Linux 2008: Still Not Ready for Prime Time

I’ve just spent a couple of hours installing and exploring Ubuntu 8.04. Bottom line: better but still not yet an adequate end user system. Here are the things that absolutely must be fixed before one can plausibly recommend Ubuntu to a non-developer end user (and since Ubuntu is the best desktop Linux out there, these are things that need to be fixed before one can recommend desktop Linux). In roughly increasing order of severity:

1. Ubuntu failed to find my DHCP server automatically. I had to reconfigure the network after logging in.

2. The install image is missing about 50-80 megs worth of patches. It’s one thing not to ship new CDs to every store on the planet and recall all existing stock. It’s another to serve an ISO with known security holes from your website. Critical (and even non-critical) patches need to be rolled into the primary release ISOs.

3. Ubuntu still doesn’t believe there’s such a thing as a widescreen monitor. Trust me: they exist. I’ve had one since the late 90s. In this release, Ubuntu has actually gone backwards. It used to be you could configure new screen resolutions with some Unix text arcana, but Hardy Heron has hidden all that info in some new location I’ve yet to ferret out. They’ve replaced the text files with a GUI screen resolution tool that doesn’t actually let me set the screen resolution. I’m not opposed to GUI configuration tools–I prefer them in fact. However they have to be at least as powerful as the text files they replace.

4. The menu system hasn’t changed in years. It’s still the same disaster it was 3 years ago. When is Gnome going to realize what Apple’s known for 25 years, and even Microsoft has known for ten:

Menus belong at the top of the screen. You don’t show more than one menu bar at a time. Menu bars need to be consistent between applications. There’s always a File menu on the left, closely followed by an Edit Menu. The Help menu goes at the right, sometimes preceded by a Window menu.

I guess when your view of the world is a command line, you don’t think GUI menus matter all that much; but to anyone who’s not a programmer they do.

Ubuntu actually does put the main Ubuntu menus at the top of the screen where they belong. The problem is that it reserves that place for itself and won’t share with other applications. No matter which application you’re working in, the menu bar only has Places, Application, and System. If I’m editing in OpenOffice, I want to see the OpenOffice menus there. If I’m browsing in Firefox, I want to see the Firefox menus there.

Apple and Microsoft both do better here: Apple by taking a single menu in the bar (the Apple menu) for its own use while leaving the rest of the menu bar free for the application; Microsoft by making use of the bottom of the screen for its system menus while leaving the top free for the application. Ubuntu/Gnome seems to be doing cargo cult UI design. They sort of know that menu bars belong at the top of the screen, but since they don’t understand the reasons why that is so, they end up making matters worse.

On the positive side, I’d say the fonts do look better in this release. That was a major sticking point for me in previous releases. Other notable improvements include a smoother, less technical install process, and a bootup that doesn’t spew random techie gibberish all over the screen. Ubuntu is improving. If only they’d fix the menu bars, and make it work with widescreen monitors, I could think about letting my parents use this.

27 Responses to “Linux 2008: Still Not Ready for Prime Time”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Huh? Windows definitely shows more than one menu bar at a time (that is, if you have more than one window at a time visible on the screen). The menu that magically changes as you move from one window to the next is strictly a Mac feature, and whether you like it is a matter of taste; I grant it saves screen real estate.

    BTW, the comment preview isn’t active on this site.

  2. ix Says:

    1) i had to add a line to /etc/network/interfaces as well. ‘auto eth0′ or such.. a goof, if it happened to you too
    2) nope, but installed from a 3 or maybe 5 year old Sid CDR (links from the console to google the line for sources.list) as i always do
    3) with intel 855gm or something, i definitely got into reslutions that ‘esc’ didnt get out of. had to find ~/.*|gre -i 1280 and nano an xml file to reset it. can their target userbase do this? lol i hope not
    4) menu seems good to me. but i just install Ubuntu for mortals. menus, i dont touch the things (unless you count dmenu)

  3. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    There’s a reason most Windows users maximize all their windows and don’t show more than one menu at a time on the screen. Sadly, this technique doesn’t really work on Linux.

