After a year with Ubuntu

Official Ubuntu circle with wordmark. Replace ...
Image via Wikipedia

For about a year now, I’ve been using Ubuntu as my primary operating system for all of my work-related computing. For those who don’t know already, Ubuntu is one of many flavors of Linux — a freely available Open Source operating system.  By freely available, I mean just that: you can download it, burn it to a disk, and install it for free on just about any computer. Open Source software is a very cool idea in and of itself — companies and independent software developers essentially volunteer their time to develop a software product. And as the Open Source Initiative tells us “The promise of open source is better quality, higher reliability, more flexibility, lower cost, and an end to predatory vendor lock-in.” Ubuntu take this a step further; it differs slightly from other versions of Linux in that it is designed to be easy to use. Their target audience seems to be the everyday user, as opposed to those who want to run a server in a data center or who enjoy tinkering with the innards of their desktop operating systems. In addition, the developers are committed to totally free software. In some ways, Ubuntu feels like an ideology; their website reads almost like a manifesto:

We believe in fast, effective computing for everyone. Created by the open-source community and Canonical, Ubuntu is free to use and share, at home and in business.

The Ubuntu Promise

Ubuntu is free. Always has been and always will be. From the operating system to security updates, storage to software.

Ubuntu is fast to load, easy to use, available in most languages and accessible to all.

Ubuntu applications are all free and open source – so you can share them with anyone you like, as often as you like.

Ubuntu comes with full support and all kinds of services available worldwide.

With a promise like this, I couldn’t help but be intrigued. Their philosophy (and the Open Source philosophy in general) appeals to my left-leaning political views and the idealist who is still somewhere inside of me. I was also curious (especially given the recent downturn in the economy) about Ubuntu as an alternative to the two somewhat expensive OSes that we purchase at Wheaton. So, I turned in my Mac, got a Dell laptop from our Technical Support group here at Wheaton, and downloaded and installed Ubuntu alongside Windows XP (which came with the computer). When I boot up the computer, I can choose either Ubuntu (where all of my data and most of my applications live) or Windows.

screenshot of software center

The Ubuntu Software Center Application

For the most part, I have been happy with Ubuntu for the past year. Occasionally I  have had to run Windows on the computer — a similar situation to working with a Mac — but for the most part I’ve been able to work with the free software that either came with Ubuntu or that’s available for download through the Ubunutu Software Center application. I have been able to use Firefox and Chrome for browsers (where much of my work seems to occur these days), Tweetdeck for twitter (yes, AdobeAir runs on Linux), Open Office for productivity (Word Processing, Spreadsheets, Presentation), Empathy for Instant Messaging, GIMP for photo editing, even some minor video editing with Kino. There are even some nice helper applications like Gnome DO, which provides users with a nice search interface and a Mac-like Dock.

Alas, all has not been rosy with this free, “easy to use” operating system. In the end, the downsides are still a little too significant for me, and I have recently made the decision to return to a standard OS — a dual boot Mac/Windows machine. The problems?

  1. Browser-based Applications: Ubuntu does not work with several of the browser-based applications out there: Elluminate being the most significant for me (an application that NITLE and several other professional organizations have been using for a lot of their online workshops recently), but the reporting tool (called WebFocus) for Wheaton’s online our financial system (Banner) did not work either. Netflix streaming and other sites that use the Microsoft video tool do not work either.

    What you get when you visit Netflix instant streaming.

  2. Compatibility: The free software I listed above is mostly compatible with the software everyone else on campus is using. That doesn’t sound like a downside at first; “mostly compatible” sounds great. But it does wear on you after a while. Sure, Open Office can open Excel, Word, and PowerPoint files, but often the formatting was slightly off, sometimes making documents or PowerPoint slides hard to read. And certain features like pivot tables in Excel don’t quite work. The same would happen with files that I sent others when they opened them on their computers
  3. Drivers: I could get by with those inconveniences, because I did have Windows available to me (after rebooting the computer), but the most troublesome part of Ubuntu for me has been the drivers — the little pieces of software that run in the background that make things like your screen, your keyboard, your touchpad or anything else attached to your computer work. Don’t get me wrong, Ubuntu has come a long way — most of the drivers work just fine with little to no effort. However, this is another instance where things being “mostly compatible” can become irritating after a while. It took me a long time, for example, to get my computer to wake up properly after the lid was shut on  it. And on a recent upgrade (to version 10.04), my video driver stopped working, so that the screen only displayed in low resolution and I lost my ability to print.
  4. No tech support: This is not a problem with Ubuntu itself. Their site and forums are chocked full of information and helpful people. But it’s still an external site and I am still ultimately responsible for solving all of my problems on Ubuntu. Our small Tech Support group has its hands full trying to support Windows and Mac; understandably, they just aren’t at a point where they can take on Ubuntu too.

So, I am leaving Ubuntu behind… at least for now. For the most part, it works as an operating system. I lived on it for a year with few problems. The developers have come very close to their goal of “fast, effective computing for everyone.” I think I just need to give it a little longer to bake before I adopt it as my full time OS again.

It also bodes well for the Open Source movement in general that a desktop/laptop operating system like Ubuntu is so close to being ready for prime time. At Wheaton, we can see how well the movement is doing in other venues as well: we are adopting more and more Open Source tools. Examples include Moodle (AKA onCourse for Learning Management), WordPress (for blogs, but also our new web editor/content management system), MDID (our image database),  and SubjectsPlus (a library subject research guide). With that in mind and especially after quoting Ubuntu’s manifesto-like promise, I almost want to shout out loud: Viva La Open Source!