Ubuntu Linux Desktop Reviewed

Posted by dave on Jun 13, 2005 7:47 AM EDT
LXer; By Tom Adelstein
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Tom Adelstein has written a thorough review of the Ubuntu Linux distribution.

Figure 1. Ubuntu Linux Desktop GDM Screen.

My first exposure to Ubuntu Linux occurred on forums, mailing lists and in the press. Friends told me that a great deal of hype existed around the distribution. I saw some criticism saying that Ubuntu was just another flavor of Debian. So, I basically dismissed it from the list of distributions I test. After all, we have seen new distributions of Linux crop up and die rather quickly.

Also, who would believe that a Linux distribution much less any product could establish itself as an industry leader in less than seven months? In light of such success skeptics abound. People just find it hard to believe and question such a product's validity.

New businesses might consider the credibility gap of attempting to reach rapid acceptance as Ubuntu did. That noted, prior to Ubuntu's launch, Sam Hiser and I presented a plan to the Linux marketing team at Sun Microsystems with a similar structure to the Ubuntu model. Our plan centered on community bridge building including making product available for free. Without giving away the specific details, here's a quote from the whitepaper to give you a hint of the recommendations.

Our small user community, JDSHelp.org, organized a web site, fixed problems, monitored the Sun JDS Forum and provided documentation. While the constant criticism on the Sun JDS Forum ceased, some criticism of Sun continued as critics sited the need for an independent community to provide support Sun should have provided...

We recommend specific initiatives designed to engage the community and also to fill technical feature gaps to increase the system's chances of gaining reference enterprise wins.

The only reason for bringing up the Sun reference has to do with the power of Linux to gain market acceptance quickly when one realizes where the power lies. In our estimation, the power lies within the community. Communities of interest provide the key to success in any market today. Somehow, we didn't successfully convey that concept to the people at Sun.

Next Encounter with Ubuntu

My second exposure occurred after delivering a presentation to the North Texas Linux Users Group. At the end of each meeting, the LUG has a drawing for all sorts of give aways and they had many books, Linux distributions, some video cards and accessories. I felt some surprise at how the early winners chose the Ubuntu CD's over other items.

So, I started asking around about Ubuntu. Several LUG members described Ubuntu as a great Linux Desktop. Having just finished talking about my latest book,Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop, I wondered if anyone had listened carefully to my talk. I guess they could see the question in my face because someone immediately said, "Oh, it's free and new. I has a long way to go before it becomes really commercial like the Java Desktop System. But, it's a good desktop!"

A couple of weeks passed and curiosity got the best of me. I downloaded the disk image from the Ubuntu web site and prepared to install the mystery Linux operating system. While installing the Ubuntu desktop, I felt a sense of curiosity. The screen displays reminded me of many Linux installations, but not the latest versions. Installation takes place in text mode and you only need a single CD.

You can see in Figures 2 and 3 the text based installation script.

Figure 2 – The Graphics Installer

Figure 3 The Text Base Installer with a Sample of Localizations

Then in Figure 4 you can see the actual copying and configuring of a system file.

Figure 4 -Copying Gimp during installation

So, at first glance, people can see that Ubuntu does not spend many resources on a fancy X based installation. As a user, I like that because it means Ubuntu installs quickly. As a consultant, I debated as to whether or not I would recommend Ubuntu because it lacked the slick installer we see in SUSE and Red Hat. I have finally concluded it doesn't matter and the benefits outweigh the considerations.

Once I finished the first part of the installation procedure, the installation script came to a halt and told me to reboot. So, I removed the CD Rom and watched as Ubuntu booted up – completely in text mode. Figure 5 will give you an idea of what I first saw as the distribution headed to a usable operating state.

Figure 5 – Boot up sequence runs 100% in text mode

Ubuntu booted up quickly and presented me with a login screen similar to the one in Figure 1 (see at the beginning of this article). I logged in and found myself looking at a GNOME desktop. In fact, KDE was no where to be found.

Figure 6 The First Run Ubuntu Desktop

I actually liked the look and feel of the GNOME desktop. The developers had used GNOME 2.10.1 and it was my first look at that version. I found several features I liked and began trying things out.

