Final reflections

Before closing the book on this blog1, I thought I’d wrap things up with a few final thoughts.

This wasn’t my first experience with Linux. At Christmas 2002, I picked up a copy of Yellow Dog Linux 2.3, a PPC distro, and installed it on my 500-MHz G3 iBook. I actually used it throughout winter quarter at UCSB, and wrote my senior thesis in OpenOffice while running YDL as my main OS. I had fun configuring it, and only switched back to OS X because as a student, I needed to use suspend (“sleep” in Mac lingo) frequently, and it was quite well and truly broken in Linux. When waking it up from sleep, it would randomly emit what can only be described as a high-pitched, ear-shattering shriek from the speakers, which attracted quite a bit of attention in a crowded lecture hall, as you might expect. Unfortunately, there was no known cure for this malady. Lovely.

Fast-forward to 2006. Ubuntu Linux was making its mark, and I ordered a CD from Shipit. It arrived a couple of months later, and I attempted to install Ubuntu 6.06 (“Dapper Drake”) on the still-existing Linux partition on my iBook. Unfortunately, it never successfully completed an installation, although it did succeed admirably in hosing the Linux partition and in destroying the bootloader. Oops.

So this year, I was feeling that it was time to replace my laptop (now OS X-only) after seven years of hard use, and I’d been reading about System76 and their line of laptops with Linux preinstalled. I figured it was worth a try, especially if S76 succeeded in making stuff work out of the box. There would always be time for me to screw it up later, but at least I’d have a working computer at the beginning. If you read the first few installments of this blog, you’ll see how that went.

So, what conclusions can be drawn from my latest foray into the world of Linux?

For one thing, Linux is improving. Six years ago, when I first installed Yellow Dog Linux on my iBook, fonts were uniformly terrible and the overall look of GNOME screamed "Windows 3.1." Today, font smoothing works well, and GNOME's appearance is at least the equal of Windows XP, while KDE 4.x is just drop-dead gorgeous. Neither has yet achieved the mix of functionality and elegant design that characterizes Mac OS X or (to a lesser extent) Windows Vista, but that is bound to change.

What still needs work, at least in my opinion and experience, is usability. Smooth fonts and Compiz Fusion graphics are all well and good, and I love the philosophy of the Ubuntu project, but if I can't connect to the Internet it's no good to me. It's kind of like driving an Alfa Romeo with twin carburetors: you can tinker with it to your heart's content, it makes you feel good and look cool, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you've gone your own way, but you better know how to get under the hood and fix it, because it's likely to give you the opportunity to do so at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes, you just want to get to work, and at those times you'll be a whole lot happier in a Nissan 350Z, particularly if it's 34 degrees F and it's raining and you're running late. God bless the man who invented fuel injection.

It's this question of usability on the desktop that has dogged Linux for years, and I'm not sure there is a good answer. One of the reasons that Apple has succeeded so well in making their products "just work" is that they control both the hardware and the software, and need only support a very limited range of hardware configurations. It's the same reason that Windows has become such bloated spaghetti code: Microsoft has to worry about maintaining compatibility with a huge, almost limitless variety of hardware. Linux, which has to contend with the same problem as Microsoft, has far fewer resources and less ability to keep track of the combinations, being an open-source project. Even Ubuntu, which has the resources of Canonical Ltd. behind it, can't come close to solving the problem.

As for System76, it's obvious that they care. They've gone to great effort to make the Ubuntu experience as painless as possible, writing their own "System76 Driver" to fill in the rough spots where Ubuntu's hardware support is lacking. But they're a small operation, and while they only try to make the the S76 driver support the hardware that they sell, even that is a bit of a challenge, because of Canonical's (and therefore Ubuntu's) rigid every-six-months release schedule. That relentless biannual target is something that neither Apple nor Microsoft have ever tried to pull off, and I can't help but wonder if Canonical would be better off focusing on the Long Term Support releases such as Hardy Heron (8.04), and calling the other releases public betas. Since Canonical is unlikely to do this, S76 may want to reconsider their policy of using the latest release, since every OS update is likely to break something. A better alternative might be to stick with Long Term Support (LTS) releases, with the latest release a customer option. 8.04 was the last LTS release, whereas mine came loaded with 8.10, which was the newest version. My impression from reading the S76 forum at is that 8.10 broke some things that worked fine in 8.04, and I for one would gladly trade cutting-edge bragging rights for greater stability.

