What is it?

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.

Why?

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.

14 Responses

  1. luismago
    luismago February 25, 2007 at 2:53 am | | Reply

    Adam, may I translate this post into spanish and put it in http://blogdrake.net ?

  2. adamw
    adamw February 25, 2007 at 3:17 am | | Reply

    sure.

  3. yoho
    yoho February 25, 2007 at 4:50 am | | Reply

    Great analysis. I think you’re right : many users attach a lot of importance to little details.

    To give an example, when you see a typing mistake somewhere during installation, it may appear very benign to developers, but it has a very strong impact on the final user.

    I’m really convinced it’s as important to fix those little details than fixing bugs in software.

    One other thing with Mandriva vs Ubuntu : Ubuntu is really seen as a community among free software users. They constantly repeat they are a “friendly and easy distribution”, “Ubuntu is about freedom”, “Ubuntu’s community”. You can read those sentences everywhere. That’s marketing, but at least, they have a clear message. Tell me what is Mandriva message ? It used to be a distro for end-users : maybe it was wrong, but at least, people got the message.

    So I think Mandriva has lacked of good marketing strategy as well as a good reputation due to the “unfinished” taste release after release. Those two points has really improved with 2007.0, but it’s going to take time to reconquer users which left Mandriva. As a positive point, I see more and more users in the club forum switching back from Ubuntu to Mandriva. So keep up the good work !

  4. DoK
    DoK February 25, 2007 at 12:03 pm | | Reply

    I actualy think you are wrong this time.
    Yes there are many idiots out there but this is not the main reasone for the reactions to ubuntu.
    What I think is the main cause for those reactions are… previous such reactions.
    The magic of ubuntu is the same magic of firefox – it’s the power to make people say they like you and yet look cool (that’s to say in these cases “not geek”).
    Ubuntu realy has nothing basicly special- it’s not the installer, it’s not the selection of application, it’s not the look and it is certainly not GNOME (try looking for the reactions to kubuntu and you’ll see what I’m talking about).
    Ubuntu is special because -
    1. It’s far more friendly then Debian (many of the early adopters where debian users that saw ubuntu as a majore leap comparing to woody).
    2. It had a sexy (literaly) cover.
    3. It ships CD’s for free.
    4. Cannonical invested A LOT in PR.
    5. Ubuntu covers pretty well it’s proprietry parts (with either statements or the lack of it, depending on the specific issue).

    To sum – the major field where mandriva is lagging is PR but it sure is far far behind in this regard (eg. FOSDEM, immature PR notes, leakege of release notes…)

  5. wbeebe
    wbeebe February 25, 2007 at 1:03 pm | | Reply

    Very good response. I left a responses here: http://blogbeebe.blogspot.com/2007/02/why-it-is.html
    Thanks for insights.

  6. adamw
    adamw February 25, 2007 at 2:02 pm | | Reply

    DoK, with respect, I disagree. Well, to a point I agree, all those things help. But there really are some concrete things about Ubuntu which make it give the best first impression of all distros, assuming other things are equal. This is what I’m trying to isolate.

  7. DoK
    DoK February 25, 2007 at 3:13 pm | | Reply

    I think you are looking for practical reasons were emotions (and PR to promote it) is all there is.
    It’s kindda cool to say “I tried ubuntu and let me tell you… WOW” and it’s not the same with Mandriva.
    The 6.06 to 6.10 upgarde stories lowered the cheering volume but you can imagine what it would have looked like if that was Mandriva.

    BTW as you mentioned the installtion in particular I’ll remind the readers that early ubuntus suffered extremly long ncurses “graphical” installation process and the “WOW”s were just the same

  8. sebelk
    sebelk February 28, 2007 at 5:49 am | | Reply

    Adam, luismago

    I’ve already tranlated to spanish and published on:

    http://www.openkairos.com/content/view/205/1/

    I hope that Adam don’t becone angry for that :)

  9. sebelk
    sebelk February 28, 2007 at 5:55 am | | Reply

    I think that Mandriva should improve marketing strategy for example about Mandriva Club, I failed to explain to others and myself what benefits one gets being club member. It’s something like pay for nothing or worst “pay for then purshasing our stuff”. Ok, you can tell me, hey is a way of contributing, ok, so, Mandriva Club IS_NOT_A_SERVICE. I think that is an idea that it needs be revamped.

  10. jib
    jib March 2, 2007 at 7:28 am | | Reply

    well,
    ubuntu, being a debian-based distro, takes advantage of the optimum APT technology to manage packages and updates..
    APT is for sure much more reliable than RPM-based (sucj as “URPMI”), for what concerns dependencies integrity, smart updates and so on..

    URPMI sometimes can break your system (it happened to me several times in the past when I used mandrake)

  11. adamw
    adamw March 2, 2007 at 12:22 pm | | Reply

    This is really just not true. apt / dpkg has no significant advantages over urpmi / rpm. Any problems are _far_ more likely to be do to with the actual packages. The official Mandriva repositories are very solid these days, but there were problems in the past. Also, people often try and use unofficial packages or packages from other distros. In this case, you really can’t blame the distributor or the package management software for any problems encountered, as there’s nothing they could do to control this.

