UPDATED: For several years, Ubuntu has been synonymous with user-friendliness. A Web search quickly unearths dozens of articles that suggest that Ubuntu is the distribution you should give non-technical people to introduce them to GNU/Linux. It even won a “Most User-Friendly Linux Distribution” award, which you might think confirms its status.
However, like all conventional wisdom, this association is worth exploring. For one thing, you have to wonder whether comparisons for user-friendliness have any relevance in free and open source software (FOSS). For another, what exactly are the characteristics of user-friendliness? Moreover, does stressing user-friendliness mean ignoring other values — perhaps equally important ones?
Comparisons in FOSS
One problem I immediately have with titles like the “Most User-Friendly Linux Distribution” is that they seem more a ploy for commercial marketing than anything that applies to the world of FOSS development.
These comparative claims make little sense in FOSS in that — as anyone who has tried more than one distribution can tell you — much of the user-experience is determined by the desktop. Distributions play a role, of course, in assembling the selection of software and making sure that everything works together. However, for several years now, I’ve seen more innovation in the form of new applications and features in releases of GNOME or KDE than in any distribution. For the casual user, the difference between Ubuntu and any other distribution is fairly minimal, and often more a case of finishing details than of functionality.
Even Ubuntu’s forums and online documentation, although specific to the distribution, are usable by those working with other distributions. The documentation on wireless cards, for instance, is not only clear and concise, but useful for almost any GNU/Linux, regardless of their distribution.
Just as importantly, so far as distributions do innovate, any claim that they are ahead of others is going to be true only for a brief while. Improvements in one distribution are likely to be mirrored by other distributions within a few months, either through re-use of the code or through stimulus diffusion — developers hearing about an application and writing a version of it for their programming tool kits.
For instance, when Fedora came out with Smolt, a tool for reporting information about the hardware on which the distribution was installed, Ubuntu soon came up with the equivalent in its Hardware Testing application. No doubt in other cases, Ubuntu was first.
This exchange of ideas is especially strong in Ubuntu’s relation with Debian, the distribution it derives from. Ubuntu borrows many packages from the Debian unstable repository, and, in turn, many of its innovations are returned to Debian. In fact, a number of Ubuntu developers are also Debian developers. The relations between the two distributions are sometimes testy, with some Debian developers inclined to feel that their counterparts in Ubuntu don’t share freely enough, but the inter-dependence remains.
For such reasons, most of the differences between user-friendliness in the major distros seem minimal. Remembering just when each distribution added which feature is almost impossible, but, so far as I can recollect, few of Ubuntu’s features are unique. Yes, it helped promote the use of assistive technologies and internationalization features such as SCIM, which switches keyboards on the fly. It also helped to popularize the use of Live CDs so people could see Ubuntu without making changes to their computers.
But such features are not unique to Ubuntu. You could have the same functionality in many other distributions — but the difference is that you would have to install them and work out any problems. Ubuntu’s accomplishment is that its developers realized that such features should be part of the same default installation, not that they did anything resoundingly new.
What does user-friendliness mean?
Another trouble with describing Ubuntu as user-friendly is exactly what you mean by the term.
If you mean simplicity of use, then Ubuntu deserves its reputation. By default, Ubuntu boots without displaying messages. It installs with equal simplicity from a Live CD — although an alternative installation program with more detail is available for experts. Similarly, its default desktop reduces the virtual workspaces to two (enough to give users the idea without overwhelming), and presents a menu bar carefully designed to give uses a tool in each major application area rather than to display all the software installed, the way that more traditional distributions like Debian do.
However, simplicity is a two-edged feature. On the one hand, each of these choices can be condemned for hiding complexity and keeping users stupid, but, on the other hand, they also help to ensure that new users in particular aren’t stricken with “option anxiety” and flee GNU/Linux whining that it is too complicated. You might say that Ubuntu is user-friendly in the short-term, but less so in the long-term, since it does not provide much in the way of guidance for users who want to progress beyond the basics.
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Another possible interpretation of user-friendliness is Ubuntu’s thoroughness in building a commercial brand. Its family of subjects — Kubuntu for KDE, Xubuntu for Xfce, Edubuntu for education — has the advantage of assuring users that, if they want something beyond the basic GNOME desktop of Ubuntu, their experience will be much the same, no matter which they choose.
Other features, such as the third party repository for applications, the ShipIt service for those who want a CD rather than a download, and the availability of pre-loads from Dell or retail software boxes from Best Buy may all be primarily due to commercial considerations. After all, Canonical, the commercial arm of Ubuntu, is not profitable and is unlikely to be so for some years.
However, these features are also user-friendly in the sense that they give an experience not much different from what they know from proprietary applications. When dealing with Ubuntu, users are in many ways on familiar and comforting ground. At the same time, more experienced GNU/Linux users are unlikely to be offended, because, while Ubuntu has overtones of a commercial company, it still manages to be an inoffensive FOSS citizen.
The cost of user-friendliness
From several angles, then, Ubuntu deserves its reputation for user-friendliness — even if it needs to be qualified. Still, user-friendliness can sometimes come at a cost.
In Ubuntu’s case, one of the costs may be a gradual slowing of innovation. In part, any such slowing is an unavoidable consequence of mature software. At a certain point, thinking of something new becomes much harder simply because there are fewer immediate improvements. But in recent years, the innovations seem to have become fewer, with Fedora and openSUSE introducing new features like PulseAudo or PackageKit before Ubuntu does.
Another possible problem is quality control, if grassroots commentary is any indication. The gist is that Ubuntu is not checking its packages with the same thoroughness that Debian does, and is slow to respond to bug reports. Instead, Ubuntu’s concern seems to be having the latest version numbers. However, since hard figures about these concerns are not available, the problem may have more to do with rumor than any reality.
Yet another cost may be a drift away from concepts of software freedom in favor of practicality. While Mark Shuttleworth, Ubuntu’s benevolent dictator, has an interest in software freedom, to judge by the number of times it is mentioned in his blog, in practice, whenever Ubuntu has a choice between software freedom and usability — or, perhaps, commercialization — software freedom seems to lose out.
The most obvious example of this tendency is Ubuntu’s Hardware Drivers application, which helps users to download proprietary drivers. You might argue that the application simply acknowledges the inevitable, since many people want the proprietary drivers, and will install them anyway. If Ubuntu did not provide them, a less reliable sub-culture dedicated to providing them would simply emerge, as has happened with Debian and Fedora. All of which is true — but Ubuntu might just as easily have devoted some of the energies put into this application to helping projects that are developing free software drivers, so a choice is clearly being made.
Ubuntu isn’t the first distribution to struggle with usability and its relation to other issues. However, from most angles, it does seem the distribution that has spent the most time dealing with such things — so, yes, the epithet of “most user-friendly distribution” does seem to apply.
However, answering this question is not just an end in itself. Without judging Ubuntu’s decisions in any way, by looking at how it has navigated the issues, you get a snapshot of the current state of GNU/Linux distributions, especially those caught between traditional community values and the needs of commercialization.
To many, Ubuntu’s choices seem sensible and inevitable. But to others, especially those familiar with old school GNU/Linux, they also raise the questions: Is user-friendliness all that a distribution needs? Or are there other values equally important?
Bruce Byfield is a regular contributor to Datamation, where this article first appeared.
Update corrects spelling of Ubuntu’s variants.