Can Ubuntu Cut the Gordian Knot?

When Windows was released, it united a vast but rather fragmented society around a single philosophy. On the one side, you had end users. They had to get work done, and they needed applications to do that. On the other side, you had application developers, who needed a platform conducive to making useful applications to sell to the end users. This is, of course, gross oversimplification of historical events. The point is that geeks and end users alike wound up rallying around Windows.

These days, it would seem that Apple is looking to do the same thing. They’ve lured in end users by enabling them to work with media in new, fun and interesting ways while still allowing them to get work done. Meanwhile, they’ve also attracted the technical crowd because under the covers OS X is really UNIX. In short, Apple has done what Linux has needed to do for a decade now but couldn’t get organized enough to do: they made what amounts to a distribution of BSD that’s so easy to use that the end user never knows what’s under the hood unless they’re curious enough to go and learn about it.

The ability to organize around the idea that a system should be easy to use *first*, and gratifying to geeks *second* has been the gordian knot of the Linux community. While Apple has pasted a bunch of slick “ooh aah” features onto the desktop, and provided a platform for developers to extend the environment (note I said “extend” and not “fork”), Linux is busy, for the most part, doing things with a mind toward “the community” instead of “the customer”.

The Linux community is making sure that the end user has at least 10 different mp3 players, 5 different desktop environments, 6 different photo management applications, and 20 different scripting languages built in and ready to go. They’re fighting over licensing, attribution, inclusion, exclusion, who’ll take over this project, who’s forking that project, what should this project be called today, what package format will be used, which package manager will be used and does it work with this format, and what’s the best way to support 32-bit programs on 64-bit hardware while still allowing the end user the freedom to build software from source in an environment that looks something like sanity?

I certainly understand that all of those arguments are in some way important. There needs to be this community of concerned technologists who provide so many important things to the technological landscape as it were. The community is a proving ground for ideas, a training ground to develop skill sets, a forum for the discussion on the directions different technologies might go in, and a united force against inane legislation.

However, as important as these arguments are, you have to admit two things:

  1. They don’t make getting things done any faster, and
  2. Apple has already proven that these things can get done quickly if you get organized.

Apple has hit a nice sweet spot in terms of what it delivers to the end user. It doesn’t come ready to do… um… well, nothing – like Windows. On the other hand, it also doesn’t come with 5 ways to perform a single task. Just this small amount of streamlining greatly reduces the amount of work involved in delivering the product, because energy that might otherwise be expended in testing all of the different ways you can set up your printer can now be redirected to solving a problem that doesn’t have a particularly great solution, or (gasp!) writing documentation!!!

What I’m hoping for Ubuntu is that they evolve into a project that can do two things, both of which I think the project is capable of:

  1. Accomplish on the Linux platform what Apple has accomplished on the BSD platform.
  2. Take the word “Linux” out of the larger desktop platform discussion.

Item 1 would involve making some difficult decisions about the applications that will not be included in the distribution, and employing some amount of diplomacy to try to unite developers to get them to work together on solving problems instead of forking every time someone gets their feelings hurt.

Item 2 is *going* to be done by some distribution at some point in time. It won’t be Red Hat, and it won’t be Novell. They’re not interested in you and me. They’re interest is in the “enterprise”. They’re smart to go that route. It’s a large market, and it’s a market that isn’t likely to care if there are no mp3 libraries or commercial NVIDIA drivers installed by default. But this doesn’t help us home users.

It’s also not going to be Debian, because their interest is in “keeping it real”, where “real” equals “open”, not “easy to use for non-geeks” or “bleeding edge”. It won’t be Mandriva because, as much as I love Mandriva, they don’t seem to know where to put their energies from one day to the next. Someone needs to get the discussion about the desktop to include the name of their distribution instead of this nebulous “Linux” thing.

Linux is a kernel. The distribution is what makes Linux useful to normal people. We sure as heck don’t talk about “win32″ on the desktop, now do we? We talk about Windows. Likewise, we should be talking about “Ubuntu vs. Windows” or “Ubuntu vs OS X” and not “Linux vs Whatever”. People aren’t going to understand comparisons between a kernel and an operating environment. They’re not going to understand a comparison between Windows and an entire movement. There needs to be something identifiable to put up there, and right now, at least in the desktop space, that’s Ubuntu.

