Ubuntu can't cut geek support umbilical

Ubuntu can't cut geek support umbilical

Summary: Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala was officially released overnight and marked the eleventh release of the distribution. It's attractive, polished and measured, but fails "the grandma test".


Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala was officially released overnight and marked the eleventh release of the distribution. It's attractive, polished and measured, but fails "the grandma test".

When Ubuntu 9.04 arrived, ZDNet.com.au news editor Renai LeMay hailed it "as slick and beautiful as Mac OS X or Windows 7" and the distro has certainly not gone backwards since then.

In the following video is a CNET TV prizefight between Snow Leopard and Windows 7:

After watching this video, I believe that Ubuntu would be a contender if not the winner in this prizefight. It would certainly hold its own in interface stakes. Compiz (Ubuntu's enhanced graphical interface, which allows opaque windows) is the equal to Aero for Windows or Aqua for the Mac. In fact, making Compiz look and behave like either Aqua or Aero is a cinch. Ubuntu would hold its ground in stability too (it is a Linux distro after all) and would win in performance and compatibility — Ubuntu goes on hardware where Windows 7 and OS X fear to tread. It might suffer in unique features but would gain full points for value.

But if you follow the Ubuntu release trail, you are not going to be blown away by 9.10. It's a lot of 9.04 with another coat of varnish.

In a response to the photo gallery of Ubuntu 9.10 we did earlier in the week, one Twitter user wrote: "Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic Koala: 'Highlights ... include the addition of a new boot screen, an updated default theme...' Uhm, these are highlights?"

That is the reality of this release. It is not bursting with desktop transforming killer new features and applications, it's a release that has expanded to the cloud and the netbook, while focusing on fixing pain points for the desktop.

The One Hundred Paper Cuts project focused on "trivially fixable usability bugs that the average user would encounter on his/her first day of using a brand new installation", and although around only 50 bugs have been fixed, it does improve the desktop experience.

On the gloriously gushing side of improvements in this distribution is kernel mode-setting (KMS); if you have an Intel graphics chip then KMS is great. To have no more screen blinking on boot is fantastic, but this is how it should work. Non-Linux users though won't be converted with the "KMS means the boot to log-in to desktop sequence is seamless" argument.

When it comes to the new Ubuntu One service though, users of DropBox will feel that they have seen it all before; and at this time, they have a point. Beyond the integration with Tomboy, it behaves as a cloud storage service that is riddled with web server errors. The Ubuntu One site may say that it is beta — it is truly worthy of that status — but rolling it in with Ubuntu when it is clearly incomplete leaves a sour taste. Ubuntu One is not ready for prime-time and needs improvements now. To be fair I do expect that in the coming weeks it will come up to par.

However, the loop-jumping needed to set up synchronisation between Tomboy and Ubuntu One, getting contacts in Evolution, and synchronising Firefox bookmarks should not need tutorials that intense. Ubuntu controls the cloud service and the desktop clients, therefore it should be possible to have a Ubuntu One control panel with check-box selection to enable these services which would make it much easier for users.

Ubuntu One is but the first reason why I believe Ubuntu continues to fail the "my grandma can use Ubuntu" test. A lack of comprehensive testing of graphics drivers is another reason why grandma could not use Ubuntu without a Linux-using grandson on speed dial.

In the past week I've had the distinctly unpleasant experience of having to downgrade an Intel driver package. A Ubuntu 9.04 laptop had its Intel graphics drivers updated by Synaptic to a version that did not work with my laptop's chip — it simply made the screen black — no prompts, no errors, no feedback.

In this instance, downgrading the updated packages was all that was needed to fix the problems, but it highlights two cases of inadequate testing of critical parts of the distributions.

If Ubuntu truly wishes to take the Linux desktop to the masses, then it must be cautious in preserving the environment that it wishes for mainstream users to use. I'm certain that if I presented my Ubuntu laptop with an X server crashing to "technically-savvy" non-Ubuntu users, then they would have a hard time working out how to downgrade the driver, let alone the regular "ma and pa" users that Ubuntu wants.

Having the ability to revert the X server back to a VGA driver "safe mode" so that users could fix package errors in the familiar graphical environment would be preferential to having the X server spewing errors or simply making the screen black, forcing novice users onto the command line.

Until the computer shop down the road is able to fix these types of problems — which is unlikely — then grandma, mum, dad, and the entire family are still going to need to have a Ubuntu support umbilical cord to the nearest Linux guru.

Cut that umbilical cord and Ubuntu will be ready to go mainstream, and even though I think it could very well be better than Windows and OS X, the problems encountered when things go wrong still prevents Ubuntu from reaching its potential.

Topics: Open Source, Apple, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Windows


Chris started his journalistic adventure in 2006 as the Editor of Builder AU after originally joining CBS as a programmer. After a Canadian sojourn, he returned in 2011 as the Editor of TechRepublic Australia, and is now the Australian Editor of ZDNet.

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  • Oh really?

    If it's the grandma test we're going on, I doubt Windows 7 passes either. I had to physically remove 2GB of my RAM just to get it to install at all (on a brand new HP laptop), not something Mum is likely to do, let alone Grandma.
  • Grandma?

