Monkey See, Monkey Do Well

GibbonLinux continues to evolve towards a desktop-ready operating system with the latest release of Ubuntu, Gutsy Gibbon [Ubuntu 7.10]. Installation, configuration, and pre-installed applications all demonstrate a stable, refined, mature product. The GUI feels like a Windows/MacOSX love child that should be familiar enough to both communities.There are some flaws, but overall this is a step forward for Linux-kind.

I installed the latest Ubuntu to host an Alfresco installation. Linux is usually fussy about laptops because of the custom hardware, so my Dell XPS laptop makes a good test platform. My previous Ubuntu install went well, s0 I hoped for a flawless upgrade. Unfortunately the installer tried to do everything at once, core operating system and all the packages I added over time; it failed on one of those additional packages and died gasping, “The installation may be broken.” No details on why or how it failed meant salvaging the installation could be an hours-long goose chase. Ouch!

The laptop used to be my remote-into-work-via-RDP machine via RDP, but the client moved to Citrix (bleh, but works fine on my Mac) and I moved on from the client. Since I don’t use Windows personally for anything but games, I decided to wipe the Windows partition and make a Linux-only box. The fresh installation was flawless, and I’m wondering if I may have caused the upgrade’s problems by doing unspeakable things to the Feisty Fawn previously installed. Maybe the next version, Hardy Heron, will do better with upgrades. Some naming scheme, eh? What’ll they call the version after that? I nominate Irascible Iguana!

What followed next is my inevitable colossal waste of time with a new Linux installation, choosing packages. This is a place where Ubuntu still feels too much like Linux: While the Synaptic Package Manager is a wonderful piece of software, the list of packages and how Ubuntu organizes them is totally overwhelming. I spend hours wandering through the not-so-obvious categorization scheme to select dozens of packages that will probably never see any CPU time ever.

Another traditional Linux pitfall, screen mode, killed more time. Even though there’s a pretty GUI utility for managing screen resolution and display characteristics, it sits atop the most complex and arcane piece of software known to man, XWindows. Whatever I did, the machine could no longer boot in graphics mode and got hung up in a bootstrap/reconfigure loop. Taking a page from Windows, the fastest way to fix this was reinstalling. The brighter side here is my greater restraint in package choice. That concluded the time of woes and everything was smooth sailing from then on.

The Ubuntu interface borrows from both Windows and MacOSX. The task bar along the bottom is very Windows and includes the ever-useful Minimize All Windows button. It also includes trashcan and virtual desktop icons. The menu bar along the top of the desktop is very MacOS. Pull-down menus work as expected with the much-needed improvement in keeping menus updated as packages come and go. Applets on the menu bar provide plenty of current-generation functionality, even a search tool like Apple’s Spotlight. Opening/resizing windows seem to respect the bars well, but that might just be because I haven’t resized or moved the bars themselves. The overall effect is a functional desktop that might not be as eye-candy lickable as MacOSX but is better than a vanilla XP installation.

For applications, we get all the usual (free) suspects to provide the core functionality people want in a computer: Web browsing, email, instant messaging, and office documents. The missing app here is an iTunes equivalent like Miro. This may be because Ubuntu only prepackages software with open source; not all free programs are open source of course. The best applications are the ones available for all platforms; Firefox is good whatever the platform for instance. The Linux-only apps aren’t as polished but do feel full-featured; these aren’t the buggy alpha/beta releases that populated distros even just a few years ago. There’s enough here to use Ubuntu as a primary/sole computer in a pinch thanks to a nice suite of apps.

Ubuntu can run on Macs–Intel and PowerPC. So is this really a Linux? Anyway, I installed the previous Ubuntu on my old PowerBook as a dual-boot system, and it worked flawlessly. Upgrading to Gutsy Gibbon created some graphics/screen problems though. Mac/PowerPC users might want to wait a few months before installing. Now that’s Leopard’s out, the PowerBook is back to being a pure Mac. I don’t think I’ll go back to dual booting now that I have a dedicated Ubuntu box. Dual boots made more sense when my primary box ran Windows (dark, dark days) and I couldn’t get a Unix fix just by clicking on Terminal.

This feels like the first Linux desktop that isn’t years behind the mainstream operating systems. It’s not quite Linux for the masses yet, but it should be accessible to power users, not just developers, since I never had to drop into a command line to install or configure the machine. The disk image Ubuntu provides will run full-featured off a CD-ROM, so it’s easy enough to try without risk.

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