So, flame away. Here are a couple of replies up front:

  1. I’m not saying it has to be Ubuntu, I’m just saying that right now, it *is* Ubuntu. Read the article.
  2. Debian religion aside, you have to admit that you’re not likely to hand a Debian netinstall CD to your mom and wish her the best of luck now are you?
  3. Yes, MEPIS, KDE, Slackware, Gentoo, OpenSUSE, Fedora, {K,Edu,X}ubuntu are also very nice. That’s not the point of the article, though, so please move along.
  4. Yes, choice is good, but anyone who has ever worked in food service is no doubt familiar with people who sit there staring at the menu saying “there’s soooo many choooiiices” and not knowing which way to go. People on the by and large are indecisive. Having one tool to perform a task instead of five, just by itself, will do wonders for the perception of usability on a platform, as evidenced by Windows and OS X.

I’ll reply to the rest as they come in :-)

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  • http://steve-parker.org/ unixshell

    Many parts of this debate have been addressed by http://linux.oneandoneis2.org/LNW.htm (Linux Is Not Windows). In particular, the fact that the “revolutionary” migration from MS to Apple is simply moving from one monoglot to another.

    Ubuntu currently seems to be the most likely to deliver what you’re after; they’ve already discussed the idea of including non-free kernel drivers, for example. https://launchpad.net/ubuntu/+bug/1 Bug #1 is that MS has a majority market share.

    If you agree that that is, indeed, the most significant problem, then get behind Ubuntu and what they are trying to do. They’re doing an awfully good job (my desktop has been Ubuntu since 6.06, and I’m what many would consider a Linux geek (Linux as my sole OS since 1997; finally got forced to use a WinXP laptop just over a year ago, first time in a decade.))

    It all comes down to a question of what you want to achieve.
    – MS want a computer (with MS software) on every desk.
    – Apple want you to buy their hardware (so they were happy to switch OS, that’s just a cost to them)
    – Linux is just an OS. Some people like to use it, some don’t.

    However, if your two goals are to:

    1. Accomplish on the Linux platform what Apple has accomplished on the BSD platform.
    2. Take the word “Linux” out of the larger desktop platform discussion.

    I read (1) as “Ubuntu to provide MS Office, Ubuntu Browser, Ubuntu Video Software, Ubuntu Graphics Software, etc etc …. ”
    I read (2) as “Detach the entire project from the community which spawned it”

    How (1) better than a community of developers? Can Mark Shuttleworth’s $10m over 10 years really give us better stuff than a worldwide team of developers each interested in their own niche?
    How would (2) make this better, and not worse?

    Ubuntu has done some great work, and – to be honest – I’m not even sure that I quite understand how it has achieved it. It’s got better mindshare than RedHat, SuSE and the like ever did. It’s an actually usable OS to me (geek; online since 1992) and my wife (unsure of the difference between MS Windows and MS Office).

    It would be a terrible thing if we were to replace the MS monopoly with a Ubuntu monopoly. Before MS were the worst problem on the internet (because they hadn’t realised that it existed), Robert Morris’ “Internet Worm” had a terrible effect, simply because everybody used Sendmail, and everybody assumed that the status quo was okay.

    If we were to assume that a Ubuntu Utopia would make the world better and safer for all, we would be falling down the same hole, and simply repeating history for the sake of making the point that those who don’t learn from history, do indeed repeat it.

    We need to avoid a monopoly, of any kind. MS is the most obvious form; Apple is the next – whilst not a monopoly globally, they do have a monopoly of the software installed on their computers. If your Apple Mac is vulnerable to attack-x, then so is mine, and so is my neighbour’s. If your Linux box is vulnerable to attack-y, well; mine is configured differently, and my neighbour’s is different again. His neighbour uses Windows, so your libc attack is entirely useless against him!

    What is needed is a wide diversity of systems. The MS monopoly of the past decade or so is a blemish on the IT community, which has caused much harm, particularly as it has coincided with the mass-acceptance of the internet. The combination of these two factors has tarred all of IT with the brush of MS’s poor security record, which comes automatically to anyone with a “one machine, one user” viewpoint.

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    ————- snip —————
    1. Accomplish on the Linux platform what Apple has accomplished on the BSD platform.
    2. Take the word “Linux” out of the larger desktop platform discussion.

