Everything Wrong With Ubuntu
The underlying technology of Linux, the core that powers millions of websites around the world, is fantastic. Further, the overall philosophy of giving back to the public, of doing something purely for the wellbeing of the people is good. The community fosters a kind of "David-vs-Goliath" and "scrappy underdog" feel; it's us against the man, man. Unfortunately, Technical underpinnings and a feel-good philosophy simply don't go far enough to provide a truly competitive end user experience, and when the community turns its vitriol against itself, the dream of the Linux desktop begins to deconstruct.
Ubuntu released version 13.10 this week, with very few features and not a whole lot to talk about. Most of the improvements were version upgrades of internal components. A new kernel, upgraded compilers, and a few improvements to the controversial Unity Dash. While browsing through the reviews across the web I also skimmed the comments, and I was surprised to hear how many of the people leaving comments were completely aghast that Ubuntu released no major changes, while simultaneously berating the design and architecture decisions Canonical has made with the system. Unity, online search results, and Mir are favorite whipping posts for the anti-Canonical crowd. Mark Shuttleworth even took the time to dedicate a paragraph of his personal blog in an attempt to address them humorously:
Mir is really important work. When lots of competitors attack a project on purely political grounds, you have to wonder what THEIR agenda is. At least we know now who belongs to the Open Source Tea Party.
The quote was followed by a smiley faced, winking emoticon.
Shuttleworth is rightfully proud of the work his team has done with Mir, but that is not the real issue. It seems to me that the community, or at least portions of the community, are upset because Canonical is doing something different, and they were not consulted beforehand.
What the many detractors of Ubuntu are missing though is that the system isn't being built for them, it's being built for everyone. The subset of the subset of the subset of people who use Linux, and the subset of them who use Ubuntu, and the subset of them who left Ubuntu and now use something else, and the subset of them who are upset enough about it to complain publicly are not the intended target audience. Canonical is not building Ubuntu to be an alternative Linux distro, Ubuntu is an alternative to, and competitive with, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Chrome OS, iOS, and Android. Ubuntu is a system being built for people who have zero interest in their operating system, and are simply looking for the empowering freedom of a personal computing device.
Ubuntu was not the only operating system updated recently. Apple also released the latest version of OS X today, 10.9: "Mavericks". Mavericks is incredibly far ahead of the Linux desktop. While we endlessly debate the pros and cons of one display server over another, Apple has developed ways to save battery life by transparently suspending applications that have no visible windows. Consider the steps the system must take, and the integration at all levels of the system for that to happen. There is a very wide technical gulf there. Not to mention useful operating system level features like Spotlight or Time Machine, which after six years the Linux desktop has no built-in alternative for.
There is clearly a lot of work to do, and quibbling over the foundation of the operating system is only going to hold us back. I'm not arguing that we should only have one Linux desktop, I'm arguing that we need to be supportive of all efforts to move the state of the art forward. That the open source community is lucky enough to have a billionaire interested enough to dedicate much of his personal fortune and time to the effort is nothing short of remarkable.
Ubuntu drives me nuts. Absolutely bonkers. But, so does every other open source desktop dating back to the CDE. Twenty years of design by committee has gotten closer to developing a true user-friendly computing experience than when we started, but not close enough. Canonical is doing something different, they are trying to skate to where the puck is going with Unity, not where its been, and instead of listening to the community, they've hired honest-to-goodness designers to help. This is a good thing, because most of us have no formal education or work experience with UX design or HCI. Is everything they do right? Not by a long shot. But, if we are going to have an open source alternative to Apple, Google, and Microsoft, this is the direction the work needs to go. Ubuntu might just be the best hope for the open source desktop.