Steve Jobs's Touch Is What Ubuntu's Missing: Rich Jaroslovsky

If you’re put off by Steve Jobs’s control-freakdom and Microsoft’s long history of buggy bloatware, you might want to spend some time with Dell Inc.’s line of laptops running Ubuntu, the free, consumer-oriented version of the open-source Linux operating system. Cheaper than Apple, cheaper and more stable than Windows, Ubuntu might be a viable alternative were it just not quite so geeky.

This may be the year when Linux operating systems go mainstream. Most notably, Google Inc. is promising we’ll see netbooks running its Linux-based Chrome OS in 2010. Ubuntu, by contrast, isn’t just a get-me-on-the-Internet-fast solution: It’s a full-fledged Windows substitute designed to be at home on a wide range of hardware.

While the software can be installed on pretty much any standard desktop, laptop or netbook, Dell is the best-known company that sells Ubuntu-based systems off the shelf. My test unit was a $604 Dell Inspiron 1545 laptop with Intel Corp.’s Core 2 Duo processor, three gigabytes of memory, a 15.6-inch screen and a 250-gigabyte hard drive.

Ubuntu -- the name comes from a southern African word meaning compassion and openness -- is distributed by U.K.-based Canonical Ltd., which updates it every six months. Each version bears an alliterative name featuring an exotic animal.

Lucid Lynx

“Karmic Koala” has been out since last fall; “Lucid Lynx,” which adds syncing for music and wireless phones, was released this week. The nomenclature makes no sense to a user, though it does raise the question of why Apple calls its current operating system “Snow Leopard.”

There are no complaints on the value front. The operating system comes with OpenOffice, the free, Microsoft Office- compatible productivity suite now stewarded by Oracle Corp. Comparable hardware outfitted with Microsoft software would run $60 to $200 more, depending on the version of Office installed. Nor do I have any complaint about performance. Ubuntu was speedy and rock-solid stable: In six weeks, I never had to reboot because of a crash.

Canonical makes money in part by selling customer support at a cost of $54 to $218 a year, depending on the level of hand- holding sought. And unless you’re into computing as a hobby, you’ll probably need some hand-holding. While Ubuntu’s graphical user interface makes it broadly familiar to any Windows or Mac user, it’s still too easy to find yourself lost in LinuxLand.

Obscure Errors

Error messages can be as obscure as Microsoft’s, if not more so. It’s one thing to encounter a “serious kernel problem,” which to some of us might just mean a lot of unpopped popcorn. But when it comes to “end-of-central-directory signature not found,” I really don’t want to be the one having to look for it.

Another case in point: As one test, I decided to surf over to Apple’s Web site for a nostalgic look at the long-running series of “I’m a Mac, I’m a PC” commercials. I wasn’t surprised that Ubuntu’s Firefox Web browser required additional software to run Apple QuickTime videos. But within moments, I was thrust into a series of decisions and warnings about something called “the multiverse,” as opposed to something less scary called “the universe.”

It turns out that in Ubuntu-speak, the universe refers to software that meets standards for compatibility and openness, while the multiverse refers to all the other stuff floating around out there that may or may not work. Openness not being an Apple hallmark, QuickTime didn’t qualify.

Understanding End Users

Canonical folks say my multiverse misadventure was kind of a fluke, and they’re probably right. But that’s exactly the point. We regular computer users stumble around. We make mistakes, click on things we shouldn’t and get lost; when that happens, the software has to reel us back. What’s missing from Ubuntu is a sense that some intelligent life form behind it understands all that.

Apple instinctively gets it. Microsoft, at least in Windows 7, shows that it’s trying. For all Ubuntu’s attractions, this Linux-With-Training-Wheels just isn’t there yet; we’ll know in a few months if Google is able to do better.

Meanwhile, I still wonder why Apple names its operating systems after large felines.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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