    I read (1) as “Ubuntu to provide MS Office, Ubuntu Browser, Ubuntu Video Software, Ubuntu Graphics Software, etc etc …. ”
    I read (2) as “Detach the entire project from the community which spawned it”
    ————– /snip —————

    You’ve read me wrong (or I’ve expressed myself badly). Item one refers to providing a system based on Linux whereby the end user can reasonably expect that they may *never* have to know what Linux is. In item two I intend to state that there is value in comparing two tangible things over comparing a tangible thing and a concept. It has nothing to do with detaching ubuntu from the community that spawned it. This would be sacrilege, and would guarantee that what I’d like to see happen will never happen :-)

    ————- snip —————
    It would be a terrible thing if we were to replace the MS monopoly with a Ubuntu monopoly.
    ————- /snip —————

    I don’t believe I ever even implied that I wanted to see a monopoly. If I did, please explain so that I can edit my own work to better relay that portion of my thinking. I’m a believer that monopolies are bad not only for the consumers, but in the long run, monopoly rule is bad even for the monopoly in economic terms. That’s a philosophical diatribe for another post.

    The links you point me at uncover a couple of new curiosities, though. In one, it says that Microsoft’s market share is bug #1, and in the description it says that “A majority of the PCs for sale should include only free software like Ubuntu.” Then you say that the idea of including non-free kernel drivers is being discussed. This would seem to be… problematic.

    You then point to a curious article that actually backs up what I was saying. In the article “Linux is not Windows”, the very very very first line of the page says “In the following article, I refer to the GNU/Linux OS and various Free & Open-Source Software (FOSS) projects under the catch-all name of “Linux”. It scans better.”

    This is *PRECISELY* the kind of thing that I’d like to see go away completely, at least in the context of a debate regarding the desktop. Before the author even gets to his main points, he is forced to point out to the reader that, basically, “Linux” is a nebulous concept, and not a tangible thing you can go and get. What’s worse, as an author I know why he points this out: because the FLOSS police probably flooded his inbox with email saying “Linux is a kernel, not an operating environment. Get it right.” As if the guy had never seen Linux.org before or something. If his article were entitled “Ubuntu is not Windows”, this explanation wouldn’t be necessary, because you’d be comparing two *products* instead of one product and one nubulous concept floating about the spooky eternal realm or something.

    This is all not to even mention that a Windows end user who wants to know where, on his wireless router, he should plug in his laptop is NOT going to know what “!=” means, illustrating an author that is somewhat detached from his target audience, but I digress.

    Back to monopolies: MS is not a “form” but rather an “instance” of a monopoly. Apple is no more a monopoly than Sony is. Sony controls Sony products, but there are a thousand other companies who make the same things. Sony is not a monopoly. Same with Apple. They have a monopoly on the iPod, but there are a thousand other mp3 players on the market. Apple is not a monopoly. Period. And the idea that they have a monopoly on the software installed on their computers is simply untrue, and if it were, it would quickly and completely devalue the platform, and therefore, the entire brand. The iPhone is another story it would seem, but that’s another case, and still doesn’t define a monopoly.

    In the end, I thank you for your comment, and want to point out that, while unrelated to anything I wrote in my article, I *do* agree that:

    a) monopolies are, indeed, bad.
    b) a wide diversity of systems is desirable.
    c) ubuntu has done some great work.

  • harda

    I believe that any GNU+Linux distribution that wants to emulate the Macintosh OS look and feel needs to emulate Apple’s development model: design and development with minimum community input and assistance. In other words, I don’t think any community designed or developed distribution can accomplish what you want. And so far, no communityless distribution is widely used (or even taken very seriously).

    I doubt Ubuntu, which has community built into its name, will ever intentionally divulge itself of its community.

    -Dave

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    Ok, so harda, you’re the second person who is saying that in order to get done what Apple has done, Ubuntu would have to completely throw away the community development effort. I had not considered that as being necessary. Rather, what I was thinking was that Ubuntu needs to provide leadership and organization to direct the efforts of the community, get them all on the same page, set goals, recognize members, etc.

    Also, it’s not really about “what I want”, it’s about what the Linux community wants but keeps subverting. As evidenced by the Dell IdeaStorm site, the community wants a distro on their desktop. Preinstalled, supported, compatible…. the works. In order to get a distro into the mainstream desktop discussion, I think Ubuntu will need to break several molds, and how it fosters and develops its community is one place where I think they’ll need to “think different”.

  • harda

    Brian,

    Re: Ubuntu leading, organising, and directing the efforts of the community,

    The free software development community has a few people who write code because they think it’s important (free software developers), a few people who develop because they’re scratching an itch (open source developers), and a bunch who write code for both reasons. I know people in the free software community who think Ubuntu is important precisely because it targets new GNU+Linux users, but many of these people are annoyed that Ubuntu is increasing distributing non-free software (and so some started GnuSense[1]), and they aren’t supporting Ubuntu.