In Figure 7, you can see what my desktop looks like after using Ubuntu for a number of weeks.

Figure 7 -My Working Ubuntu Desktop

The Ubuntu Organization

People could attribute Ubuntu's rapid success to its organizational design, use of an existing Linux distribution, and the ability to assemble open source components such as Openoffice.org, Mozilla and GNOME into the product.

After I had a working Ubuntu desktop that I could test, I began researching the project. As I began working through the web site and following links, I found a well designed, highly organized support system. I quickly discovered a robust and active community. Unlike many communities that spring up after the release of a distribution, the Ubuntu sponsors had put a well planned and highly organized infrastructure together.

Having studied successful open source organizations, I realized that Ubuntu had the benefit of an Open Source Maturity Model behind it, anchored by Canonical Ltd. Following the links even further, I found Mark Shuttleworth at the source of the project.

Note: For those who don't know, Mark Shuttleworth, he programmed Debian Linux in the early 1990's. He founded Thawte an issuer of Internet security certificates in 1995. He sold Thawte in 1999 to VeriSign. Shuttleworth then formed HBD Venture Capital, and the Shuttleworth Foundation which funds educational projects in South Africa.

On 25 April, 2002 Shuttleworth lifted-off aboard the Russian Soyuz TM-34 mission, as space tourist for approximately $ 20 million. On 5 May, he returned to Earth. In an interview, the founder of Ubuntu disclosed some interesting perspective:

(Shuttleworth) emphasized that Ubuntu would be available worldwide, possibly with regional name-mutations, but that he had a personal interest in injecting life into the South African software industry by creating a vibrant “ecosystem” around OSS.

“I'm not about to knock down the doors of corporate America with this. They'll get it in the end,” he said. “Emerging markets can realize the quickest benefits from open source, and necessity breeds invention.”

He promised that should Canonical ever build a physical infrastructure for itself to move that ecosystem along, it would be in SA. He predicted that skills capacity building would be among the company's challenges.

Some other interesting factoids I found about Ubuntu include:

  • Ubuntu was developed over six months, with Shuttleworth's personal OSS involvement totaling 10 years.

  • It will always be free of charge, renewed every six months and will never contain any proprietary software, other than some temporary binary drivers for some hardware.
  • It supports Intel x86 architecture, Apple's Power PC (G4, G5 and PowerBooks) as well as AMD's 64-bit extension architecture.
  • Its installer is text-based and features improvements of simplicity over Debian.
  • The applications bundled with it are a spartan mix of

    “tried and tested” office productivity ware, basic accessories and games, Web applications such as e-mail, Internet, VoIP and terminal server, multimedia and others – but there is an online repository of 4,000 more.
  • It is freely downloadable and customizable – even the packaging and branding.
  • Ubuntu is free software including all applications on the CD

  • Ubuntu comes free of charge – so it's free software as in freedom and it's free as in free beer
  • Ubuntu also provides free security updates for 18 months after each release
  • With releases scheduled for every six months, Ubuntu allows users to upgrade to the latest desktop and kernel and infrastructure with each new release.

  • In my opinion, no single aspect of the Ubuntu project allowed it to become a major distribution in such a short time. However, the interaction of all aspects combined to create its upward spiral. People may want to dismiss it and even stay in denial regarding Ubuntu's place in the Linux world. All the denial in the world won't invalidate Ubuntu's unprecedented success.

    Back to the Distribution

    Ubuntu offers characteristics found in mature Linux distributions. For example, in figure 8 you can see a screenshot of a Windows Terminal Server session initiated from the Ubuntu desktop. Ubuntu also has the ability to act as a server and client for FreeNX and VNC.

    Figure 8. Terminal Server Client

    Positive Differentiators in Ubuntu

    Ubuntu uses the latest stable version of GNOME. In the latest edition, the developers included GNOME 2.10.1, which features better performance and significantly better theme polish that previous GNOME versions.

    Note: A version of Ubuntu with KDE called Kubuntu exists. That version is community driven.

