Friday, February 15, 2008

Where is Ubuntu headed, and why are Linux users upset?

Seven years ago, I knew what every process running on my computer was. I could -- with confidence -- tell users exactly how to solve a problem which was occurring. That's not really true anymore. Ubuntu has great stuff like HAL and D-Bus, and there are a million processe whose names I am familiar with but which I am clueless on how to fix. Long-time Linux users (if you consider 10 years a long time ...) like myself find that the system has grown increasingly complex and more difficult to manage (WRT to desktops). Applications crash more often than they ever used to, and my AMD64 system suffers from strange things like closing the session sometimes when I close an Epiphany tab.

This post is not a rant on how great the good ole' days used to be, though. Instead, it's a look at where Linux (and Ubuntu) used to be and where it's headed. The changes that are happening upset a fair number of older users, but I think that even the ancient among us can respect what's being accomplished. All right! That's enough of my yacking. Let's get started.

The Desktop: The Ubuntu desktop is moving toward Deskbar and possibly Gimmie. I can say this about Deskbar without a doubt. New users can expect to press ALT-F3 and do just about anything with their computers. Combined with Trackerd for indexing files, this offers a very powerful interface. I no longer need the Dictionary applet, a bookmark button, a browser history button, the "Recent documents" menu entry, and several other things. In fact, virtually the entire Gnome menu can be replaced by Deskbar if the user knows about it. (To Apple users -- Yes, I know it operates like OSX.) Geeks seem to like the million applets on the panel thing, though, so ...

The file structure is changing, too. .config and .local mean that many config files which used to live in your base home directory will be migrating. Your files will be kept in pre-named folders. You won't even browse to them, because you'll be searching. Boy, is that one pissing some people off!

Video: Totem-GStreamer is the future. MPlayer, the player everyone used five years ago, will never reign on the Ubuntu desktop. The GStreamer0.10 plugin architecture allows for all those ugly things like Windows DLLs. Totem will be more integrated into every Gnome application.

Of course, every application is now looking for the videos in ~/Videos.

Music: Whether you use Banshee, Amarok or the default Rhythmbox, you'll have to admit that XMMS (and now Beep) is no longer the player everyone wants.

The name of the new game is music management. There are new players which organize your music and find metadata automatically, storing it in databases for future use.

That music should, of course, be in the ~/Music folder. :P

Heck, Rhythmbox will even rip and write CDs for you.

Photos: GThumb is out, and F-Spot is in. Who knows where your photos are (except that they're under ~/Photos). The application handles all that. The point is, though, that you don't need to know. You just tag. The app could throw them all into one folder and it wouldn't matter to the user.

Your screensaver uses your photos tagged with Favorite as a slideshow.

Bittorrent: The standard client is out and Transmission is in. Even geeks shouted "hurray" at that one. It's a BT management program, though.

Management. That's the word for today. The apps and the desktop are taking the power away from the user and managing things for them. That makes a lot of control-freak geeks pretty upset. We remember hand tweaking everything ourselves.

The Unix mantra of small, specific tools isn't heard any more. It's more and more difficult to get under the hood of the Ubuntu desktop.

What you have to ask yourself is, "Are cars better off with computer chips and fuel injection than they were with springs and two or four barrels like when I was young?"

Well, I'm out of time for this post.

Edit: First of all, thanks to everyone for commenting. This post was a quick one-off and may have given the impression that I'm unhappy with Ubuntu. I'm not particularly angry about the changes I talk about, but I notice people mentioning these points regularly.

To clear up the point about photo organization in F-Spot -- Photos are actually organized in a three-tier directory by date (~/Photos/YYYY/MM/DD) and any tag data you use can optionally be embedded into the files, so I don't think that migration issues should be big on the list of troubles.

About control of the system: Ubuntu is completely customizable. Just like Debian, I can add or subtract almost any part of the system I want, so the issue is not REALLY control. The problem for most geeks is that modern Linux distros seem more interested in the average user and making everything "just work" without much thought, I guess. Geeks feel disenfranchised from an OS they started. Geez, Gentoo is almost dead. What does THAT tell you about the state of Linux? (And, yes, I've used Gentoo and LFS before, but no, I didn't stick with them.)
Specifically to Bad Wombat -- I'm not really that upset about where Ubuntu is going. I like F-Spot and Rhythmbox and Deskbar. I use them every day. I keep my files in the XDM locations. I think the "improved gas mileage" of the modern desktop with its fuel injectors is probably a good thing. It's just a lot different than what we grew up with. The problem isn't with HAL and D-Bus spcificlly: I was just pointing to the added complexity of the desktop.

Finally, about the Digg problem -- Hmm The individual pages work well and I'll look into it. No one has Dugg me in months.


