Is Ubuntu Shutting Out Old PCs?

Monday Oct 8th 2012 by Matt Hartley

While understandable, Ubuntu’s focus on newer hardware has a distinct downside.

Looking back at the progress of Ubuntu over the years, including the various off-shoot distributions based on it, I cannot help but be amazed. I find myself amazed at the improvements made to the desktop, both in usability and new features.

But sadly, some of these improvements mean that slower performing PCs will be left out in the cold.

In this article, I’ll discuss what Ubuntu is doing to make using the Unity desktop more difficult for older PCs, examine whether or not this matters and talk about options are for all of us going forward.

Death to the LiveCD

A compelling fact about Ubuntu is that it’s part a class of Linux distros that used a LiveCD to try out the distribution before installing it. This made the distro bootable from most CD drives, so even older computers could enjoy the benefits that Ubuntu brought to the end user.

However, with Ubuntu's 12.10 release this is changing. While you can still find ISO images that will allow you to boot to Ubuntu, they will only be usable on DVDs and USB flash drives. This means PCs that predate this kind of DVD/USB booting functionality are simply out of luck with future releases of Ubuntu.

To make matters even worse, Ubuntu has also done away with the alternative CD. This means that not only are users unable to boot into the Live Ubuntu CD anymore, they won't even be able to install the OS using the solid dependability of the alternate CD installation.

Seems to me the message is clear – Ubuntu is targeting newer hardware only. Anyone with older equipment has to look elsewhere.

Goodbye Unity 2D

Another feature that Ubuntu has done away with is Unity 2D. Unlike the issue above, however, this affects even newer lower powered hardware.

Netbooks, for example, are just one type of hardware that will be paying a price for this decision. Certainly I understand the desire by the Ubuntu development team to laser focus their efforts. But dumping Unity 2-D was the last straw for anyone hoping that – perhaps – a work-a-round for low-resource computers would still be possible.

By limiting anyone who wants to try Ubuntu to Unity 3D, Canonical is being painfully shortsighted. Once again, we have an unfortunate attempt at streamlining the development process that leaves users high and dry.

What's truly sad is that there will be Ubuntu users who will only discover this when they try to update their systems.

Amazon inclusion in Unity

I covered my feelings about this in a article about Ubuntu and Amazon search. But it's worth mentioning that the desire to add-in Amazon search results signals to me that, clearly, Ubuntu is seeking additional revenue.

Realizing this, wouldn't it also make sense to try and find different ways to make Unity and Ubuntu accessible to as many people as possible? After all, that's more people using Amazon!

It seems to me that maybe the problem is a matter of available resources for Ubuntu's development team. Should we be concerned? Is this intense focus on affiliate linking and dumping (key) features from the distribution indicate signs of upcoming downsizing at the Canonical level? I highly doubt it, considering various recent successes and the growing adoption of Ubuntu in general.

Still, one must ask themselves...what is the deal with Canonical making Ubuntu dramatically less accessible to everyone?

After doing some research and considering the various trends I see happening with Ubuntu, I have come up with some thoughts on where Canonical is hoping to take Ubuntu in the future.

Canonical wants mass adoption

While there may be some exceptions, I believe that Canonical is aiming its sights directly on new OEM partners. With agreements with the likes of Dell, among others, it's clear that new computers are Canonical’s focus with Ubuntu.

And to be fair, alternative desktop releases such as Xubuntu and Lubuntu do offer users alternative, lightweight desktop options should using Unity not be an option.

But considering neither of these desktop environments are "officially" supported, it does lend itself to future problems. Since Ubuntu is not something I can recommend to users of older machines any longer, I might be more inclined to point users of older PCs to one of the lightweight desktop solutions above.

Unfortunately, though, this means support isn't going to be available from as many sources, since Canonical is aiming to support Ubuntu proper, not derivatives. So schools and non-profits will need to make sure their hardware is powerful enough for Ubuntu 12.10 and beyond.

Which leaves me wondering – is this approach genuinely the best one for mass adoption? Perhaps it is, but will the pain be worth it in the beginning?

Walking a fine line

As things stand today, I believe that Canonical is walking a very fine line between providing a stellar Linux experience and creating a lot of animosity with their existing user base.

It does appear, in fairness, that the changes Canonical is pushing through will end up being positive ones as time progresses and they become more stable. But the company’s approach leaves something to be desired.

It grows tiresome watching them "suddenly" remove features and functionality that could – potentially – mean users will have to abandon the Unity desktop. That’s an ironic approach considering the definition of the word unity.

My hope is that, somehow, some way, Ubuntu can continue to evolve without putting older PCs out to pasture. And should anyone from the Ubuntu development team happen to be reading this, I have a few suggestions that might help make things go a little smoother for everyone.

Idea #1 – Hardware testing. Not a concept that is all that difficult, when you're merely looking at graphic/CPU/RAM resources. Should very generic tests run with the live install indicate lower resources, why not suggest a little apt-get magic to install a lightweight desktop?

This way, the Ubuntu development team will come away looking awesome and forward thinking.

Idea #2 – Mention somewhere on your website that if your PC is older than 7 years old, installation may not be possible. Another option is to present details on how older systems with adequate resources can still install via netboot.

Expecting newbies to just "know" to search through tons of documentation is seriously flawed. Despite it being the least newbie-friendly method available for an installation, at least it's feasible for IT staff working with older hardware. All it would take is a link on the download page, with a two sentence explanation. Surely, this is reasonable?

Should Canonical show some wisdom here and actually consider the two ideas above, they would avoid TONS of future forum complaints and frustration. Even if it's more of a hassle in the beginning for development, it would work in Ubuntu's favor in the long term.

Anyone who really thinks about it will surely come to the same conclusion that I have – Canonical needs to keep Ubuntu accessible with useful information, not assumptions that users will "eventually figure out" why something is problematic.

My hope for Ubuntu's future

Overall, I've really enjoyed Ubuntu 12.04. And with the recent bug fixes made to Ubuntu 12.10 beta to address some performance issues in Unity, I suspect that 12.10 is also shaping up to be a decent release as well. I continue to have high hopes for Ubuntu and want very much to see the distribution and Canonical be successful in getting Linux installed on as many PCs as possible.

Should the Ubuntu development team disregard concerns from the community, it will hinder adoption with those who hope to use Ubuntu on older hardware. And in some instances, I suspect we will see some existing Ubuntu users looking to lightweight desktop environments in place of Unity.

They would do this not because they dislike Unity, rather because Unity has been removed as an option from them.

Others still, may find themselves throwing in the towel and simply opting to upgrade their hardware. I have no issue with this, as I've done this myself in the past.

But I maintain that the only time one should be forced to upgrade their hardware to run Linux is if they need more horsepower for an intensive application or because something broke in the PC. Expecting users to upgrade merely to keep pace with the Unity desktop environment, however, is a genuine travesty in my humble opinion.

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