    Ubuntu offers Live CDs for the three processor architectures they support (Intel, AMD64 and PowerPC). Users can modify the LiveCD and update it or customize it with their own personal selection of packages.

    The distribution comes with X auto-detection and laptop screen detection. Though the system uses open source drivers by default, Ubuntu provides access to binary drivers from ATI and Nvidia.

    Applications and the desktop

    Figure 9 Launch Menu

    Three menus launch from the GNOME panel. In Figure 9, you can see they include Applications, Places and System. You can see the items available under Applications in Figure 9. Under Places you will find Recent Documents, Search for Files, Connect to Server, Network Servers (Network Neighborhood), Computer, Documents, Desktop and Home Folder .

    Under System Menu you will find Preferences, Administration, Take Snapshot, Help, About GNOME, About Ubuntu, Lock Screen and Log Out. Preferences provide a user with the ability to manage themes, configure VNC server, chose preferred applications for a browser, mail reader and terminal, select screen savers, etc.

    The Administration sub-menu as shown in Fig 10 demonstrates the significant work the Ubuntu developers have contributed to Linux. Aside from some standard functions like administering users, groups and printers, the Ubuntu team provides us with Ubuntu Update Manager and Synaptic Package Manager. The later tools provide an easy to use graphical front-end to apt-get. You can also control the sources list from Synaptic. Synaptic Package Manager provides the key tool for making Debian a user-friendly desktop.

    Figure 10 The Administrative Sub-Menu.

    Ubuntu developers have an objective to provide a more up-to-date Debian than Debian and to reduce the confusion associated with installing packages. While most users love the Debian package management system, it can prove difficult to understand if one happens to be new to Linux and has to confront the command line interface. Ubuntu accomplishes its objectives with an easy-to-use installation process, an excellent system update and enhancement mechanism and a distribution that makes a great starter--or permanent home--for Linux users who just like their computer to get work done.

    Figure 11. Synaptic Package Manager Update and Installation Utility

    In Figure 11, you can see one view of Synaptic. Under the available software, you can find server software such as Apache, which you can select, download and install. By selecting the package one chooses, Synaptic looks for dependencies, alerts you as to what it will install and when you click OK -- goes ahead and installs the software.

    Looking back at Figure 10, notice an icon at the top of the Administrative sub-menu called Boot-Up Manager also known as BUM. According to the the web site

    Boot-Up Manager (formerly Ubuntu Bootup Manager) is a Perl-Gtk2 application to handle runlevels configuration of any Debian derivative system. With this program the user will easily start and stop boot-up scripts, without the necessity to handle thru complex links and permissions. Boot-Up Manager has been tested on an Ubuntu 05.04 release, but as it only relies on Perl-Gtk2 libraries, it can be run on any Debian-like system.

    You might agree that community involvement in Ubuntu has led to the development of tools like BUM. In fact, one might suggest that Ubuntu has rejuvenated the community process as many more tools like BUM already exist.

    Similarly to effort like the one that created BUM, a group of developers have started a community backport site. The web site for Ubuntu Backports explains its purpose:

    Once a stable version is released, no new software updates are accepted. I (the project lead) subscribe to the view that a distribution can be both stable and up-to-date, so I've taken it into my own hands to recompile newer packages from Hoary and Debian Sid for Warty.

    So, one might consider efforts from the community as an important part of what Ubuntu brings to the user. The Table below shows the packages delivered with the first two releases of Ubuntu.

    PackageUbuntu 4.10Ubuntu 5.04
    Open Office1.
    X Window SystemXFree86 4.3.0X.org 6.8.1

    Table 1.

    While the instructions for using Ubuntu Backports seem clear, using them requires one to add a url to the configuration file in /etc/apt/sources.list. You can also add the url through Synaptic. The maintainer of Ubuntu Backports states that the repository is not official and has no relationship with Canonical Ltd. So, if you use the Backports repository, remember that it's a community effort.

    Is Ubuntu A major Linux Distribution?

    When writing a review like this, I have to prioritize the points I consider the most important and work my way down. I considered answering this question one of the most important of those points. I consider Ubuntu a major distribution and important enough to include it in the six distributions I covered in a series for Linux Journal.

