Is Ubuntu's Bleeding Edge Hurting Linux?

Tuesday Jan 3rd 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Problems occur with newer Linux enthusiasts who don't realize that installing the latest Linux release isn't always the best way forward.

Like most computer enthusiasts, I find myself seeking out Linux distributions that offer a bleeding edge experience. That said, I'm also careful not to place bleeding edge operating systems onto a desktop machine I rely on for daily use.

After all, why put my daily productivity at risk only to discover possible bugs with a cutting edge OS! Therefore, my bleeding edge Linux experiences tend to be used on my notebook only, thus leaving my desktop free of any surprises.

Unfortunately for many Linux enthusiasts, the above approach isn't always something that's considered. While we do see most IT pros choosing stability over a bleeding edge experience for the workplace, many people outside of the IT realm tend to install the latest Linux releases without a single thought as to stability.

This approach presents a problem, especially with newer Linux enthusiasts who don't realize that installing the latest Linux release isn't always the best way forward.

In this article, I'll explore the disconnect with newer users and distribution development teams. I’ll talk about why I feel both parties contribute to the ongoing confusion as to whether it's best to select stability over a bleeding edge Linux experience.

The end user to developer communication breakdown

It's not a secret to advanced Linux enthusiasts that running the latest release of their preferred distribution is likely going to lead to some bugs along the way. It's the nature of working the kinks out of new software.

Unfortunately, newer users are often under the impression that if a Linux distribution has come out of its beta stage, it's going to be perfectly stable to use. The fact of the matter is that this simply isn't always the case.

I don't believe there is any question that distribution development teams have done everything they can to handle software bugs. However, it's rare that they can get to all of them before the new version is released to the public. Expecting anything else is simply unrealistic. This is why many experienced Linux enthusiasts will opt for an older, more stable release of the same Linux distribution.

Now the problem with this is that most distribution maintainers do a lousy job at explaining the differences between stable vs non-stable releases, and when end users should update and when not to. The only distribution I've ever seen really make a concerted effort to keep people from updating their Linux distributions and software unnecessarily is Linux Mint. There may be others that do a fair job here as well, but none of them are using Ubuntu as a base distribution from which to build from (to my knowledge).

A logical solution to this problem is to make it clear on distribution download pages which releases are bleeding edge, then provide a link that explains how that affects stability, known bugs, etc. Taking this approach would not only prevent the ongoing misunderstandings on various Linux forums, it would also save time for everyone involved.

The attraction of bleeding edge software

So why do some Linux enthusiasts feel the need to jump onto the latest distribution releases in the first place? If you were to ask these users directly, they would say that they want access to the latest software releases available. And when using distributions such as Ubuntu, often you must run a newer release of the distribution in order to get the latest features available.

Let me say this again: Some Linux distributions rely on you upgrading everything to get access to the latest software. This is not to imply that this is the case with rolling releases or other Linux distributions that allow you to manually craft your own Linux experience.

Now in some instances, even with Ubuntu, a motivated enthusiast can get around the need to upgrade their distribution just to enjoy the latest software. Depending on the application in question, sometimes adding an Ubuntu PPA archive is enough to bring a target application to its more recent release. But when it comes to desktop environments, along with various frameworks like MLT, using a supported distribution release is often the best route to take.

If you're an advanced user, this would be a moot issue for you as you've likely customized your distribution to meet your specific needs. For other Linux users, however, this issue presents a bit of a paradox. This is especially true when the affected user finds there's a bug in the software that's resolved in a newer release of the same application.

Does that user chance an upgrade to the potentially less stable newer release of the Linux distribution? Perhaps instead, it's best to just wait awhile and make do with things as they are.

Bleeding edge software consequences and solutions

The answer to this problem is right there in front of us. We need to advocate heavy testing with Linux LiveCDs before actually installing the distribution.

I realize this sounds painfully obvious, however for countless users out there, the message isn't being conveyed effectively. Newer users need to do heavy testing with networking and resolution settings, among other common issues they might run into. Nothing frustrates me more than reading about a newer user who blindly upgraded to the next "big release," only to break their wireless connection or create an unstable desktop experience. This sort of nonsense is avoidable and we need to stop expecting people to just "know" this stuff.

New users aren't mind-readers and they certainly aren't going to spend weeks reading through random forum posts or poorly marked help pages before upgrading. It's time for distributions wanting a larger market share to step up to the plate and deal with this problem head on.

Do you think I'm overstating the issue? Fine, visit this Ubuntu download page and show me where any sort of warning or disclaimer is posted? The best we have is the offer of "long term support" without really explaining why this is important. While Ubuntu is certainly not the only distribution guilty of this lax effort on release details, they are the most popular.

Use a Wizard, Harry!

Why in the world isn't there a "Linux Release Wizard" posted on the download pages of popular Linux distros? I realize it might seem like a lot of work, but clearly, it's a needed feature.

The goal of such a wizard wouldn't be to help individuals select one distribution of Linux over another. No, instead the goal would be to help Linux users select the best currently supported release to best match their specific expectations.

Keep in mind that most new Linux users don't have the slightest idea which release of a Linux distribution is best matched for their needs. They do, however, have a firm grasp on how certain software titles are to be used in the first place.

Are any of these issues going to topple the current successes for Linux on the desktop? Of course not, as experienced Linux enthusiasts are already aware of the status quo in this space. But as new users find their way over to the Linux platform, some important decisions about disclaimers will have to be made. Because eventually it all comes down to what kind of reception we're interested in getting back from new Linux users.

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