  1. matter how secure your operating system is, the weak link is the user. And today a typical user has exactly zero knowledge on how his or her system operates, what its vulnerabilities are or how to properly secure it. And as soon as you tell people that they have to RTFM, they tell you that 'they want a system they can use without having to study it', that's definitely the most ridiculous argument I've ever heard. Ubuntu is keeping people ignorant by hiding vital system components behind wizards and automated configurations and worst of all: behind the one-size-fits-all principle. Newsflash: one size doesn't fit all. Every system is different and requires unique configuration by the user which unfortunately doesn't want to know how to do that configuration properly.

    I'm sure its easy in the short term, but it sure gives a lot of unnecessary problems later on.

  2. I totally agree, and I think I'm one of this "geeks" that are pissed off. I have two computers, one desktop (shared with other people) and the other's a laptop (personal computer), both were running Ubuntu. I was an happy Ubunteros up to 6.06 LTS. The "management mantra" started with 6.10 IMHO, and it just got worse since.
    You know what ? It came a point where I was so pissed that I just decided to return to the roots.
    I'm running Debian Sid on my laptop since last summer. Depending on the Gutsy outcome, that desktop may turn into a shiny Debian Lenny...

  3. It is BAD that an app like F-Spot relies so exclusively on a database to organize photos, and that users then use this to, as you suggest, just dump all their photos into the ~/Photos folder. Why? Many reasons. One, is that, should you decide to change photo apps, your organization is completely keyed to that app and your whole organization structure is lost if that new app can't import the database. You are left with a huge jumble of thousands of completely unorganized files.

    It is so easy to make a logical directory structure for photos based an date or subject or project etc. and to place photos in these folders. And this process probably takes just as little time, or less, than importing a batch of photos and then having to tag and categorize them. Using a formal directory structure, you can use whatever photo organizing or editing app you want and not really worry about the database so much. In this way, an app like gThumb or ACDSee that EASILY browses your existing directory structure is much preferable. There is no reason why a photo organizer program like F-Spot shouldn't be able to browse a directory and display thumbnails quickly, but F-Spot can't do that and forces you to 'import' the photos before you can even browse them. This SUCKS.

    People are typically going to acquire TENS of thousands of digital photos over the course of their lives. I already have approx. 20,000 images. I've already migrated from Windows and ACDSee to Picasa to F-Spot etc. and no doubt there will be some better photo app next year. F-Spot has a lot more features and is prettier that gThumb but I'll stick with the latter and dispense with the whole 'import to database' nonsense.

    An MP3 file contains all the tags it needs to be recognized for what it is. It can be exchanged, dragged to an MP3 player or another computer and quickly organized. A jpg file probably needs to act like this and be able to store tags and quickly be recognized by whatever app gets ahold of it and whatever device it is dragged to. Having this crucial identifying information as part of a huge separate and app-dependent database is simply a bad model and developers seem weirdly oblivious to this.

    I'll stick with gThumb and the like until this gets sorted out.

  4. I had my first experience of UNIX with FreeBSD 2.2.1 around 10 years ago. I have switched to Linux around Red Hat 5.0. I have used more or less every major distro out there and then some for at least a few months. I have built LFS system on my home computer. I make living as a UNIX system administrator. I think this makes me qualified to make a couple points about your post.

    1. Yes, users like it when programs manage stuff for them, but nobody sticks f-spot or totem down your throat. Use mplayer, xine or vlc, gthumb, picasa or good old xv. Yes, by default applications expect video in ~/Video and pictures in ~/Photo. Open gconf editor and change those locations to whatever you want. After all, you said that you have 10 years of linux experience, which means you are used to writing monitor mode lines and .fvwmrc by hand. And you are complaining about making a few clicks to customize your environment? You are a geek, you are IN CONTROL!!!

    2. ... or are you? Back in the good old times, desktop meant you had programs in windows. Moder desktop user expects much more from his/her system. Centralized clipboard with object support, unified interface, device state change notifications, global searching ability etc. This requires additional services to run under the hood to provide all this functionality. What exactly is wrong with that? And after all, HAL and D-Bus are really very simple programs. HAL passes hardware related information from kernel to user-space and D-Bus passes messages between processes using published interfaces. HAL uses D-Bus to pass hardware info around. All you have to do is type HAL and D-Bus into Wikipedia and it will give you a nice and reasonable explanation. And this is from a person who configured XFree86 and dial-up PPP 10 years ago using nothing but man pages and a clue stick?

  5. Oh, and about the car question, yes, the cars are better. They use less gas, produce less pollution, provide more safety in case of an accident, able to run faster with more control, require less maintenance and it is much easier to learn to drive.

  6. Good post.

    I wanted to digg it but the digg links on the front page are broken... they all lead to a post about Anti Virus.