    The reason there should only be one menu at a time on the screen is primarily because there’s only one best place to put the menu bar. Actually, that’s oversimplifying. In fact, there are five best places, but not more than five; and whichever one you pick, consistency suggests all applications should pick the same one.

    Linux applications almost invariably put their menu bars in the very suboptimal location of the top of the window. The menu bar belongs all the way to one side or the other of the screen. Of the four screen sides, the top is conventional. I’m not sure if there’s a good reason why the top is preferred over the bottom or left and right edges. However Fitt’s Law explains why the top is preferred over a random location where the window happens to be.

  4. Devdas Bhagat Says:

    What about those of us who use one virtual monitor stretched across two physical ones?

    I would hate to have to move my mouse all the way to the left monitor just to click on a menu item.

    Of course, then there are those of us who refuse to use GNOME and KDE, and use windowmanagers instead. Applications still need to show their menu bars for us.

    What Apple and Windows need to fix is to get real virtual desktops. Also, they need to make their desktop stuff network transparent (some of us have more than one physical machine which acts as the desktop).

    Personally, I thinks there is scope for improvement, but it isn’t by copying either the Apple mac or Microsoft Windows (both are crippling paradigms).

    I don’t use Ubuntu, so I won’t comment on the X and DHCP issues (CentOS works for me, but it isn’t for everyone).

  5. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    I have noticed that multimonitor setups are not nearly as useful on the Mac as on Windows, and the lack of two menu bars is clearly the reason. Perhaps the principle of a single menu bar could be reduced to a single menubar per screen. Currently Windows comes closer to that than anyone, depending on which applications you’re running and whether or not the windows are maximized.

  6. Cay Horstmann Says:

    Hmm…I am writing this from my Ubuntu machine. App menu bars on top, main menu on the bottom. How did it get there? I boldly dragged it there a few years ago, and is has remained there ever since. The good news is that the reasons cited for not using Linux are getting sillier every year.

  7. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    @ Cay Horstmann: I completely agree!

    @ Elliotte Rusty Harold: you’ve should have studied more on the concept of i.e. “Gnome”, before writing a crucifing article on active open source developments.
    I really respectfully doubt your expertise to write articles like these: if you are experiencing etoxification phenomena of using i.e. “Vista” [LOL], try doing the same test on Ubuntu 8.04 withe a KDE-front-end and you’ll be feeling yourself “home”…

  8. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    @ Elliotte Rusty Harold: I really like to attend you on a book you should have read, before writing this article [written by Mark G. Sobell, called: “A practical guide to UBUNTU Linux”, Prentice Hall, ISBN-13: 978-0-13-236039-5 Chapter 8, page 259].
    The paragraph is about “Window managers”, and is explaining the parallels and chosen indifferences and technologies between the two.

    NB: ofcourse more “inside” information can be found at url: http://www.ubuntu.org.

  9. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    Sorry about the typo’s…

  10. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    It’s a quibble. Do we blame Gnome, X, or Ubuntu for putting the menu bars in the wrong place? To an end user, it really doesn’t matter. They don’t distinguish between any of these. As long as menu bars are stuck in windows instead of being separate, independent widgets, the best Linux will ever do is to match Windows for user interface. It will never catch Mac OS X, and that makes it unsuitable for my parents and other non-technical end users. :-(

  11. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    “GNOME does not intend to take advantage of its component architecture. Instead, it continues to support the traditional philosophy of relying on many small programs, each of which is good at doing a specific task.”

    &

    “Since version 2, GNOME has focussed on simplifying its user interface, removing options where they are deemed unnecessary, and aiming for a set of default settings that the end user will not wish to change. KDE has moved in the opposite direction, emphasizing configurability.”

  12. Aaron Says:

    I half agree. OS X is more usable all-around, but our work puts out a special build of Linux that is quite serviceable for special use (tried Ubuntu first, but it didn’t integrate as well…yet). I don’t need everything, just the most common things (remote access, office apps, printing) and the stability beats Windows. All the quibbles I see about menu this and right click behavior that are silly IMHO without a view of end-to-end productivity and clarity of vision. Overall, Ubuntu is something that if my parents didn’t already have Mac, I’d seriously think about setting up for them.

