February 24th, 2007
Another of those bizarre raves about Ubuntu.
It’s a perfect example of the genre, really. The guy installs the distro, installs some updates, runs Firefox, reboots, and concludes it’s the best thing he’s ever seen.
This has been bugging me for a while. The easy conclusion is “they’re all idiots”, but hey, that’s a lot of idiots giving Canonical all the press time and ‘market’ share. So whether they’re idiots or not, someone has got to figure out what it really _is_ about Ubuntu that gives such a great first impression to so many people. Because, make no mistake about it, there’s absolutely no substance to this review. Every distro uses the same font rendering engine – freetype. Every distro includes Firefox. There’s nothing special about the Ubuntu installer (the One installer is as good or better, if a bit less polished; other distros have similar features). The sound thing is just regular Distribution Hardware Randomness – note how he compares Ubuntu to ‘earlier’ distros, likely any distro of the same kernel vintage would work.
The only conclusion I’ve come to yet is that what people _say_ impresses them about Ubuntu is not what actually impresses them about Ubuntu. What impresses them is something else that they don’t manage to actually write down.
What impresses me about Ubuntu every time I install it in a VM is the fundamental – to use a controversial term – GNOMEness of everything. It’s very definitely the GNOME of distros, where SUSE and Mandriva are the KDE. You don’t get a lot of choices. Everything is very streamlined, very efficient, and very well designed. There are little bits of this experience hiding in this review trying to get out, like the smooth way the Ubuntu update process works (using a very well designed updater and judicious use of the notification system).
To me Ubuntu is, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, a triumph of style over substance – it’s not that it doesn’t _have_ substance, but it doesn’t have any _more_ substance than anyone else (it really has less); it just uses style to give the impression that it does. I’m not suggesting this is lame or cheap, I’m suggesting it’s something others could learn from.
The process of installing Mandriva or SUSE is utterly different. In many ways it’s better; you get more stuff and more choices for what to do with it. But it’s an experience no-one exactly enjoys, it’s more a task you slog through and then arrive at the end thinking ‘well, I’m glad THAT’S over’. Installing Ubuntu, by contrast, feels kind of…cool. Sure, if you want to do something the installer doesn’t want you to do, you’re up a creek without a paddle, but the feeling is important. This applies even to the One installation, which is much more streamlined than DrakX. It’s still slightly inelegant. It still asks you more questions than you quite feel comfortable answering. It still feels, basically, like looking after the neighbour’s kids. Installing Ubuntu feels like the _other_ neighbour’s extremely cool university student offspring taking you to all the best clubs in town. It’s glitzy and shiny and makes you feel a bit like a rock star. I think that’s the feeling all these Ubuntu reviews try (and fail) to pin down.
I still believe MDV is a far better distro than Ubuntu. (I also think SUSE is.) You can, ultimately, do a lot more stuff a lot better. But it doesn’t make you feel like a rock star. I think we (and our erstwhile colleagues / competitors at Novell) need to work on that a bit.