    Chris, I have been a computer technician and network engineer for a decade. I have set up countless Microsoft XP, Server 2000, Server 2003, etc... machines.

    I have been an Ubuntu Linux user for about three years and a technical journalist writing about Ubuntu Linux for about a eighteen months.

    Recently I helped setup a PC for my wife's grandma. There was absolutely no way that she could have done it herself. Installing all of the applications and getting them setup the way that she wanted, installing the "3" wireless modem would have been way out of her league.

    Her PC uses Windows XP. She still has no idea what "anti-virus" is or does.

    However, there's also no way that I would let her near a Linux PC without first having set it up for her first.

    Or an Apple Mac for that matter.

    In my opinion your point that Ubuntu Linux fails the "grandma" test is invaild. Can you imagine anyone's grandma using a PC without *some* assistance? Or without, at the very least, having asked someone for advice?

    it is not the fault of Ubuntu, or Microsoft or Apple that people still have to ask for computer advice in 2009. Computers are complex. There are many things that can go wrong with them. Many people, especially those who might be unfamiliar with them, *will* ask for advice and assistance.

    In my opinion, once Linux is correctly configured it is the *least* problematic operating system.

    Hamish Taylor
  • Grandpa

    I agree with the other commentators. My mother / in her late 70's had continual problems with Windows, etc. She clicked the wrong button, etc. Your Grandma test would fail with Windows, Mac, etc. Oh, and don't be a hater. Geeks are people too.
  • Load of crap...

    All supposed "grandma" and "average Joe" tests fail because it assumes any of them can actually install Windows, drivers, and applications on their own. Most people can't. There's a huge part of the PC industry that takes advantage of the fact that when some owners' computers start to act up, they buy a new computer. Nevermind it's a software problem or their computer may be infected. They go out to Best Buy and get a new machine. Many users also aren't even aware of anti-virus and internet security. I just had a friend get infected and my first question was "were you running some sort of internet security software?" His response was, "dude, I don't know. I had what it came with it when I bought it." The subscription had long ago lapsed.

    Anyone savvy enough to install Windows, drivers, and applications by themselves, and get it all setup in the control panel, and such, can install Linux. Most of them are smart enough to realize there is a support forum and you can go there to ask questions if you don't know. Simple enough. Ubuntu, Linux Mint, Mandriva, OpenSuse, PCLinuxOS are just a few that are easy enough to install by mere mortals. For complete newbie friendliness, I always recommend Mandriva or PCLinuxOS.
  • Explain "Source code" to grandma, please

    "Chris Duckett dispenses with "trends", "magic quadrants" and other salesbot speak to investigate what is really the foundation of IT: source code."

    Great! But has "Grandma" to do with it?

    Are you, just maybe, straying from your area of expertise, hmmm?
  • Mom prefers Ubuntu ; Grandson?

    My mom uses Ubuntu because Windows XP was just too hard for her. The Start Menu is very confusing. Why arrange by vendor? She now tells her friends about "this Linux thing" I put on her computer that made it faster and easier and *gasp* doesn't even get viruses!

    Also, just wondering, but why is this hypothetical grandma going to call her Linux-using grandson, not her Linux-using granddaughter? If my grandma decided to use a computer and had trouble, it'd be the Linux-using granddaughter (me) that she'd call, not my brother. Though having me out of the house has helped him improve his Google-Fu to fix his own system. Point is, is it that hard to say "grandchild" or, better yet, "family geek" (since this does NOT truly correspond to generation)?

    And why's it always grandma? What about grandpa?
  • All OSes fail the grandma test

    I agree with many other posters on this forum. All OSes fail the grandma test. The gulf between the technical knowledge of most grandmothers and the requirements to be able to install an use an operating is simply to large. All OS exhibit unusual problems at times and they are going to be problems beyond the knowledge and ability of a grandmother. Look around the forums in respect of Windows and you will regularly find that Windows fails the teenager test too (meaning that young, and highly technologcally literate people still have problems).
  • WIndows 7 passed the TROLL test

    Reading your article, WIndows 7 clearly passed the TROLL test. Good job, keep walking...

    Unless your 80year old granma can install windows, firewall, antivirus, antimalware, antispyware, drivers, antifragmentation, anti-everything,etc etc and format it after 2 months because of a virus and do it all over. Your grandma is phenomenal dude, I would like her hired in NASA!!!
  • Yup

    Oh c'mon people, how can you honestly think the Ubuntu is ready to be used for mainstream non-technical users over Windows or OSX? Sure the Grandma comparison might be a little far fetched, but my Dad sure could install Windows, and driver off a CD that came with a piece of hardware. But running ?Ubuntu (or other variations of Linux) is a whole different story. Just last week someone was installing Linux on a 2 year old desktop in my office, nothing special about what he was doing, simply tried to use in internet, needed flash, simple enough surely? Not quite, 15 mins later, still no flash, terminal windows running to try and figure out why dependencies aren't installing. This was just to install Flash, imagine if there was a problem with video card or network drivers. How can you average person fix those up?
  • The right tool for the job

    I've been building and configuring computers for friends, family and paying interlopers for eight years.

