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Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Thursday 27/10/2005It was an old computer, but perfectly workable — until the equally venerable hard disk fulfilled every critera of the cliché and literally ground to a screeching halt. I had a spare disk and no real reason to junk the computer — what better excuse to finally create that Linux box I've been promising myself?

Thursday 27/10/2005

It was an old computer, but perfectly workable — until the equally venerable hard disk fulfilled every critera of the cliché and literally ground to a screeching halt. I had a spare disk and no real reason to junk the computer — what better excuse to finally create that Linux box I've been promising myself? I know how to have a good time.

I fancied Ubuntu, having heard it praised for simplicity of installation, quality of support and ease of use. And silliness of names — what can be wrong with a distro called Breezy Badger? For most of the first half-hour, it went perfectly: a couple of incomprehensible questions about disk formats aside, it was hands-off.

While it worked, it was exemplary. But then I tried to tweak the audio to… well, make it work. It didn't want to.

The usual business of cutting error messages and pasting them into Google got me to the right forums quickly enough, but the quality of response wasn't all that it could be. One conversation on the same subject as my problem started with the user being told off for not being specific enough, and then — once he'd gone and dragged every bit of information into the forum — being told that his best bet was to go and look in some other forums for the answer.

There was also rather a lot of snobbery. Ubuntu was for n00bs, y'see, and thus demeaning to real Linux users. Sure, we weren't on the same level as those Neanderthal Windows lusers, but we couldn't be expected to actually understand too much. "I'd give Ubuntu to my granny," said one high priest of haughtiness, "as she doesn't need to really use a computer at all."

Poor Gran. While Ubuntu is very good, it's a long way away from being friendly enough for non-nerds. It's not just a matter of all that scary Terminator-style start-up scroll, which reads rather like those endless genealogies that pepper the Old Testament ("And gslib begat ACPI, which begat eth0…"), but what happens when you want to load some extra bits of software? One in particular coughed up half a screen about needing recompilation before it would talk to the kernel, which led to a fun twenty minutes of finding header files, magic commands, the appropriate version of the compiler and where in the world the Make command was hiding.

Make. I haven't touched Make since I laid down my sword, shield and binary debugger back in the last millennium. I don't believe my granny was much better — she was a fearsome seamstress, but her idea of multithreading involved sewing machines.

I certainly wouldn't feel happy about supporting this at a distance: I could set it up and let it go, but as soon something had to be changed or added the cold wind of fear would start creeping up the trouserleg of reality. The Linux jihad has to decide whether it's serious about creating the desktop for the rest of us — and if it does, it has to treat its target users as something other than clueless newbies who don't deserve anything other than compiler errors.