    I'll subscribe to the RSS feed anyway

  7. Yes, I agree, the user is the weak point. The problem is, no matter what you do, a typical user will NOT learn how his computer works. Much less learn how to properly secure and administer his/her system. And if you think that by making operating systems more difficult and low-level you can make people learn about computers you are wrong. People will just use other operating systems. Ubuntu, as a distribution, from the start was geared to casual computer users. it doesn't stop you from tinkering the hell out of it, but it provides working defaults for people who do not want to learn to hack. I will not discuss just how good or bad these defaults are, I will just say that Ubuntu's target user expects these defaults to be there. That was one of the goals of the Ubuntu project, otherwise we could have stayed with Debian. As for security, as I said, educating users is an exercise in futility, the only thing that can be done is a system by default protected against regular grade stupidity, i.e. user should not be able to break his/her system by casual usage. I think Ubuntu makes reasonable effort in that directions. I guess we will see how well AppArmor works in the next release. Then again, if you do not like all the "in your face" preconfigured defaults, you can use a different distro, such as Debian, Arch Linux or (I cannot believe I am saying this) Gentoo.

  8. Dad Wombat,

    I'm not sure if you and I are shooting past each other's bows without reason. If you look at my old posts, you'll see that I've been with Ubuntu since the first release, having come from Debian, and that I strongly support new users using the default applications instead of immediately trying to change the whole system. I've railed on the "First ten apps to install after you get Ubuntu"-style articles.

    Ubuntu has its niche, and it's a good one. I believe that they can, and am constantly pushing them to, make the initial setup even easier to use and more secure for the average user out of the box. I believe that /home should be on a separate partition marked noexec by default. There are several glaring usability bugs (try yanking out a USB key and trying to follow the directions the warning gives) which I have filed as bugs and annoyed developers with.

    The point of the quick post I made was to really make clear where Ubuntu is going. I think it's the right direction for Ubuntu, and geeks who desire more control can always go to Debian, Fedora, or ... gasp ... even Gentoo if it's still alive in a year.

  9. Gentoo is far from dead (yes there was a state government mess up).
    Also try archlinux.

    Ubuntu is more about new users to Linux and those that don't want to know what is happening.

  10. A new users perspective(approx 1 year in).

    ahhh would I be a bad person if my first act with gusty was to delete the /video and those other folders ;)

    Wondered what they were for - just freaked me out...

    horrible echoes of My Documents My Pictures etc..

    Oh and F-Spot and its import idea, year folders and the db, is just nasty - you are just setting yourself up for a fall.

    I don't agree that the trade off with ease of use is as you portray it.

    The ease of use helps ppl transition from the other OS but overtime you can dig in and learn how things work.

    I remember the "Stranger In a Strange Land" feeling that you get at first and Ubuntu was a deliberate choice because of the easy of use and the huge and polite support forums (oh and lets not forget the brilliant apt package management).

    The ease of use lets you gain your "sea legs" while still doing your day to day computer stuff, then incrementally you absorb the Linux way of doing stuff.

    Ubuntu was also my choice because we "do the right thing" not the most expedient *cough*Novell*cough*.

    That said ease of use is not the same as dumbing down...

    I now use PCMan and love it.

    We may just have different personalities as I have an active dislike of Deskbar as I believe it is overcomplicated and just a clunky way to get thing done.

    I had high hopes for tracker but the ui is a dog - uninstalled it and now using Google...

    Maybe in Hardy?

  11. @ bad wombat

    HAL and D-Bus are crap.

    > "user should not be able to break his/her system by casual usage. I think Ubuntu makes reasonable effort in that directions"

    It's Ubuntu itself which breaks the system! It is common to see updates breaking the system, not fixed and abandoned bugs etc...

    Really Ubuntu has become anything except a good distribution... :-(

  12. Quote:"HAL and D-Bus are crap."

    Nice to see a reasoned agreement backed up by facts....

    Quote: "It's Ubuntu itself which breaks the system!"

    No system issues for me...

    I have had a prob with a flash upgrade - fixed via forums and an issue with the splash screen with a new 226bw samsung - worked around - no show stoppers...

    I have been very happy with Ubuntu's stability.

    Again what; where; when...

    I may as well just say "YOU FAIL AT INTERNET!"

  13. LOL. I think this issue is going to provide the equivalent of the "best text editor" and "best language" flame wars for the next few years :D

    Ubuntu is changing the linux landscape for desktops and newbies, which means you pay a price in simplicity and security. There's no way around that and there never will be. Ubuntu is great (I would say "best") for gently switching grandma to open-source, but it has no particular value-add over less friendly distros for servers or high-risk, high-availability, or exotic-use conditions. E.g. Gentoo sucks for grandma's youtube surfing because you spend all your time compiling, but it totally rocks for an optimized server farm. Which is "better" depends what you're trying to do.

    Heck, the way some of y'all feel about Ubuntu today is how I felt about RedHat back in, what, 1998 or thereabouts? "Holy cow, what an easy install! Hey wait, now there's too much going on! It's trying so hard to be helpful that it's getting in my way! What the hell is that process doing!? I didn't start that process!! I didn't tell you to rotate my log files!"

    I think it's encouraging to see linux distros having the kind of problems that you get when you make it so grandma can use it! It certainly took long enough...


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