    But right now, OS X is the best user experience…and rightly so, Apple is the organization that puts the most emphasis on it.

  13. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    My day job has done that too, and for our audience of uber-geek developers it absolutely makes sense, especially since much of our work product is Linux-only. But for end users, the day-to-day productivity just isn’t there. Had I continued past the base install into the “productivity” software like OpenOffice, Gimp, and so forth, the situation gets worse, not better. However, you have to fix the foundations before you can really fix the buildings built on top of them.

  14. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    Since your article is exploring the possibility of a Linux distribution replacing a Windows or OS X installation for day to day use, IMHO it would best to use the most user friendly Linux distribution for this comparison: KUBUNTU.

    I suppose many readers/users would be interested to hear your opinion on this distribution.

    More info on this KDE based Linux OS can be found here: http://www.kubuntu.org .

  15. Matt Brubeck Says:

    That’s funny, because the exact same issues (manual network configuration, missing security patches, non-configurable video resolutions) were all problems the last time I had to install and use MS Windows. And even with maximized windows, XP doesn’t put menus at the top of the screen for Fitt’s Law compliance. (The title bar is still above the menu bar.)

    I guess Microsoft Windows isn’t ready for casual users either. But that’s not exactly a new observation, especially for anyone in the IT industry. :)

  16. Asbjørn Ulsberg Says:

    I have to wonder how Windows (especially Vista) is better in any of these areas than Ubuntu. OS X might be, but Windows is just as bad or worse in absolutely all the areas you mention, compared to Ubuntu. If you start counting other areas as well, like antivirus, spyware protection, UAC and other things that doesn’t even exist on Linux, there’s no question Ubuntu comes out on top. Then you can start comparing installing a driver or an application on Ubuntu compared to Windows (and even OS X) and you see just how much better Ubuntu is for a novice user.

    Ubuntu still has a way to go, but to say it isn’t ready for prime time when the most prime operating system of all — Windows — is way behind Ubuntu in almost all areas, is imho a stretch.

  17. Brendan Says:

    My wife’s MacBook could not find my DHCP server, and obviously my windows box has menu’s in the wrong place, so is there no mainstream platform which is ready for prime time?

    Probably.

    I think it makes sense to point out issues.

    I don’t think it makes sense to use the phrase “ready for prime time”.

  18. Dan Spencer Says:

    There is in fact support for widescreen monitors, at least for ATI and Nvidia based cards. You have to explicitly allow the use of proprietary drivers, after which options for the higher resolutions are available. Latest Ubuntu looks great on my 24″ Samsung. Regarding ERH’s general comments regarding the Mac’s UI vs. Gnome, much seems subjective and I’m curious whether there is any empirical evidence for these claims. I could provide my own anecdotal reasons for not liking the Mac’s approach, but that would simply be anectodal and subjective.

  19. John Cowan Says:

    If I maximized windows on my desktop, I’d have to twist my head to read individual lines of text. On my laptop, I do maximize windows. And I suspect the reason Mac users don’t maximize windows is that traditionally it was hard to do so.

    My wife maximizes windows not for Fitts’s Law reasons — the applications she uses don’t depend on menus — but to reduce visual clutter.

  20. Sara Says:

    There’s one thing that I haven’t seen anyone mention: the open-source factor.

    Let’s say Kubuntu–which I confess I haven’t yet looked at–really is the user-friendliest Linux around, and let’s say it CAN compete with Mac… would any enterprises really consider deploying Kubuntu across the entire enterprise, or would the open-source thing scare them off? Businesses want to know whom they can sue when something goes wrong. Firefox has a nice hefty market share, but at least for the time being, it seems that an open-source browser is a lot more palatable to enterprises than an open-source OS.

    Vista is tanking in the market right now, but let’s say Microsoft sticks to its guns and stops selling XP on June 30, like they’ve planned. What will all the Vista-hating XP users do? Will they suck it up and start buying Vista? Will they deal with old hardware until Windows 7 comes out? Or will everyone switch over to Mac or Linux–and if so, which one will eat up more of Microsoft’s lost market share?

