Ubuntu for Dummies

UbuntuHaving 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.

Not You Father’s Linux Distro

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.

Ubuntu and Gnome on a PowerBook

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.

Stranger on a Strange OS

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.

  1. This HCI designer is currently enjoying KDE’s pretty and clean GUI with Kubuntu, especailly the OS X like system settings.

  2. I had no idea that you could install this on a G4. For some reason I had always believed that Linux would only work on an x86 machine, unless you used Yellow Dog.

    You mentioned that it took you awhile to finally figure out how to do it. As someone who also admits to knowing nothing about linux, is there any chance you could write up a short step by step instruction on how to install it on a G4 machine. I’d love to play around with this on my PowerBook.

    Also, can you explain in short what the Gnome is? I read their website but I don’t really understand. Is Ubuntu just the operating system, on a base level and then something like Gnome is the GUI? I’m so confused.

    As short step by step guide or some really good links would be amazing though if you could spare the time. Thanks for the great article.


  3. I have an Ubuntu set-up on a 5yo laptop that I used exclusively for six months. I loved it, but little things like configuring wireless networking on old, cheap and thus barely-supported hardware eventually started taking up too much of my time.

    But there’s a zen-like beauty to aptitude that is unmatched in OS X.

    So I’m currently using OS X, but I still barrack for Ubuntu.

  4. Glynnis: Isn’t that clever? I wrote that myself!

    Joshua: Sure, I can write a little something to talk about how to install Ubuntu. I’ll try and knock that out soon, and with the caveat that it’s going to be very basic and possibly ill-informed. Stay tuned.

  5. Great post, Khoi. I had a similar experience recently with installation on a 4 year old HP laptop and searching for good information. Ubuntu would also get weirdly screwed up once I ran a software update. I’m with you – sticking with OS X for now, but I’m definitely keeping an eye on Ubuntu.

  6. Ubuntu is nice, but it still doesn’t have the elegance of OS X.

    Even though most things are integrated in the window manager with Ubuntu, its still easier to use the CLI in Linux. Especially when dealing with networking crud.

  7. Until I got a new Mac Mini last December, I had a G4 733 that I was dual-booting with Ubuntu and OS X. Now I just run full-time OS X.

    I spent 3 solid months with Ubuntu as my only operating system. I used it to write documents, send emails, work on web-based projects, instant message and all sorts of home-related tasks. It was a pretty smooth experience.

    Then I tried to use Ubuntu for billable work.

    Moving from Photoshop to GIMP, Illustrator to Inkscape and TextMate to emacs – all painful experiences. I’m used to OS X apps and transitioning to completely new software was a frightening endeavor. Command line? Fun to muck around in, but I don’t want to spend hours in there.

    I tried to use a RSS reader and iTunes-like player. Both were built for geeks and try as I may, I couldn’t figure it out, so I gave up. There were no suitable replacements for Transmit, Omingraffle or Fireworks in my opinion. With time, I suppose.

    Ubuntu is almost there – but almost still translates to several years off, especially with the upcoming release of Leopard.

    Getting Windows users to switch to Ubuntu will be far easier than getting Mac OS X users to do the same.

  8. Nice post, Khoi, and an interesting point of view from someone knowing nothing about Linux.

    But wait a moment. Linux and so Ubuntu too will maybe never be intended for people who do not know anything about it. Or more precise, for people who are not intended to learn something about it. Even if you come from Mac OS X which is brilliant for its ease of use, on Linux you will always be forced to do things that you have never heard about.

    Although the operating system in OS X is very similar to Linux (it is based on a BSD which is also an Unixoid like Linux) you was never forced to mount an USB device. On Linux you have to (unless your choice was a very userfriendly distribution like Ubuntu which always implemented an automatism for that) and some years ago you were forced to do that on the Command Line Interface (btw, on OS X it is called Terminal).

    Even Linux is not that elegant and smart as OS X, it sill remains more comfortable for a well-knowing user because of its incredible flexibility and possibilities of customization… and well, for sure, for its freedom. Freedom to use, to distribute, to manipulate, to choose.

    So keep it up and give it a try.

  9. +1 for Christian

    Linux (of which Ubuntu is merely the most refined flavor) is still intended for computer users who like getting their hands dirty. And it will probably stay this way for some time.

    Not to say that people with *no* knowledge of linux should stay away, but that any linux user must be prepared to dig around in the command line, and tweak configuration files. And regardless of one’s linux knowledge… be prepared to learn reams more.

    Linux is extremely powerful; and can be quite beautiful and polished (google Enlightenment, version 17). The rub is that the power and polish requires grit and a good degree of user knowledge.

    Thus, I am a huge fan of linux, in all its derivatives. But for daily computer use… linux was just too time intensive for my tastes.

  10. CLI = command-line interface, I’d say. And it’s true — using the command-line is not merely a fetish. For many tasks it’s a far better interface than, you know, mousin’ around.

    Christian: amarok or banshee are very capable music players, and liferea does the job for RSS. I use the command-line for ftp, but there’s several great GUI clients for Gnome and KDE. The absence of a Fireworks replacement definitely hurts — although I have to say that Fireworks on an Intel Mac is far worse than Fireworks over Wine right now.

    Quicksilver junkies might want to keep an eye on Katapult (http://wiki.thekatapult.org.uk/Home), which is still flying very low under the radar, but is surprisingly usable already.

  11. Partitioning seems to be the biggest hurdle for people building Linux installation routines. If you give the user no choice, and simply take over the entire drive, partitioning becomes invisible, but everything that’s already on the drive is lost.

    If the user wants to resize the drive, then the install routine needs to start asking qestions. I’ve installed a lot of Linux distributions. All of them hit a bump when they need to involve the user in partitioning, on Intel and Mac.

    I’ve got Ubuntu running on a Mini. When Apple stops updating OS X for this late-revision iMac G5, I’ll put Linux on it. (Assuming a distribution that works on this model becomes available, which is apparently not the case currently.)

  12. Dapper running on my old(er) Mac Powerbook G3 400 (6G HDD). I’ve got a lot of RAM (768M) in this litle guy, though.

    Such a (small) buzz, seeing a Mac running a non-Mac OS.

    Oh, all those free apps to download and install. And Ubuntu handles dependencies.

    Seems faster than OSX (10.2). Just wanted folks to know that you don’t necessarily need to look research Xubuntu or Kubuntu for older Macs…

    …and that anything Titanium is NOT OLD :):)

  13. Dapper running on my old(er) Mac Powerbook G3 400 (6G HDD). I’ve got a lot of RAM (768M) in this litle guy, though.

    Such a (small) buzz, seeing a Mac running a non-Mac OS.

    Oh, all those free apps to download and install. And Ubuntu handles dependencies.

    Seems faster than OSX (10.2). Just wanted folks to know that you don’t necessarily need to look research Xubuntu or Kubuntu for older Macs…

    …and that anything Titanium is NOT OLD :):)

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