Divining from the Entrails of Ubuntu's Gutsy Gibbon

Thursday Sep 20th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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A look inside the pre-release of Ubuntu 7.10 reveals a disturbing tendency toward "Windows thinking." When compared with Debian, this new release has some noticeable shortcomings.

According to the 2007 DesktopLinux.com survey, Ubuntu is the distribution of choice for 30% of GNU/Linux users. The exact figure is questionable, but Ubuntu's dominance is not. For an increasing number of people, Ubuntu is GNU/Linux. Yet, looking at the pre-releases of Gutsy Gibbon, Ubuntu 7.10, I found myself becoming disturbed by the degree to which this popularity has translated into uncritical acceptance.

Make no mistake -- due to the energy that the Ubuntu community and Canonical, its corporate arm, have put into improving the desktop, this popularity is well-deserved. Yet, at the same time, I find myself wondering whether user-friendliness must inevitably mean discouraging users from exploring their systems or taking firm control over them. This question keep nagging me each time I installed, went through the selection of preloaded software, explored the desktop, installed new software, or examined security. Only once or twice did I find a balance between accessibility to newcomers and a feature set for advanced users. At times, too, I wondered whether the popularity might be preventing Ubuntu from finishing some rough edges.

Installation

Many releases ago, Ubuntu settled on installation from a Live CD. To begin the installation, you boot your computer with the CD in the drive, then click an icon to add Ubuntu to your hard drive.

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Little has changed in the Gutsy Gibbon release. The installer opens with a warning that you are using a pre-release version that installation of might mean over-writing existing files, then leads you through an eight-step wizard.

To its credit, the installer makes adding an operating system to your hard drive as easy as it can probably be. However, while even novices are unlikely to have much trouble if they accept the defaults, straying beyond them is difficult. For instance, in the keyboard selection step, the only way to know the differences between two U.S. English International layouts or the classical, left hand, or right hand versions of the Dvorak keyboard is to know them beforehand, to research them on another computer, or to try each systematically in the field provided for the purpose.

Similarly, at the partitioner, if you choose the Guided option, you quickly discover that it's a misnomer. "Guided" really means automatic, and gives you no choice whatsoever. I can't help comparing this lack of choice unfavorably to Debian 4.0's presentation of different partitioning schemes that you can either accept or modify as you want.

The installer does a better job with Advanced options on the final screen, tucking away controls for choosing where to install the bootloader or participate in the package Popularity Contest a button-click away from the top level screen.

Yet, for all its convenience, what most characterizes the Ubuntu installer is the lack of choice it presents. Users cannot even choose the initial software to install. This lack is not only frustrating, but violates a main principle of security. After all, you can hardly secure a system if you do not know what is going on it.

Bootup and Desktop

Like the installer, the desktop in Gutsy Gibbon has changed only in minor ways from earlier versions of Ubuntu. And, in many ways, that's not a bad thing, because Ubuntu's default GNOME desktop has always been well-organized. Its menu avoids overwhelming users with choices, and its organization of panel applets or logout options into several categories helps you locate what you need more easily. Sensibly, too, Ubuntu continues to offer only two virtual workspaces instead of GNOME's usual four -- enough to make users aware of the possibility of multiple desktops on the same monitor, but not enough to drag down performance on older machines. Unless you are lucky enough to benefit from some of the extra free or proprietary drivers included in the latest version, you'll probably notice few changes in general appearance and functionality.

Yet despite the thoughtfulness that shows in the basic Ubuntu desktop, it also contains what might be considered over-simplifications. By default, the GRUB menu does not appear, so users might easily miss the availability of a recover mode or memory test of an initial option. Nor do users have an option to display boot messages, although of course they can review the log file later.

In addition, rough edges remain along with the highly polished ones. Although Ubuntu is well-supplied with fonts to display international languages, the quality of fonts for Western European languages remains limited. The default terminal font displays jaggedly at higher resolutions. For desktop use the most convenient is the Bitstream Vera family, which in other company would be mediocre. Other free fonts, such as Linux Libertine, Fedora's Liberation fonts, or other of the SIL International fonts besides Gentium would give users a much better-rounded selection.

Next page: Software selection and installation

Ubuntu also seems to have taken an idea from SymphonyOS, and placed key icons such as the logout, trash, main menu, and Show Desktop at the four corners of the desktop. Unfortunately, at high resolution, these icons are so small that they are easy to overlook, which defeats the effort to make better use of the corners of the screen.

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Several years ago, Ubuntu made a promising start on its desktop. However, further evolution is either slow or overdue -- and I'm not just referring to the mail browser, either.

Software Selection

Gutsy Gibbon contains some of the very latest software. The current pre-release includes a 2.6.22 kernel, Firefox 2.0.0.6, and the GIMP 2.3.18. Development versions of OpenOffice.org 2.3 and GNOME 2.20 are also installed. Presumably, these will be replaced by the actual releases as they become available. Pre-release versions of KDE4 packages are also available from the repositories, although they may not be in final form by the time Gutsy Gibbon is officially released. More likely, KDE users will have to settle for version 3.5.7.

Ubuntu's own unique contributions to the software selection have always been sleight compared to a distribution like Fedora. However, in Gutsy, Ubuntu is still one of the few distributions to include SCIM for loading custom keyboard layouts. In addition, it includes its own Restricted Drivers Manager, which assists users in handling non-free drivers. Purists might decry the tool, but, realistically, many users are more interested in functionality than software freedom, and are likely to appreciate it. Moreover, Gutsy's release is likely to include the first release of Gobuntu, a completely free version of Ubuntu, along with Kbuntu, Xubuntu, and Edubuntu.