    I have somewhere around a bajillion more questions about this stuff, which I won’t rattle off here, but I blogged about ( http://www.gocsiblog.com/?p=298). My sincere apologies if you perceive that as a shameless plug… I assure you that plug is overflowing with shame.

  21. Elliotte Rusty Harold Says:

    Sara,

    FUD, FUD, FUD.

    There is no evidence that businesses care one bit about who they can sue when deciding which desktop software and OS to deploy. If there was, they’d pay a lot more attention to licensing agreements that remove the right to sue.

    There is one way in which lawsuits do matter, though. Most businesses care a lot about being sued; and some have made massive, company wide transitions from Windows to Linux precisely because they got sued or audited by the BSA. Here’s an interview with one person who did exactly that at his company. The threat of being sued for license compliance is far greater with closed source software than with open source software. To date, I’m not aware of any companies that have realized this in advance of actually being sued/audited. If the BSA ramps up enforcement, that could change fast though.

  22. Carl Bowken Says:

    I tried installing Mac OS X on my old Dell Latitude D800 notebook, but got an error message that it doesn’t support that hardware. Conclusion: Mac OS X is not ready for prime time yet.

    I tried installing Microsoft Vista on my old Dell notebook, but it ran so slow as to be unusable. Conclusion: Windows Vista is not ready for prime time yet.

    I tried installing Ubuntu Linux on my old Dell notebook, and it works well. Able to detect DHCP servers without problem. Free applications and patches have been simple to download and install. Support for my Dell widescreen monitor. Easy to customize the menu bars to my preference. Fonts look fine to me. Conclusion: Ubuntu Linux is ready for primetime. I like this so much, I now plan to purchase a new Dell Ubuntu Linux computer for work.

  23. Andrew Says:

    Problems with Upgrading and Internet Access are the main reason Linux is not ready for prime time.

    I lost my internet connection twice, I lost my swapspace and I also lost my Windows partition disk icon during Ubuntu upgrades. All that I can fix myself (although it take many hours), but without internet access, I need to use Windows XP to find out how to fix the problems.

    I still can’t get my Netgear Wireless USB to work, so I have to take my laptop into the kitchen to use the internet.

    Also, my wife boots back into XP as soon as I leave the computer alone, probably because Resume didn’t work after the upgrades.

  24. Security Provoked » Blog Archive » If Vista Really Does Flop, What Happens Next? Says:

    […] / in SMBs / in homes / in particular industries)? Would enterprises really go after Linux? Is it user-friendly enough to compete with either Mac or Windows? Would enterprises feel comfortable running open-source […]

  25. Marcel Wardenier Says:

    […] pc-windows lover’s check this out: http://www.dell.com offering and supporting ubuntu-packages on their hardware…

  26. grady Says:

    I thought Ubuntu was the Linux answer to Windows.

    To the Linux community at large;

    “2008 isn’t going to be the year people move to Linux as a primary non-Windows operating system (in my opinion) because it’s not *quite* ready yet”

    God! I’ve been hearing that “not quite ready yet” excuse for the past 12 yrs now. Why is it you can’t get an airtight, efficient, easy, intuitive OS created?
    You need to get organized and concentrate/distill your efforts. As it is now you’re a spineless bloated blob.

    You guys piss and moan and are filled with bile for MS but you have not brought anything viable to the table. Put up or shut up. DO SOMETHING! Make a better OS. Don’t just keep throwing out free distros that are “not quite ready yet”. Get it together.

    Some of you, the introverts, I think just like to keep all things Linux mysterious – obscuring people’s understanding, leaving them baffled or bewildered – over complicating everything surrounding your precious Linux just to stroke your own egos. “Oh I use Linux XX , I’m smarter than you” Either that or you just plain don’t know what you are doing.

