number of times I’ve booted into Vista or XP. I’ve been using Ubuntu on a regular basis since at least February. Now you may ask why I made the switch to Linux. I intend to answer that by giving a summary, including the ups and downs, of my first year with Linux.
I had heard of Linux in the past, but it always seemed like something that was beyond my ability to comprehend. I had become a huge fan of WordPress and Firefox, and I love the ideals of free software. As I sat there and thought about it, I couldn’t believe that I was still using a proprietary system like Windows when a free operating system like Linux was out there. I did some research on Linux and found Ubuntu to be exactly what I was looking for. It’s self-proclaimed as “Linux for Human Beings.” It’s got the best support for hardware of any Linux distribution and a very welcoming community for newcomers. Since I was a new medical student, the last thing I wanted was something I had to pore over for hours and hours in the command line just to use it.
Ubuntu is everything a person could want being new to Linux. You can download it for free and burn it to CD to install it. It’s a LiveCD, so you can run the entire operating system from the CD to test it out without changing anything on your current system. Just restart your computer with the CD in your CD-ROM drive, and you will boot into Ubuntu. In order to install it, you just run through the installer on the LiveCD, which asks a few fairly easy questions, and after installing for about 45 minutes, you’ll be booting into Ubuntu. If you’re not ready to completely ditch your current system just yet, you can shrink your installation of Windows. If you’d rather not mess with Windows at all (just in case you don’t like Linux), you can install Ubuntu just like a program right inside of Windows using the wubi installer. Using the wubi installer is a great idea for someone who just wants to try Linux, since it is a little bit tougher to uninstall Linux after installing via the LiveCD, which changes the partitions on your computer.
My first few weeks with Ubuntu were great. I couldn’t believe how much this free operating system could do. Nearly any type of application you could think of was either built-in or easily installed right from inside Ubuntu. It came with Firefox, the OpenOffice.org office suite, Evolution Email, Pidgin (for multi-protocol instant messaging), and the GIMP Image editor. Plus the “eye candy” was easily enabled to check out Compiz-Fusion’s desktop effects and the Avant Window Navigator, a dock similar to that found in Mac OS X.
My friend Usama and my dad were both interested enough to try it out for themselves. They played with Ubuntu for a few weeks, but neither of them took to using it full-time. They’re both “power users” on Windows, and getting used to new applications and setting up a completely different type of system might have been too much trouble for them. I don’t think either of them have given up on it completely, but I think they probably needed a little bit of direction in setting things up effectively. I couldn’t see what the problem was since I had very little trouble with my hardware and I didn’t have any pressing software needs. One of the things that helped ease my transition to Ubuntu was that I forced myself to use the system every day and only boot into Windows if I couldn’t do something in Ubuntu that I absolutely needed to. I quickly realized that there was almost nothing that I couldn’t do in Ubuntu. My new webcam worked after an upgrade to Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron) and Amazon MP3 released a Linux client so I could buy full DRM-free mp3 albums.
With the release of Ubuntu 8.04 (the Hardy Heron), GNU/Linux seemed better than ever to me. I began to wonder how there could be so few people using it. I mean, sure it’s not for everyone (notably computer gamers, since few computer games were released on Linux). Around this time, I heard about the Linux Hater’s blog, which was causing somewhat of a ruckus in the Linux community. This is mainly because his rants, though crude, were strikingly poignant. He obviously had an in-depth knowledge of the various Linux communities and software, and he loved to point out their flaws. After a few months, he threw in the towel, but not before opening my eyes to some of the shortcomings of GNU/Linux. I think reading this blog was important for me. Although it often depressed me, it helped me see where Linux is strong and where it needs improvement. I knew all the software wasn’t perfect, but I thought it was just a matter of time before this was fixed. The blog helped me see some of the discordance and problems in the communities themselves that are, in some instances, preventing their own success. Yet as I continue to read about the progress that’s being made in all of these areas, I am hopeful that this problems will solve themselves. There are a lot of developers doing great work who understand the problems, and with the rise of netbooks more companies are contributing resources and manpower to solve some of these issues.