Other software included in Gutsy are the desktop search engine Tracker, and the Deskbar applet, which searches for entries on both your drives and the Internet. At first, given the absence of the file manager from Gutsy's menus, these tools may seem unpleasantly reminiscent of Windows XP and Vista, in which the classic menus were replaced by a search field. However, open a folder, and you will find that Gutsy has replaced GNOME's default folder view with the file manager. In this way, Gutsy Gibbon accommodates both those who never venture beyond their personal folders and those who want to see a directory hierarchy. It's a balance between the basic and the advanced that other elements of Ubuntu could use as well.

Software Installation

Ubuntu inherits Debian's dpkg and apt-get package management system. However, like many modern distributions, Gutsy follows the growing habit of allowing package managers to proliferate for no apparent reason.

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In addition to Synaptic, the most common graphical package manager in Debian-based distros and an update applet, Gutsy also includes the Add/Remove Applications tool at the bottom of the main menu. Grouping packages into general categories, the tool also includes a description of a highlighted package, and its rating in the Popularity Contest. However, why users should be interested in a package's popularity when they are looking to meet a specific need is puzzling -- the tool was originally designed to help Debian developers know what to include on a basic installation CD. Nor are the results particularly useful, since packages installed by default naturally have a higher rating. At any rate, the only way to judge how useful a package might be is to use it yourself.

Next page: Security

A version of the same tool has also been grafted on to Firefox for installing browser extensions, and a mention of "third party applications" in the help raises the possibility of commercial software being available through Add/Remove Applications some day -- although the reference might just be to software developed by projects outside Ubuntu.

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The trouble is, Add/Remove Applications remains basic. Even its help suggests that you use Synaptic "for more advanced needs." Yet even Synaptic is less flexible than the basic apt-get command, and not much easier to use. And, for all the care given to the layout of Synaptic, the updater, and Add/Remove applications, I have to wonder: does any distro really need three or four desktop applications for the same function? After all, apt-get serves the same purpose as all of them. For some reason, the thinking of Ubuntu's planners seems uncharacteristically muddy here.

Security

One of the best-known of Ubuntu's features is the use of sudo for administrative functions, rather than logging in as root. Given that you use sudo by entering your own password rather than the root one, this arrangement has always seemed an unnecessary relaxing of security to me -- it means that an intruder only needs one often-used password instead of two to gain control of the system. Just as importantly, for many users, the sudo command becomes a magic word that they use without any comprehension of what they are doing, or any chance of learning it. Yet Gutsy Gibbon continues the practice, presumably in the name of convenience.

In addition, the Gutsy utility for managing users has adopted much of the slackness of Windows, allowing the creation of three classes of users: Administrator, Desktop User, and Unprivileged. To be fair, the default is Desktop User, not Administrator, as it is in Windows. However, when you flip to the User Privileges tab in the application, you can see that Desktop Users can do everything except log in with sudo, which still seems unacceptably broad for security.

Even worse, the selection of choices is likely to encourage newcomers to imitate their Windows habits and automatically give every user Administrator privileges. Admittedly, you can further restrict privileges on the next tab, but how many are going to bother? And, when combined with sudo, a herd of Administrator accounts opens up too many entrances for security breaches.

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Usually, the principle of allowing simple choices and hiding more advanced choices somewhere close by is a sound one. However, in the case of basic security, an exception needs to be made. Undoubtedly, the result of this utility will be Ubuntu installations with far more root accounts than are necessary. Security can only suffer as a result.

Next page: Debian vs. Ubuntu

Ubuntu Vs. Debian

Some of the shortcomings mentioned here originate in GNOME itself. Yet Ubuntu has often changed GNOME to suit itself, so it must still take part of the blame. Ubuntu began with some promising improvements on the desktop, but for the last few releases, it seems to have neglected other changes that are just as much needed as the original ones.

Moreover, somewhere along the line, a strain of what might be called "Windows thinking" seems to have entered into the project's plans. Free software has always been about user education and choice, yet, at times, Ubuntu seems to forget these goals in favor of a quick fix that keeps users ignorant and unaware of alternatives.

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These tendencies are not consistent. Nor should you make the mistake of thinking that, because I criticize Ubuntu, I am hostile to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, at any given time, I usually have one actively used computer that is running on it.

All the same, I can't help comparing Ubuntu to its Debian parent. Despite its reputation for being difficult, Debian has always had a habit of accommodating all levels of users and helping them learn as they go.

For instance, if you enter dpkg-reconfigure xserver-xorg at the command line in Debian (or in Ubuntu, where it is still buried, if often unused), you have three options for setting your monitor's resolution. In the simple one, you simply select the monitor's size. In the medium option, you choose the resolution and refresh rate you want, while in the advanced one, you can enter the monitor's specs directly from its documentation. You can use whichever one you are most comfortable with, but, at the same time, you are aware of other options, some of which may be more precise than the one you choose. Such an arrangement avoids overwhelming new users while letting them know that there is more to learn at some later point.

This is the sort of flexibility that I find too often lacking in Ubuntu's desktop. For all its many excellences, Ubuntu would be an even stronger distro if it tidied up some long-neglected corners and helped to develop users' knowledge in the same way that Debian does. And maybe, eventually, it will. However, if the pre-release versions are any indication, none of that is going to happen in Gutsy Gibbon. For the next release, it looks like business as usual.

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