Ubuntu can't cut geek support umbilical

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.