    Ubuntu does not have the distinction of being the fastest product to market in history. Back in 1958, Wham-O trademarked and sold twenty million hula hoops in six months. That was the most successful launch in modern times. Even the first IBM PC's didn't sell as many products in such a short time frame.

    Actually, back in the fall of 1999, Corel launched its version of Linux and sold 400,000 units between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many people purchased the product and consider it mature because Corel had been around for a significant number of years. Corel based its distribution on Debian. Eventually, Corel sold its Linux business to Xandros.

    Achieving strong market penetration in a short time does not mean a product like Ubuntu isn't worthy of being called a major player. Canonical Ltd. achieved significant penetration because it targeted markets where Linux would have a high acceptance rate. But that doesn't mean Ubuntu is only a marketing phenomenon.

    Canonical Ltd. employees approximately 40 full time engineers who have done an excellent job of designing, testing and innovating the basic Debian Linux distribution. Debian, a volunteer project developed a GNU/Linux distribution over a decade ago. 1000 people have official developer status in the Debian community. Debian encompasses nearly 17,000 packages of free and open source applications and documentation.

    The Debian community recognizes many Ubuntu developers. They remain active contributors to Debian as a matter of course in their work on Ubuntu and directly in Debian.

    When Ubuntu developers fix bugs that are also present in Debian packages they send their bugfixes to the Debian developers responsible for that package in Debian and record the patch in the Debian bug system. The goal is to ensure that patches made by the full-time Ubuntu team members are included in Debian packages if the Debian maintainer accepts the code.

    Some Final Thoughts

    A tip of the hat to Ubuntu for its success. This distribution goes beyond a free, open source operating system with a business service model. Ubuntu has attracted and cultivated a dynamic and robust community of people willing to make the world a better place.

    Many people should find this desktop a worthy entry into the market on technical merits alone. Ubuntu will experience growing pains, but the product has already established itself and can only continue to find willing users and participants willing to make it a bigger success.

    The challenge facing Ubuntu exceeds providing a worthy entry to the Linux desktop market. An opportunity exists to provide the extraordinary desktop product by only pushing a few inches farther. The Ubuntu developers and community have enough veterans that one senses they will create the best operating system on the planet, fix things and provide remarkable support.

    One rap on Linux distributors in the past still holds true for the majority of distributions: Linux distributors are underachievers. This does not mean much to the open source technical community because we have always had an attitude of doing it ourselves. In fact, the mere existence of Linux provides millions of us with a fascinating technology with which to learn and grow. Many Linux technologists do what they can to communicate with userland. Left on their own, they would continue whether Linux excelled on the desktop or not.

    Ubuntu's contribution to Linux has been to help promulgate Linux and increase the numbers of people using Linux. Ubuntu has done this by reaching places other distributions have failed to touch such as the underdeveloped countries on the planet and including everyone in the process. This is the kind of effort that makes a world work for everyone.

    Respectfully submitted:


    Tom Adelstein is a Principal of Hiser + Adelstein, an open-source company headquartered in New York City. He's the co-author of the book Exploring the JDS Linux Desktop and author of an upcoming book on Linux system administration to be published by O'Reilly. Tom has been consulting and writing articles and books about Linux since early 1999.

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    Subject Topic Starter Replies Views Last Post
    Whats the advantage with ubuntu´s Live-CD vs Knoppix ? dabenavidesd 2 21,641 Aug 18, 2005 7:29 AM
    Not as satisfied... KaIdEn 13 7,748 Jul 17, 2005 6:57 AM
    Don't forget what it does to Debian aside from helping... devnet 8 6,554 Jun 20, 2005 11:21 AM
    Great insights, Tom! masinick 4 5,225 Jun 14, 2005 12:22 PM
    Simplified Installer? stu42j 0 5,063 Jun 13, 2005 6:10 PM
    Comments via email to the Author tadelste 0 4,423 Jun 13, 2005 5:13 PM
    more Ubuntu screenshots linuxbeta 0 7,614 Jun 13, 2005 12:56 PM
    Just upgraded to Hoary MadDogTMC 0 5,617 Jun 13, 2005 11:44 AM

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