An Apple User Tries Ubuntu

Friday May 2nd 2008 by James Maguire

Can a longtime citizen of Cupertino find happiness in the land of GNU?

I’m an Apple user. Long time, pure bred, never owned anything else. Oh sure, I’ve used Windows machines, but it’s never crossed my mind to use one daily.

I mean, Windows? Like most Apple users, the very idea makes me vaguely anxious. When you’re an Apple user, you’re a snob. You feel – no, you know – that your OS is superior. The machines are fast and secure, and they’re gorgeous, too.

The Macintosh is, without a doubt, one of my favorite things.

(Of course, we Apple users don’t admit that Macs can crash, too. And that Safari can’t handle certain Web features, including plenty of videos. And that being non-Windows in a Windows world is inconvenient. Still, those burdens are worth bearing for a computer this cool.)

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I reveal my Apple snobbery because I want you to know where I was coming from when I sat down to try Ubuntu, the Linux distro. I think reviewers should always disclose their preconceptions. Like a movie critic who only likes serious dramas, and he goes to an action flick, and his review says, “Oh, it was just a bunch of explosions.” Yeah, to you it was, but you wouldn't have given it a thumbs up no matter how good the action was.

So, if I’m totally honest, here was my prejudice before I sat down to Ubuntu:

First, I expected it to look pretty bland by Apple standards. No upstart software could compete with Apple’s 25 years of design inspiration. Also, I assumed the whole thing was held together by glue and rubber bands; after all, Linux dudes are always talking about “recompiling the kernel” – whatever that means – and some even still use the command line. (The command line? Oh, geez…)

I know Ubuntu is free software, but I don’t care about that. It’s more important that my system be good, not cheap. (And if it was really that great, they’d charge for it, right?). I also know I can get under the hood of any of these GNU/Linux apps and change them (unlike Apple apps) but I don’t care about that either. I’m not a software engineer; if I can’t grab it off the shelf, I can’t use it.

In short, my expectations for Ubuntu were modest. In fact, they were pretty low.

Enough with the Prejudice: What’s the Reality?

I sat down with a Toshiba laptop, a hot little box with 2GB of RAM, running Ubuntu, the Gutsy Gibbon release. I used the machine courtesy of Free Culture at Virginia Tech, which provided assistance as I clicked around.

First off, immediately, before anything: the rotating desktop. Damn, that is totally cool. You click an icon in the screen’s lower right, and the desktop rotates to a fresh view. Remarkably, you can have up to 16 different desktops.

It’s not just cool, it’s great for workflow. You can have files and documents open on one desktop – maybe you’ve got four browser windows open, researching something – and a single click takes you to a fresh desktop, with documents and apps open as you like.

Ubuntu rotating cube

The rotating desktop in mid-rotation

I thought to myself: this could increase productivity so much. Even with my huge Apple monitor, I'm always needing to move things around when I’m deep in a project.

It was so neat I did some research and, yes, it’s available for Mac. It’s called You Control Desktops. (Of course it costs $29.95, whereas it’s free for Ubuntu.)

Eeek! It’s a Command Line! (Run, Hide…)

I had heard that Linux users still use a command line. Instead of pointing and clicking, they actually type in obscure commands – a series of numbers, letters, and squiggly things. It’s very Russian spy, black hat, deep nerd.

Decades ago, the Microsofties who ran DOS got all excited about the command line. They kept their cheat sheets tucked behind their pocket protectors. But Apple led the way to a truly human GUI, making the command line just a bad memory (except for heavy Mac experts).

So as I sat down to Ubuntu, I was curious about the dreaded command line. Would it would suck me into the dark swirling abyss of Geeksterism?

In a word, no. It turns out the command line is completely optional. If you don’t want to mess with it, Ubuntu lets you use point and click for everything. Major relief.

Ubuntu commandline

The dreaded command line

And actually, when a power user demonstrated it for me, the command line tool is highly useful. It’s great for file search and management. If you’re willing to memorize a few commands (this guy knew about 50) you can really zip through your computer. The results come up in different colors, which helps you locate things. (I think.)

I never thought I’d say this, but the command line is a plus, not a minus. Personally I’d never want to use it – all my passwords are enough memorization – but I see it as a valuable tool for power users.

Of course its existence will always scare mainstream users, and hinder Linux desktop adoption. But over time people will realize they can ignore it, and advanced users will use it happily.

This Could be Windows

As I clicked around, I found the Ubuntu interface to be intuitive and straight forward. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought I was on a Windows machine. It has the same drop down menu to choose your application, and the menus even have the same corporate-like font as Windows.

My test laptop was using the GNOME desktop interface. On start up, it offered me a choice of interfaces (KDE, GNOME, etc.) The oddness of this struck me: isn’t Ubuntu enough? It appears I still needed to select a separate desktop interface.

