Free Agent: Ubuntu Linux, Free and Fabulous
At a Glance
I'm going to just come right out and say it: I absolutely adore Ubuntu Linux 5.04 (the "Hoary Hedgehog" release, often referred to as "Hoary"). I'm now running Ubuntu on both my laptop and my desktop PCs, and I don't think I've ever been such a happy Linux user.
There's so much to like about Ubuntu, it's hard to know where to begin. Before I even get to the product itself, Ubuntu's genesis is worth a note. Work on the distribution is funded by Canonical, a company set up by South African gazillionaire Mark Shuttleworth. Perhaps you've heard of him: He cashed out big-time when he sold his security firm, Thawte, to VeriSign, and later became the second fabulously rich guy to literally buy his way into orbit. Now he's putting his money behind Linux with an eye toward increasing the flow of Free Software to all corners of the planet.
And I do mean all corners of the planet: Ubuntu's Philosophy page lists this goal: "Every computer user should be able to use their software in the language of their choice." Couple that with other ideals like "Every computer user should be given every opportunity to use software, even if they work under a disability," and "Every computer user should have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, share, change and improve their software for any purpose, without paying licensing fees," and you see very quickly that the folks behind Ubuntu are interested in something more than selling you a box with some discs in it. In fact, Canonical will send you an Ubuntu disc in the mail, completely free of charge, if you'd prefer not to download the distribution yourself.
What You Get For Free
Ubuntu's installer is not going to win any beauty contests: It runs in text mode and completely ignores your mouse. It is also not the "fire it up and watch it go" experience you get with newbie-friendly commercial Linux distributions such as Xandros or Linspire.
I've been through several Ubuntu installations now, and find that I usually have to answer somewhere around a dozen questions before the installer kicks into autopilot and does its thing. None of these are the sort of questions that used to make Linux installs a nightmare: You won't need to know the timings of your video card, for instance. If you're setting up a dual-booting machine, you will need some basic knowledge of partitioning, and Ubuntu can help you shrink a Windows partition to make room on your drive. Once the installer is finished interacting with you, it starts copying files to disk, rebooting once in the process. Then you'll see your new Ubuntu log-in screen.
Once you log in, you're presented with a very clean Gnome 2.10 desktop. By default, all system icons like Computer and Home live in a Places menu at the top of the screen, leaving the desktop itself empty. Even the Trash is not on the desktop--instead it's an applet on the Gnome panel. I think this approach is mindful of the way most users use their desktop: as a place to stash work-in-progress. It's wise, then, to clear the desktop so the only items on it are files and folders that users put there.
Ubuntu's Applications menu (Windows users, think "Start menu") is very well organized--which is good, because there's no built-in way to edit the menu. This turns out to be a limitation of Gnome 2.10, and a lot of users aren't happy about it. I don't understand the gripes myself, but that's because I always put launcher buttons for the apps I use most frequently right onto my panel. If you prefer to launch your apps by pulling down a menu and looking through submenus, do yourself a favor and download the nascent Menu Editor application, which lets you set things up just the way you like.
An Entire World of Free Software
Ubuntu is based on Debian, the grandpappy of noncommercial Linuxes, and thus inherits Debian's best-of-breed package management system, Apt. You can deal with Apt via the command line or the powerful point-and-click Synaptic interface. The amount of software available is staggering. We're talking about more than 16,000 different packages, once you've enabled all the official repositories. Granted, a lot of these packages are extremely esoteric; for example, I was thrilled to find the latest version of Trn, a venerable Usenet reader that Perl creator Larry Wall first brought to life more than two decades ago. Others are simply fantastic apps that are not installed by default. If you're a software junkie, you'll have a blast browsing through the listings in Synaptic and trying out apps left and right. To access these goodies, follow the instructions at Ubuntuguide.org for adding the "universe" and "multiverse" repositories to your Apt setup.