    And so the developers who are itch scratching are left. If Ubuntu were to prevent the itch-scratching developers from distributing their individual favourite software, I believe many of the itch-scratchers will go elsewhere. That leaves the paid developers and the volunteer community is dead.

    [1] They actually wanted to call it gnuisance (by Stallman’s suggestion) initially, and I agreed to transfer a domain to them, but they changed their mind later on.

    Re: What you, the community want, and I want,

    I agree with you that the community (myself included) wants a GNU+Linux distribution pre-installable on every desktop or laptop computer. I don’t agree with you that the “Linux community” is subverting itself in the attempt to achieve this goal. I think our method is close to optimum.

    -Dave

  • http://m0j0.wordpress.com/ m0j0

    —————– snip ——————

    I know people in the free software community who think Ubuntu is important precisely because it targets new GNU+Linux users, but many of these people are annoyed that Ubuntu is increasing distributing non-free software (and so some started GnuSense[1]), and they aren’t supporting Ubuntu.

    —————– /snip ——————

    I think there’s a fundamental misconception here: I don’t think Ubuntu does, or should, target “new GNU+Linux users. It targets desktop computer users. I think that’s good, because I don’t think your average computer user gives a damn about the politics associated with “GNU+Linux”.

    That being the case, it seems it would be only logical for Ubuntu to exercise their right to choose to distribute a non-free kernel driver. If that annoys free software developers, then they should channel that energy into creating a worthwhile replacement. And by “worthwhile” I do NOT mean “good enough to a slackware user to play nethack with”.

    As for the method of the Linux community being “close to optimum”, I guess it would depend on how you define the goal the community is trying to reach. If the goal of the Linux community is simply to create free software that is freely available for anyone to use, completely unfettered by any kind of licensing restrictions (at least as they apply to *usage* of the software), then I agree with you: the method would seem to be close to optimal. However, you have to admit that the foundational ideas behind that goal can sometimes find themselves in competition with goals that involve the participation of people who care less about “open” and “free” and more about getting something that works and that can help them make money.

    The interesting stories going forward will be how these two competing goals work themselves out. It could mean a great deal of (further) fragmentation, or it could mean that one of the goals gets completely wiped out or redefined. I don’t know the answer, but I’m glad that at least we live in interesting times.

  • harda

    When you say, “I don’t think Ubuntu does, or should, target “new GNU+Linux users.[”] It targets desktop computer users,” I can understand how unixshell (the first commentor) misunderstood you intentions as desiring Ubuntu market dominance regardless of the consequences. I’m confused myself: do you want Ubuntu to attract current or new GNU+Linux users or both, and, if both, which group should they focus on?

    When I said, “I think our [meaning the community’s] method is close to optimum,” I meant for creating widely used and sustainable desktop operating systems.

    -Dave

  • http://steve-parker.org/ unixshell

    The closest I can come to a coherent view (of my own take on this), is that MS, Apple, Canonical, etc, are all of a mindset, and that the GNU philosophy, plus code, is of a different mindset. The third hand, is the UNIX history and philosophy, which has an awkwardly neither-one-nor-the-other stance, being the work of a few guys working for a megacorp.

    I have to admit, that I don’t care what “the people” use, though it would be good if it didn’t mean that (for example) when I log on to email, I get deluged with spam from pwn3d Windows boxes. In that sense, if they used (say) Ubuntu, then that would make my day-to-day life easier.

    If my immediate family and friends use something which is stable and configurable, then I’m happy. MS Win does not fit that criteria; Ubuntu does. Others also fit, but may not be as suitable for home users.

    Which still brings me back to the Apple/Ubuntu mix; Apple is one thing (binary-only, BSD-licensed (at best), single developer), whilst Ubuntu is another (GPL, community plus Canonical input). If Canonical want to go the Apple route, they risk losing certain (though not all) developers, and the mindshare which goes along with it.

    I consider myself a geek; the “fave” OS I’ve run in the past decade was LFS in 2002-ish, though I’ve been GNU/Linux on the desktop since 1997. I’ve been Ubuntu on the desktop for about a year now; it gives me all I need, and whilst my wife wants WP, Email, Web, it does that, too. She doesn’t even notice that it’s also a LAMP server.

    For Ubuntu to “do an Apple”, I maintain that what Apple have achieved, is not only to produce a usable *nix, but an OS with a very strong set of applications, particularly around Apple’s forte (sound, image and video editing).

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