Walt Mossberg on Ubuntu

This is not exactly new but Wall Street Journal’s influential columnist reviewed Ubuntu in a Personal Technology column last week. Regardless of what the review says (and it is not very harsh in assessing the weaknesses) this is another important milestone for open-source software, right up there with Dell’s decision to ship machines pre-loaded with Ubuntu out of the box. Mossberg after all has made a name in writing about technology for non-technophiles. So begins this particular review:

This column is written for mainstream, nontechie users of digital technology. […] So, I have steered away from recommending Linux, the free computer operating system that is the darling of many techies and IT managers, and a challenger to Microsoft’s dominant Windows and Apple’s resurgent Macintosh operating system, OS X.

Notwithstanding that caveat and inspired by his own readers to give Ubuntu a shot, Mossberg takes out a factory Dell machine loaded with Ubuntu for a spin.  Even this most user friendly version of the alternative OS is not enough to change his opinion:

My verdict: Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users. While Ubuntu looks a lot like Windows or Mac OS X, it is full of little complications and hassles that will quickly frustrate most people who just want to use their computers, not maintain or tweak them. 

For good reason, because the Dell laptop had significant problems including faulty/missing drivers. But in all fairness a laptop is also a more capricious device compared to a desktop unit. Internally Google has a Ubuntu variant dubbed “Goobuntu” but it is only intended for desktop machines. (Read: tech support will have no mercy for users who install it on a laptop and then show up at the door for trouble-shooting.) For example, one problem cited was lack of sensitivity control on the track pad. This is the same problem that confronted this blogger when he upgraded a Dell 710M to Vista. Without the specific device driver for the track-pad, Windows will assign it a generic trackpad driver which has no control over pressure sensitivity. That means any contact with the area, even so much as a thumb glancing the surface while typing away will be interpreted as a mouse click. End result of clicking on random buttons or having the cursor jump around while typing is extreme frustration. By contrast, the typical desktop set up would have an ordinary USB mouse and the generic driver will do just fine. At worst some of the fancy functionality such as wheel-scrolling will not work, but none of the downsides of phantom mouse clicks.

This was not the only device-compatibility issue. Apparently the machine also struggled with recognizing a digital camera and an iPod. (Sync never worked.) Device drivers are a tricky subject because their presence/absence often entrenches market share and enforces lock-in. It’s difficult for the vendor to justify investing in writing drivers for an operating system with small market share. That means it is up to volunteers, assuming the vendor made necessary documentation available, to enble support. As a result fewer devices work on Linux and *BSD variants, which reinforces the marginalization because rational buyers will take into account device availability when making their choice.

Other challenges Mossberg encountered had to do with half-baked software. For example, the built-in media player can handle MP3s but the codec is not present out of the box. This has long been cited as one of the caveat emptors in defining what is possible with Linux or OpenBSD.  It is always possible to say that X is possible in Linux because chances are there is some graduate student somewhere in the world who hacked together a piece of code that does X– approximately. (That stands in contrast to say what is possible in Windows being tied much closer to MSFT’s pace of innovation.)  Putting aside the question of quality, this means that what is “possible” vastly exceeds what is ready out of the box. The article also cites the lack of commercial DVD playing software– open source advocates would point to DeCSS and its manifold descendants but as with Ikea furniture, “some assembly required.”

Most surprising part is the cost difference: the same laptop installed with Vista costs only about $100 or 8% over the open-source variant. Long-term pricing trends were supposed to favor open-source.  There will be greater pressure to adopt free software as hardware prices drop, the argument runs, because the operating system and applications will become the lion’s share of the cost. 8% is hardly that and considering that Ubuntu can be installed dual-boot with Vista (or better yet inside a virtual machine using VMware or Virtual Server) the savings may not justify the productivity hit for many users.


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