  12. mahlerfan
    mahlerfan March 2, 2007 at 11:12 pm | | Reply

    The problem with Mandriva is that it’s documentation is not centralized, instead you have several sites all pointing to each other. Not one of them gets to the point of telling you important information that you need to know. You have to sift through documentation that is uncommon for linux– it’s not to the point.

    The Mandriva repos are clearly inferior to Ubuntu’s. Their selection is significantly smaller and I ran into the problem of urpmi not resolving dependencies correctly on common software with no unofficial packages mucking up the process. Oh yeah and there’s the hassle of setting up your repo list which you don’t face in Ubuntu. Hey if that’s what a needed step, then blame the documentation! :D

    This is all from the ’07 release. But wait there’s more…

    The Mandriva community is smaller, less helpful. Ubuntu has not only great documentation of their own, including excellent quick start guides, but the forums are so active that it’s easy to find entire guides to doing anything that floats your boat.

    And of course the slow release cycle kills Mandriva and Suse (dated software). It might be more polished and stable, but most of the major distros release every six months.

    So if you want to know why Ubuntu is more popular than Mandriva (which are still very popular I might add) that’s it, Ubuntu has:

    (1) better package management
    (2) better documentation
    (3) better community
    (4) faster release cycle

    And what is not a valid reason? That Ubuntu is dumbed down and limiting in choices. Every linux distro is customizable on any level from the kernel through X. The install process is quick and easy because *you* are expected to customize and install the software you want after your os is installed. I will never believe any kind of argument about one distro being limited in choice in comparison to another, because they all based on gpl software that you can readily find and install (even if by source from an svn checkout or the web).

    Having choice and being forced to make one is not the same thing. But the blog seems to equate the two.

    And I would never say that distro X > distro Y because “You can, ultimately, do a lot more stuff a lot better”. I can’t speak for all linux users, but I’m using gnu software. I’ve had no problem installing it and using it on any linux distro as well as FreeBSD! Distros are judged by community, documentation, package management, integration and polish of the base software, kernel patches… which brings me to my final point:

    AdamW is right to criticize these meaningless fluff reviews based on “look, pretty colors!” Most reviews don’t mention anything important, they are simply reviewing the installer, and default wallpaper and themes. I’m just coming to Ubuntu’s defense because I can think of a few reasons why it’s #1. But with Mandriva’s now faster release cycle it will become a more serious contender again.

  13. adamw
    adamw March 3, 2007 at 1:49 am | | Reply

    “The Mandriva repos are clearly inferior to Ubuntu’s. Their selection is significantly smaller”

    I dispute this. Mandriva’s main + contrib package count is somewhere around 13,000. Ubuntu’s count including universe is rather similar, AFAIK – maybe a little more, but certainly not ‘significantly’.

    “and I ran into the problem of urpmi not resolving dependencies correctly on common software with no unofficial packages mucking up the process.”

    Please specify exactly what package. Preferably, file a bug at http://qa.mandriva.com/ .

    “Every linux distro is customizable on any level from the kernel through X.”

    This isn’t exactly true, at least not in a really useful way. Sure, you _can_ customize just about any distro in any way, but at some point it becomes basically indistinguishable from running LFS – you lose all the benefit of actually using a distro. The degree to which you can customize things – and the ease with which you can configure things – without losing the benefits of running a recognisable distro is an important way to distinguish between them (and basically Gentoo’s only area of strength compared to anything else at all). To take your example – sure, you can install anything from source on any distro (this is not really true, but let’s take it as a rule of thumb), but then part of the whole _point_ of running a distro is to save yourself from the arduous task of building everything from source, which is why all else being equal, people will likely prefer a distro with 15,000 packages to one with 500.

    I probably should have said “a lot more stuff a lot _easier_”, because it would be unfair to say you can’t do most things as well on Ubuntu as on MDV (or SUSE). I do think the level of work put into making it easy to perform useful tasks on MDV and SUSE is significantly higher than on Ubuntu at present, which is the thought I was trying to convey.

  14. bro
    bro March 26, 2007 at 8:23 am | | Reply

    You’ve got a point and you say it quite nicely. But my one reason for being a linux convert for a while now is Ubuntu. I actually like KDE more after having worked for quite a while with Gnome. I might like Suse or Mandriva, but For Sure It Did Not Install At All on my laptop while Ubuntu did. Mandriva just didn’t while the much bloated about ‘Vista killer’ Suse 10.1 or .2 what was it, was hell to install. No sound, graphics @ 400 x .. so no other windows fitted in my screen. The graphical install of ati didn’t work because the interface was too big for the screen resolution offered! Then I had no wifi..etc. Ubuntu had it All. That’s the reason I’m using it > it worked. And I’m not afraid of a little configuring. But I’m an end user, I want to use it.

    You’re right when you remark that a lot of people just install a distro and say everything is wonderfull. I’m an end user – there seem to be few of those in the linux community – I haven’t used windows in my house for a very long time.

    In a way Ubuntu does what Apple does so well. Ask no questions, use Sane Defaults. But things can be configured differently for those who want to anyway.

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