    If Linux wants to go mainstream / to knock MS off its pedestal you are going to have to stop with your take-it-or-leave-it attitude. Cuz obviously the masses are leaving it. Unfortunately to do so at this late stage in the game you’ll need to change your face, your names for things, the language you use, etc. to match MS. Sorry but that’s what the majority of people are use too. That’s your #1 reality. If you’d of acted sooner this wouldn’t be the case but you chose to dick around these past 18 years. Almost twenty years down the drain. You ought to be ashamed.

    You are not going to get anywhere by trying to forcing “the Linux way” on the general joe/jane public or most 30+ y/os. People go with what they know. If you don’t make Linux friendly and knowable people will return to the Windows comfort zone. People today DO NOT HAVE THE TIME to screw around with that kind of BS, the Linux learning curve. That’s a fact of life. Time is money. They also don’t have the attention span to deal with Linux as it stands now. The world’s population is growing older as people live longer. Learning complicated tasks become harder the older you get, you have less patience.

    Again, which is why people are not switching to Linux. It’s too UNFAMILIAR. too slow, too complicated, too risky. You claim it is faster, less bloated, easy, but not in my experience..

    The Linux goal should be to simplify. Isn’t that what progress is all about…. simplifying difficult tasks, using less to achieve more…. optimizing. distilling, prioritizing……..

    Make a Linux that is seamless. I

    You guys congratulate each other profusely all the time, yet what have you accomplished in all these 18 years? NOTHING! Not a single viable contender to Microsoft Windows.
    Instead you got hundreds of distros all of them lacking.

    It’s out of hand, it’s retarded . Your #1 priority should be to make ONE perfect Linux OS to stand up to Microsoft. To break their monopoly. That should be the goal. To bring a real alternative to the world.

    “The bewildering choice and the ever increasing number of Linux distributions can be confusing” DAH !!!!!!!!!! And not just confusing but most importantly DISCOURAGING.

    Again people don’t have the time, knowledge nor most the inclination to research, learn, install and test run 5, 10, 15……distros to find what works for them. And it’s unacceptable for the Linux community to expect them too.
    If Microsoft can do it shouldn’t the Linux community be able to?

    I’ve been holding that in for years…..whew

  27. David L Says:

    Every couple of years I will try a few distros of Linux. Its always the same story. Either the distro won’t get past the install bar graphic, or if it actually installs, the software is so buggy it won’t run without crashing my computer, or it doesnt support all of my hardware and periphrals. Even if the KERNEL is stable, the lack of support kills it.

    Another big issue with Linux IS support. Hardware manufacturers simply are not interested in paying someone to develop drivers to support Linux. Why? Because there are simply not enough people interested in using Linux on their PC. Why? Keep reading. Another problem, is software support. Yeah, you can find ‘thousands’ of software programs in repositories, but the overall quality/compatibility of that software is poor, although there are app’s of higher quality.

    Truth is, the whole concept of a ‘FREE’ operating system and software to run on it is fundamentally flawed. You want a truly ‘stable’ distro of Linux? Contact a company like Sun MicroSystems, and tell them what type of hardware your computer has, and then be willing to shell out some big bucks, and they will develop a stable/reliable Linux OS with drivers that support your hardware.

    The average everyday PC user just wants to turn on their computer, and USE it. If they want to install a new software app or game, etc, on their computer, they want to put the install CD in the drive or doubleclick an icon, tell the installer what drive/directory to install it too, and whether they want a icon shortcut placed on their desktop or not. You get the picture. They don’t want to fiddle with command lines to activate this device or driver, etc, or to just get an app to run, or to setup their display or sound.

    The reason Linux still suffers from the same ole problems year after year, is that the SUPPORT and ORGANIZATION to develop a OS that a everyday PC user wants to use just isn’t there.

    Microsoft and Apple have the most popular OS’s in the world for a reason, its because they have an organization of developers working on their OS’s, and a staff whose sole job is to work with hardware/software manufacturers/developers to create drivers/apps for their OS.

    The only way Linux will become a viable alternative to Microsoft Windows and Apples OSX, is for a company to support their particular distro, the way Microsoft and Apple support their OS’s.

    Until that happens for Linux, it will always be what it is. A pain in the butt for the everyday PC user that just ‘WANTS IT TO WORK’.

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