When things do break, the fixes are often somewhat intimidating to new users--who, incidentally, are more likely to try Ubuntu than any other distro. There's nothing particularly difficult about opening a terminal window and typing "sudo gedit xorg.conf,", but it looks like gibberish to the uninitiated and is likely to discourage those who are used to point-and-click in a GUI. Of course, most Linux users are not fazed by this in the slightest.

And therein lies the problem. Linux, including Ubuntu, is by and large developed by geeks for other geeks, who really, really don't understand why anyone would possibly object to doing something at the command line from time to time. This is actually not an unreasonable attitude; surprisingly often, it really is the fastest, simplest way to get something done.

But most average users aren't going to care, because they don't speak Unix and aren't interested in learning it in order to check their Hotmail accounts. When something breaks, they're going to say, "Gee, I knew it was too good to be true" and buy the HP system at Best Buy that the guy next door told them about, because he Knows Something About Computers and said it was a good deal. Or they'll go to the Apple Store and pick up a MacBook Air because it looks really cool and works well with their iPod. And they'll never look at Linux again.

As for me, I've come to the conclusion that while I love open-source software, I need my operating system to be as reliable as it possibly can be. Although I've used Macs for the last eight years, I'm no Apple fanboy. I prefer Firefox to Safari. I eschew the iPod for a Cowon iAudio X5L that looks like an East German MP3 player would look had the GDR ever made such a thing. I gave up iTunes for the open-source Play, and I'd rather use NeoOffice than Apple's iWork suite. I rip CDs using Max, download podcasts with Juice, and watch video with VLC. I get my mail in Gmail using Mailplane rather than Apple Mail. My backups are done with JungleDisk rather than Time Machine. I even disdain the Finder, preferring Path Finder. Perhaps you get the picture.

But for all the non-Apple, largely open-source software I use, I find that for me the underlying Mac OS is the best possible foundation on which to build. It’s solid, it’s reliable, and it’s beautiful. Back in 2000, Apple introduced something that combined a rock-solid Unix foundation with the user-friendliness of the classic Mac OS, and after using it for eight years, with each version steadily improving upon the last, I still find it the most congenial environment in which to conduct my day-to-day computing. “Better” is a subjective term, but I find it better than Windows, and better than Linux—even Ubuntu Linux. Acolytes of Linus Torvalds will protest, but in many respects OS X is what Linux should be.

In the end, for me, Linux is like Esperanto. It is somewhat exotic, has a dedicated core of slightly fanatical users, is built on noble principles, and there are many things I like about it. I have no doubt that there will always be people who lernas la internacian lingvon, and the world undoubtedly will be a better place for it. But it is the same world where English is rapidly becoming the new lingua franca, and one must ask oneself whether or not learning an entirely new constructed language is worth the effort, except as a hobby. The answer, sadly, is probably “no.”

And so it is, for me, with Ubuntu. In another five or six years, I may try my hand at whatever the flavor-of-the-month is in Linux distros. But I’ll do it on a spare machine, and install it myself. It will be a very long time, if ever, before I try to use it as my main computing environment. After three ultimately unsuccessful attempts at migrating to Linux, it is perhaps understandable that I’m a bit gun-shy.

And so ends this blog. My Linux experiment ended sooner than I anticipated, and since this blog was created to chronicle that experiment, it is time, as I said earlier, to close the book.

Mi dankas vin pro legado!

  1. This was originally written for a separate blog I set up to document my intended switch to Ubuntu Linux.