    In each individual case, I build and setup the right mix of hardware and software for the individual's needs. This is usually, but not always, some variant of Windows.

    I personally switched to Ubuntu this year and have had quite a smooth experience.

    Does that mean I've suddenly started putting Ubuntu on every system I setup? No. But I have been installing it on some. Having experienced it first-hand myself, I now know that qualifies as the right tool for the job for many people.

    In my opinion that's where all arguments of the 'could [X] do [Y] with [O/S]?' type go astray - no one seems to ask if [O/S] is the right tool to be doing [Y] by [X].

    For some friends on a budget who want to do their banking and make voip calls to overseas relatives, Ubuntu was absolutely the right tool for the job.

    For my mother who wants to run mailmerges & collaborate on .doc files with head office, Ubuntu is absolutely the wrong tool for the job.

    Unbuntu, or Linux, or Windows, or OSX, or the cloud etc, will never be the right tool for every person to do every job.

    If it works for you - cool. If not - choice is a good thing.
  • Ok, Dad can install Windows

    But will it be malware free in a month's time? I really doubt that. I need to de-infest parent's computer (running XP) quite regularly.
  • 'Zif geeks are people or girls!


    'nuff said.
  • Flash on Linux

    Ubuntu instructions for Karmic: installing Adobe Flash.

    1. Click the Applications menu, go to the bottom, click on Ubuntu Software Centre
    2. Search for Flash, and the 7th result is "Adobe Flash plugin"
    3. Click the arrow on the right hand side and click Install
    4. Type in your password (to enable installation).

    It's really that easy to install ANY software in Ubuntu Linux.

  • All OSs

    Having to use Windows at work, Mac OS at home, iPhones and Palm OS on the road and now Ubuntu (in a VM) I can only agree that none is foolproof or easy to use effectively all the time.

    It's a case of 'horses for courses'. Windows has the challenge of being expected to run on a broad range of hardware not under the software producers' control, so does Linux. Mac wins in terms of consistency: things tend to work well as software, hardware and even the external environment fits together. Windows 95 caused me to switch to Mac OS as the continuous cycle of reinstalling the OS led me to believe that there must be a better life! I had worked in (novice-user hostile) mainframe and super-mini environments that just kept on going so I knew it must be possible.

    Mac OS has also successfully put the user experience before that of an IT expert/department.

    I see many similarities between Ubuntu and Mac OS but the Mac OS is more user-focussed in some critical areas.

    Ultimately it is the application suite that does the real job for a user that governs the experience. Here Mac OS (and perhaps Ubuntu) are consistent and predictable, much more so that the less-prescriptive Windows environment. Less unpredictability = shorter learning cycle. Of course the OS must support such thinking and architecture.

    Grannies etc - all of us need some hints on how to get started, it then becomes a question about how much pleasure (or lack of pain) one experiences using the system.
  • wrt the grandma test- I beg to differ!

    I'd disagree with the author's claim- I think Ubuntu is almost as Grandma-friendly as Windows is. Not quite at the point of OS X or something like Mac OS 9, but not bad. I've come to that opinion from experience converting a handful of folks to Ubuntu- including my own grandma. I have a TON fewer support issues than I did when she was running 3.1, 95, 98, or XP. Same is true for the handful of computers running Ubuntu than my wife and I support for a local non-profit.

    Support has, so far, been like it is on a Mac- questions are usually someone wanting to do something new, or find a feature in OpenOffice- not the kind of problems we had all the time under Windows.

    In the case of most grandmas, they just want to do email and web browsing, deal with their finances online, create/view Office documents, maybe use Skype with a webcam.

    It's not going to be the best solution for resource-hungry gamers too clueless or lazy to learn about maintaining their own system, constantly adding new hardware and software all the time... but for most grandmas and regular users it passes the test.
  • Hmmm

    Yep, that sure is a LOT easier than just clicking on a 'get flash now' button when you can't play a flash video over at youtube etc isn't it.
  • Double Hmmm

    At least with the search-and-tick-the-box Ubuntu installation you don't get a dozen Vista User Access Control warnings and security alerts that have the potential to scare the pants off grandma.
  • Linux

    I am 58 years old and started using linux 8 weeks ago I now have 2 laptops dual booting with windows and linux. XP and Puppy on a 9 year old Toshiba and Vista and Ubuntu on my newer Dell. I am finding that I am using the linux OS,s in preference to windows and can not see a reason to pay close to $400 for windows 7. I worked it out and I sure more people as old as I am could and should.
  • Reply

    I can attest to the fact that Chris does have a grandmother.
  • Ubuntu worth the trouble

    Ubuntu has it's issues and setting up for the first time may not be easy for some, however, once it is set up correctly and fully, it leaves Windows for dead regarding, stability, speed, security, freedom and features. And don't forget the malware problems of Windows and a less than honest company creating most of it.
    Once you have the knowledge of setting up Linux such as Ubuntu, you will find setting up Windows painful and time consuming.