If you like, this is the time to pull down several non-Free packages that may make your computing life better. "Non-Free" doesn't mean you have to pay for them; it just means that they do not meet the requirements to be classified as Free Software. You'll likely want DVD and MP3 support, drivers for the 3D side of your ATI or Nvidia video card, and Flash and Java plug-ins for your Web-surfing pleasure. You can also download support for Windows Media, RealNetworks, and QuickTime video formats, and even set up a package called Mozplugger that lets you play these video formats right in your browser, just like all your Windows and Mac-using friends do. We Linux users don't have to take a back seat in these matters anymore!
I recently reviewed Linspire Five-0, after which Linspire founder Michael Robertson wrote in, pointing me to Linspire's file compatibility page, and challenging me to find another version of Linux that can interact with all the formats linked to on that page. Robertson's point is well taken: To my knowledge, his is the only Linux distribution that speaks all those tongues right out of the box. But with an hour's work with Apt on an Ubuntu system, you can match Linspire's wide-ranging file type support--and you won't be stuck on a costly upgrade treadmill, either. In fact, when the next Ubuntu release ("Breezy Badger") comes out in six months' time, upgrading to it should be as painless as feeding new repositories to Apt and then typing sudo apt-get dist-upgrade in a terminal window. The system will then upgrade itself over the Internet. I can't wait.
You Know What They Say About Every Rose...
It's hard to come up with a list of gripes about Hoary. The annoyances are mostly minor--there's no pretty startup screen at boot time, for instance. The only glaring blemish is an unfortunate decision to change the default behavior of Nautilus, the Gnome file manager.
I've mentioned several times in this space that beginning with Gnome 2.6, Nautilus has had two modes of operation. One, the "File Browser" mode, is like Windows Explorer, with a two-pane display (folder tree on the left, folder contents on the right). Then there's the "Spatial" mode, which is what you get when you double-click a folder on your desktop. In Spatial mode, Nautilus behaves very much like the Finder in older versions of the Mac OS: A new window opens for every folder you access.
A lot of people think that this is a bogus way to operate. Just one of their complaints is that if you're drilling down to a buried subfolder, you end up with a screen full of windows in no time at all. Never mind the fact there's an easy way around this (the double-middle-click); Mark Shuttleworth decided, apparently by fiat, that there's a better way, and he had his coders implement it right before the Hoary release: Double-clicking a folder in Ubuntu not only opens the new folder, but also closes the previous folder window.
That does solve the glut-of-folder-windows problem, but there are a lot of reasons to dislike this new behavior. Just one example: Imagine you're navigating to a folder four levels deep in order to grab a file there and move it up to a folder only one level deep. When you arrive at your destination and find your file, its new home has disappeared; it got closed as you clicked your way down through your folders. Yes, in "Ubuntu Spatial" mode, a double-middle-click gives you what a double-click used to: It will open a new folder without killing the previous folder window.
I'm so used to the "normal" Spatial mode that I've re-enabled it on my Ubuntu machines. That's relatively easy to do via a hack in GConf (Gnome's somewhat Registry-like settings storehouse)--but before making such a big change in Nautilus, the Ubuntu gang should have provided a simple toggle for this new behavior in Nautilus's Preferences dialog.
Ubuntu Spatial mode is the only serious bummer I've found in Hoary. In all other respects, I've now got two Linux machines that are purring along and doing exactly what they should without throwing me any curveballs. Everything just works, and that's the way I like it. My hat is off to the Ubuntu folks, not only for the fine work they've done but for the way they offer it--Freely--to the world.
If you'd like to give Ubuntu a test drive before you install it, you can download a "Live CD" version. This is a self-booting CD-based version of Hoary that should give you a pretty good idea of what you'll end up with if you go ahead with a full installation. If you decide to bring the Hoary Hedgehog into your life, drop me a line and let me know what you think.
I'll be back next month with a look at some of the amazing (and amazingly friendly) applications I've discovered in the Ubuntu repositories--applications that will, of course, work on whatever Linux distro works best for you. Until then, be as Free as you can.