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The latest version of Ubuntu 12.10 (codenamed “Quantal Quetzal”), is sleek, fast, stable, and secure. And like all GNU/Linux flavors, it just works — until it doesn’t. Living with Ubuntu is a mixed experience. It’s mostly awesome, but it can also be incredibly frustrating at times. Read on for my thoughts on Ubuntu 12.10, and living with Linux in general.
What it’s like to use Ubuntu
First, it’s kind of remarkable how un-remarkable it is to use Ubuntu. So much of the work we do is pretty straightforward, and happens either in a browser or a document editor. You’ve got both available in Ubuntu, but unlike Windows or OS X, you don’t have to install anything else to get them. It comes with Firefox and LibreOffice, the same browser and office suite many use in Windows (and the latter is very compatible with Microsoft Office, if you have a lot of those files lying around. So it may take a while before you run into a problem you need to solve.
When you do, it is usually simple. Installing most software, for example, is cake with the Ubuntu Software Center. In fact, Apple and Microsoft have basically copied the Linux software repository concept with the Windows Store and App Store. And just like with Windows and OS X, some software (Dropbox, for example) isn’t available in the Software Center. Of course, you can download and install it just like you would do in Windows, as long as the software vendor offers an Ubuntu-compatible download. Some do. Most don’t, in which case you will need to find a fix or an alternative. This is not always easy or possible, and I’ll talk more about this in the next section.
Besides how easy it is to use Ubuntu, the interface is actually pretty great. For the last few years, Canonical, the maker of Ubuntu, has been working especially hard at building the best user interface, and as a result, many of the changes in subsequent releases have focused on its “Unity” interface.
Ubuntu 12.10 is beautiful, and while the Unity interface is not perfect, it is an un-intrusive and helpful UI. It takes some getting used to, but with Unity, you don’t operate your computer so much as you tell it what you want to do. Taskbars, menus, and title bars duck out of your way when you aren’t using them, and the Dash lets you find and do things without slogging through multiple levels of menus. You can even preview documents, pictures, audio, and video without starting any software. And it doesn’t stop at stuff on your computer. If you want an album, but it isn’t on your hard drive, Dash will show you purchasing options. The Dash is even context-aware, s0 searching will give you responses relevant to the application you are using, like menus. You can see echoes of the same ideas in Windows 8‘s start screen and context-sensitive “charms,” but Unity takes it a lot further.
Not everyone loves Unity, but not everyone likes Windows or OS X, either. With Unity, Canonical is trying to build a next-generation user interface, and it’s a huge step in the right direction, in my opinion.
Overall, Ubuntu is really easy to use. Until you run into a problem that doesn’t have an easy solution. Which brings me to …
Solving problems in Ubuntu
As friendly and flexible as Ubuntu is, eventually you are going to want to do something that you can’t do easily or at all. It is a different operating system, after all. It isn’t Windows or OS X, and it won’t always work like Windows or OS X, just like OS X doesn’t always work like Windows, and vice-versa.
Examples of problems you may need to solve in Ubuntu include using QuickBooks or editing PDFs or turning Bluetooth off (and keeping it off) so it doesn’t sit there, unused and sucking battery life from your laptop. They are the kind of things that not everyone needs or wants to do, so they aren’t high enough on the priority list to be supported.
One of the upsides to Ubuntu is the rich community of people who will help you solve these problems. Both the official documentation and the forums are packed with answers. For example, in older versions of Ubuntu, it annoyed me that the TrackPoint scrolling on my ThinkPad did not work. A quick search on the forums and I was able to fix it with little trouble. (It’s since been fixed by default, to my relief.)
For some things, like QuickBooks, you may have to find an alternative solution. (For those who know what I’m talking about, QuickBooks doesn’t work in WINE, and last time I checked, QuickBooks Online required Internet Explorer.) There are quite a few alternatives, but they aren’t all good. (I wrote briefly about my (expensive) problems with GnuCash, for example.) Since few people are running businesses on Ubuntu that are in any way similar to a law practice, it may be hard to tell which software will work, and which won’t.
Sometimes, alternative solutions may require you to get creative. For example, when I was using Ubuntu as my primary OS, there was no good alternative to Acrobat. So I ran a virtualized copy of Windows XP for Acrobat and a couple of other apps I needed to use. Did you understand all that? No? I didn’t, either, until I spent a few hours figuring it out.
For other problems, like turning Bluetooth off for good, you will find plenty of solutions. The problem is that they usually require the command line (i.e., text commands) to fix. There are good reasons for this, but also some problems. Do you know the difference between the following commands?
sudo rm -rf /
sudo gedit /etc/bluetooth/main.conf
One erases everything on your hard drive. The other allows you to edit a text file that prevents Bluetooth from starting when your computer boots up. Sure, it’s not hard to copy and paste a line of code into the terminal (as Linux stalwarts love to remind us). The problem is knowing what it will do to your computer. The community is often — but not always — quick to point out bad solutions, but you don’t want to be the one who demonstrates the problem.
Fortunately, Canonical, the company that is behind the Ubuntu version of Linux, offers what I’ve heard is excellent customer support, starting at just $105 per year for basic users. Of course, that’s more expensive than a Windows upgrade, which kind of defeats one of the primary purposes of using a free (as in no cost) open-source operating system.
Okay, so why use Ubuntu?
Despite all this, I haven’t run into a problem I couldn’t solve in Ubuntu, and for about three years, I used Ubuntu for my law practice without any major problems. I did cheat, just a little bit, by running a copy of Windows XP in VirtualBox — think Parallels or VMware Fusion for Macs — so that I could use the ScanSnap scanning utility instead of the clunkier options available for Ubuntu, and Adobe Acrobat, since Ubuntu didn’t have any good PDF editing software at the time. (PDF Studio looks like a pricey but serviceable option, now.) Even my Mac-using law clerk didn’t have any major problems learning Ubuntu.
Windows Vista’s bloat and pointless eye candy were what sent me to Ubuntu, until Windows 7 eventually won me back. Windows 8 just doesn’t make a lot of sense to me for regular old desktops and laptops, which is why I’m back exploring Ubuntu.
What Ubuntu offers is a rock-solid, secure operating system. When the Mac users in my office were howling in frustration, I was humming along without a hiccup. I was even using it on older hardware, which allowed me to get another year or two out of a laptop that was crawling along on Windows XP.
You also get a beautiful interface. Unity is the most innovative user interface you can get right now, and I’m including Windows 8 and OS X. The Unity interface is a completely fresh approach to using your computer. It is built around the idea that the user interface should be as out-of-the-way as possible, but helpful when you need it. Not everyone loves it, but I think Unity is a refreshing alternative to Windows and OS X. After using it for a while, Windows and OS X often feel crowded by comparison.
And Ubuntu just keeps getting better. New versions of Ubuntu are released every 6 months. Typically, one release each year introduces substantial new features, and the other focuses on refining the previous release. Every few years, Ubuntu designates a release LTS (Long Term Service), which means Canonical will support that release with security updates for 5 years, instead of the usual 18 months.
I always keep a copy of Ubuntu on hand, just because I like using it so much. I often boot up Ubuntu instead of Windows when I need to spend the day writing or working on Lawyerist’s back end. I just find it so much more pleasant to use.
And if nothing else, you’ve got to love the naming scheme.