I imagined the average non-technical user being confused by this. ”I’m using Ubuntu, but I have to choose a ‘desktop interface’? Why isn’t it built in, like it is with Window and Mac? And what the heck is ‘KDE’?” The Linux desktop needs to eliminate that extra choice if it wants to reach a mass audience.

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Using Apps

Since most of what I do either uses a word processor (in my case, Word) or a browser (Safari), I wanted to test drive the corresponding apps (Open Office and Firefox) in the Ubuntu environment.

After checking out Open Office, I realized something pretty shocking: there’s no appreciable difference between Word, which costs serious cash, and Open Office, which is totally free. Amazing. Call me brainwashed, but I had thought Open Office was a watered down version. But no.

Open Office even has that irritating Word feature where, when you’re creating a numbered list (2, 3, 4, etc.) it puts the next number in, even if you don’t want it. OpenOffice is virtually identical to Word. In fact, the spellcheck function ran faster for me.

Hmmm…then why are all those companies trooping out and plunking down hefty dollars for Word? For Microsoft’s sake, I hope they never hear about Open Office.

When I fired up Firefox I was, again, seriously impressed. I have never seen the Internet run so fast.

It smoked my Apple machine, which is a hot box: it’s a dual Intel core iMac with 1.7 GB RAM, with a cable modem; and of course Safari is optimized for OS X. But it still doesn’t load a Web page as fast as this little Toshiba running Ubuntu.

Granted, I was testing on the campus of Virginia Tech, which has a fire-breathingly fast Net connection. But I’ve often checked out Web page load time while standing in an Apple store – and you know that’s optimized for speed – and it still wasn’t as fast.

That’s a major plus. Score one for Ubuntu.

A Palette of Tools

For those who like games, Ubuntu is an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. I checked out a little menu that had a long, diverse list of games for immediate download. A single click and – bam – it was on my system, ready to help me waste time. All free, of course.

I also enjoyed an application called Annotate, which let me use the cursor to write on the screen itself. Fun. I squiggled it all around and the lines showed up. Then, using an app called Paint Fire, those squiggled lines looked like blazing flame. Neato! I don’t know what I’d use it for, but it’s eye-catching.

(And it again made me wonder: why haven’t I ever seen this on my Apple machine? Is the GNU/Linux world actually ahead of Apple on software?)

Ubuntu paintfire

Paint Fire -- cool!

On a more productive note, Shift Switcher lets you scroll through all your open windows, seeing each in turn. And Scale arranges all the windows you have open and sizes them so they fit side by side. These two apps, along with the Rotating Cube tool (mentioned above) make for a very efficient desktop.

Two more nice touches: a desktop applet at the top of the screen allows you to search (instead of the command line); and in the lower left, there's a button to shrink everything away. Not revolutionary, but helpful and well designed.

Tribal Love Dies Hard

In sum, Ubuntu makes the grade. A good laptop running Ubuntu is a fast, fully productive machine that works for home or office. Because it does everything that Windows does – and does it for free – I assume that in the long run it will encroach on (or devour?) the Windows market share.

(That is, if a Linux vendor ever realizes the obvious truth: you need a massive ad budget to reach people. Advertising = success. Not advertising = failure. Apart from that, all this talk about usability is just blah, blah, blah.)

As an Apple user, I could imagine having a second laptop that runs Ubuntu. It’d be far cheaper and do everything I needed it to do.

But to actually switch to Ubuntu? Hmmm…I don’t know. I’d have a hard time leaving the Apple tribe. Years ago, before Linux was even invented, all of us Apple users were second-class citizens together. We lived in a big bad Windows world; many software firms didn’t even create Mac-compatible versions. But we Apple folks huddled together, watching our Windows friends drown in malware, wondering why they didn’t just switch. It created a real sense of solidarity.

More important, the Mac is not just a good machine, it’s a beautiful machine. The hardware, the software – the entire interface – is visually attractive. Perhaps that’s shallow, but it’s a huge part of the Apple concept. Beauty.

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And I wasn’t at all wowed by the beauty of Ubuntu. Yes, I know – Ubuntu has different interfaces, and there’s probably one that looks like OS X. (In fact we tried one as I was testing, but it looked nothing like Apple.) If I’m going to sit in front of a machine all day, have it in my home, and carry it around, I’d prefer that it be aesthetically pleasing. There’s a reason that Apple has always been the choice of artists and musicians. The machine itself is artful. Yeah, it’s expensive, and it crashes, but it’s artful. And that counts for a whole lot.

So, yes, I could see having an alternative laptop running Ubuntu. A little change of pace would be good, not to mention saving a bunch of bucks. (If I’m ever totally broke, I’d go with Ubuntu in a heartbeat.) But for now, as much as I respect Ubuntu, my heart remains with Apple.

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