Mehbuntu

Farhad Manjoo has a pretty good column up at Slate.com on the advantages and disadvantages of Ubuntu, probably the most user-friendly flavor of the Open Source operating system Linux.

My little Eee PC has Ubuntu installed on it; this was my primary computer for the seven or so weeks I was in Italy last summer. On balance, I’d say it was a good experience, and whenever I have occasion to use the little notebook these days (usually when I’m giving a slideshow to one of my classes), it’s with a certain nostalgia and affection.

Hey! I feel like saying. Do you remember that time I was updating your software on battery power, and your power ran out, and your OpenOffice was more-or-less borked, but I figured out how to fix it by going in and removing the damaged files with the command line? Good times, eh? Remember that?

It doesn’t; it’s not a sentimental machine. But I remember, and I think it illustrates the best and worst things about Ubuntu. The Mac OS or Windows (in any iteration) may have various disdvantages, but they’re not very breakable. Linux is different. An unskilled user can easily destroy or damage essential parts of the software. In fact, this is rather likely, as Linux requires more tinkering by the user than proprietary operating systems.

On the other hand, there’s a huge community of extremely helpful Linux users online; pretty much every question you might have has been asked and answered on some Ubuntu forum somewhere. If not, you can ask it, with confidence that you’ll get some sort of civil and helpful answer. I never would have figured out how to repair the damage I’d done to my computer without the help of the Ubuntu forums. The patience, dedication and knowledge of the Open Source community is a tremendous resource.

And, if you go Open Source, you’ll need that resource. That’s the bottom line: most Open Source software just isn’t as user-friendly as its proprietary equivalent. It’s for people who like to pop the hood and tinker with the engine. That’s not usually me nor, I suspect, most computer-users, so I don’t expect any version of Linux to hit the big time especially soon.

About JE

James Enge is the author of the World-Fantasy-Award-nominated novel Blood of Ambrose (Pyr, April 2009). His latest book is The Wide World's End. His short fiction has appeared in Swords and Dark Magic (Harper Collins, 2010), Black Gate, the Stabby-Award-winning anthology Blackguards and elsewhere.
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7 Responses to Mehbuntu

  1. peadarog says:

    If you haven’t read Neal Stephenson’s “In the beginning was the command line” about the differences between all the major operating systems, I strongly urge you to make that change in your life… Otherwise, if in the likely case that I have plugged this to you forty times already, please extend your forbearance.

    Me, I’m on Fedora at the moment.

    • JE says:

      Prompted by your suggestion, I found it online and have been reading it.

      I was startled by one line in particular:

      “Back in the days of the command-line interface, users were all Morlocks…”

      • Anonymous says:

        “Back in the days of the command-line interface, users were all Morlocks…”

        Alcoholics? That makes sense. Knowledgeable of the arcane? Some. Looked upon with suspicion by much of the world? Without a doubt.

        Once upon a time I was a Unix sysadmin. I have Ubuntu on my laptop, which is my writing computer. The Vista it came with was useless without a hardware upgrade, and at the time I couldn’t downgrade to XP without paying, both of which rather defeat the purpose of a $400 computer. Ubuntu was quick and easy to install, and the price was right.

        But I am not a fan. It’s like when IBM added the sysadmin software to AIX. I’m sure it made life easier for sysadmins who didn’t learn their skills in a darkened room in a university basement, listening to music and taking occasional breaks to eat spicy food, but it just got in my way. If I bypassed it, records weren’t properly updated and everything fussed and refused to work properly. “User-friendly” means interfering. It’s like big government, and I’m a pseudo-libertarian kind of guy.

        And I find it particularly annoying when the user-friendliness of something doesn’t work properly. About a month after I installed Ubuntu, a new version was released. Upon installing it and the handful of extras I had been using, I discovered my dictionary in OpenOffice Writer wasn’t working. Many hours of reinstalling, double-checking check boxes, and web-site reading followed, but to no avail. To this day, I have a useless spellchecker on my writing machine. I, who used to hack standard utilities to meet my own requirements, have no spellchecker. I used to buy the source from a vendor so I could hack in my own security and make their authentication software work properly. No spellchecker.

        *And* I find OpenOffice Writer very uninviting to my eyes. I miss RoughDraft, the one word processor I really liked, but it doesn’t run properly under Windows emulators.

        My productivity has dropped significantly since I got the new laptop and switched to Ubuntu. When next I have the money, I’ll probably break down and buy a low-end iMac. I haven’t used a Mac since late-90s version of Mac OS, and I found its trumpeted user-friendliness less than neighborly, but at least I’ll be able to use Scrivener, which oh-so-many writers tell me I should do.

        Where was I? Oh yes, Morlock. I enjoy Morlock stories. When’s the next Black Gate due out?

        –Jeff Stehman

        • JE says:

          I had something like this upgrade-was-a-downgrade experience. After setting up a polytonic Greek keyboard for my Eee PC, which worked fine all summer, I came home, did a system upgrade… and, bang, no polytonic Greek anymore. Oy. A new upgrade will reportedly restore it soon (if it hasn’t already). But it has made me gun-shy about upgrading whenever prompted to do so.

          Re BG–they’ve got three Morlock stories in their inventory now, but I don’t know if any are slated for BG 13; the last I heard the next Morlock story due out is “Destroyer”, slated for issue 14.

      • peadarog says:

        Ha! I forgot about that 🙂

  2. Anonymous says:

    When Farhad Manjoo mentioned those “who consider text-input command line apps to be the zenith of computing,” my dark and shriveled heart threw off a tiny spark of joy. I guess that means, guilty as charged.

    –Jeff Stehman

    • JE says:

      I rarely ascend to the command-line without an Icarus-like sense of danger and exaltation. I’m sure that’s where the action is, computing-wise… and I’m pretty sure I don’t usually belong there.

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