Tue 15 Aug
Having had my curiosity piqued by recent, high profile defections from Mac OS X to the Ubuntu Linux distribution, I decided to see if I could get it running on my old Titanium PowerBook G4. Ubuntu bills itself as “Linux for human beings,” designed in a “it just works” fashion that brings the open source operating system as close as it’s ever come to being as simple to set up as, well, Mac OS X — the operative word being “close.”
To be sure, I know almost nothing about Linux, nothing about the functional distinctions between distros and desktops, nothing about sudo or the command line or how to install packages. That said, I’m reasonably savvy when it comes to technology. I have no trouble getting around the thornier corners of Mac OS X and administering it short of entering commands into the Terminal, and I can generally acquire most new technical concepts fairly easily.
So the idea of a version of Linux that’s highly refined, that’s installed via a graphical user interface, was very appealing to me: maybe Ubuntu could be a Linux that I could learn the way I’ve learned all the operating systems that I know: by poking around, experimenting, and generally avoiding the low-level, highly technical skill set required for most Linux software.
Ubuntu is almost there, almost. It’s true that its developer community has gone to great efforts to make it as easy to install as possible, and it shows, even if it doesn’t fully bear itself out. With my meager understanding of the way a Macintosh needs to be prepared in order to be able to boot either Mac OS X or a secondary operating system, I goofed on the installation process not just once or twice but four times.
It took me four full instances of reformatting and re-partitioning the hard drive in order to successfully install the software. Granted, if I had been a bit more diligent about hunting down the proper tutorials and tips on the process, I might have gotten up and running sooner. But like a lot of open source documentation, Ubuntu’s is scattered, roundabout and assumes a certain level of expertise on the user — even if a minimal one. For someone like myself — who, again, readily admits to knowing nothing about Linux — it can be an inscrutable font of knowledge.
Still, with only a moderate amount of digging around, I managed to get Ubuntu up and running, and now I’m playing around with it, running the Gnome desktop and getting acquainted with the way the operating system works and the software available for it. After playing with it only a few hours, I still feel uncomfortable, like a tourist in a foreign country. Everything is in a different, unfamiliar place, and it’s slower than advertised on my aging PowerBook. My biggest complaint though, is that it’s just not as beautiful as Mac OS X.
Which isn’t to say that I’m not impressed, or that I’m not enjoying playing around with it, because I am. It’s still a remarkable achievement, a fully robust computing environment that seems perfectly plausible as a day-to-day platform (certainly as usable as Windows XP). Ubuntu goes to enormous and commendable lengths to nail down the ‘fit and finish’ of the operating system, but there’s something missing: the singular, bull-headed vision of an auteur like Steve Jobs.
In a sense, pitting the Ubuntu experience against the Mac OS X experience begs the central question facing design in the Internet age: is the old school of design by fiat (as exemplified in this case by Jobs’ unyielding, all-encompassing vision) endangered by the new school of design by dialogue (as exemplified in Ubuntu and Gnome’ democratic, open source culture)? These are vastly different philosophies heading towards the same goal: a rich user experience on a commercially viable consumer desktop. For now, I’ll stick with my Macintosh, but as for the future, I’m not sure I would feel confident betting against either approach. I’m also not sure that, in spite of the apparent collision course of this opposing methodologies, it’s a foregone conclusion that one particular approach has to win out over the other.