With the release of Ubuntu 8.10 (the Intrepid Ibex), some of Ubuntu’s warts began to show. My webcam no longer worked. One of my favorite new productivity applications, Gnome-Do, started showing some significant bugs that make it unusable at times. My wireless card, which was already a little bit buggy, started causing some more issues. My desktop’s CD/DVD-ROM drives no longer functioned correctly. All-in-all the release brought some great new features, but broke some of my confidence in Ubuntu’s stability. Some of these issues have been resolved and some have not. Some of these issues are specific to Ubuntu and some are not. My problem was that these issues were known prior to release time. I know releases can’t be held up for just anything, but when all CD/DVD drives fail to function properly, it seems like a show-stopper. Unfortunately, Canonical seems to value their time-based release schedule a bit too highly over quality, which is really, really going to hurt them in getting people to try and stick with Linux. I would much rather have had them do what Automattic did with WordPress 2.7 and delay the release date for a month so that all the bugs could be ironed out.
Now, I don’t want you to get the idea that I’m growing weary of Linux. Despite some flaws, I’m confident that things will be resolved in future releases, and I have no intention of giving up on an operating system that I love using. It’s just that flaws like these (along with some usability issues and a lack of centralized documentation) make me understand why adopting Linux might be harder than I first envisioned. I do hope that some of the higher-ups understand these issues, since it’s a major barrier to adoption. Ubuntu tends to do a better job at handling these sorts of issues, but as they continue to push for more users, I hope they continually readdress how to keep their current users happy while still progressing their system.
One of the things I like best about using GNU/Linux is how much I learn while doing using it. I’ve learned a lot about security and operating systems in general, and I’ve done it all using free software. I’ve discovered a number of free software applications that I probably never would’ve even heard of. By using free software, I began paying attention to its development to find out about great ideas and features in upcoming versions. I’ve also been keen on helping to test new software and report bugs. I’ve installed both new versions of Ubuntu while they were still in beta to help with bug reporting.
Since one of the cornerstones of Linux is its variety of distributions, or “distros,” I’ve also started using VirtualBox to test some of them in virtual machines inside Ubuntu. One of the things about Linux that really interests me is its versatility to run on a wide variety of hardware and using a variety of software. It’s used to run super-computers at big companies and to resurrect ancient hardware that’s not capable of running any modern version of Windows. Linux can also be used as a “green” operating system both in its own right and through the LTSP. LTSP can be used to connect many low-power, lightweight computers to a single workhorse machine, so an entire computer lab can be run on minimal power. Linux can be used to power your home media center and your cell phone. The versatility of Linux allows it to underlie many great technologies of today and tomorrow.
So how would I summarize my first year with Ubuntu? I think it’s exactly what I needed. It has helped me plan for the future in medicine and my life and better understand some technology along the way. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I do think Ubuntu and Linux is a viable operating system for a majority of users who have never given it a chance. Besides addressing some of the underlying issues in development (as highlighted by The Linux Hater’s blog) and preventing regressions, the Ubuntu community could use a effort to implement or improve a centralized, up-to-date set of documentation for new users. Far too many problems and issues are only addressed in random blog posts or on online forums, both of which tend to be outdated or doing things in an overly complicated manner. Ubuntu would be greatly improved by including some significant “Getting Started” documentation for new adopters and finding a way to point directly toward an up-to-date official wiki with more complicated tasks. The Linux community is continuing to lower the barriers to adoption, and addressing some key usability issues might be just the thing they need to attract the swarms of users leaving Windows and even catch a fed-up Apple user or two. Great strides have been made already and more are planned for the coming months and years. I’m excited to keep participating and to see what’s in store in my free software world. If you’re interested, try out Ubuntu. It’s simple to burn and try. The risks are pretty minimal, and you’ve got a lot to gain. You’ll never have to pay for any computer software again, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll be ensuring the future of your digital life. Just don’t forget that Linux is different and for the most part you should try to enjoy it.
(Also, this is my sort-of convoluted thoughts on Jono Bacon’s meme)