Ubuntu: The AOL of Linux?July 27, 2006
More and more, it seems like a person can not have a discussion about Linux on the desktop without talking about Ubuntu. I compare different versions of a distro and someone wonders, “What about Ubuntu?” Someone wants to write about the history of Linux and people start suggesting the release of Ubuntu as some sort of major milestone. Just like I can’t pick up a PC magazine without reading about Windows, I can’t talk about Linux without mentioning Ubuntu. Just like a person could not have a web address without an AOL keyword in the 1990′s, one cannot have a Linux application without having a version for Ubuntu. See a trend?
Ubuntu sits at the number one spot on Distrowatch because of…what? Is it because it is the best distribution in existence? I don’t hear anyone saying that and it would be silly to say that unless a person tries several. Is it because it is the easiest to use? No, I have already posted to that issue twice. Is it because Ubuntu is the latest? No, because new distributions come out every day.
So what is behind this big Ubuntu hype? For one thing, it is the only distro offering to send out bundles of CDs absolutely free. I can order 5, 10 or more of these things and as long as I’m willing to wait 6 weeks for it to arrive from France, I’m okay. In this way, it does begin to look a bit like AOL, who still sends out free CDs. Once you get the CD, what exactly do you get? Well, you get some lovely programs that can be found on other distros. You also get a lovely multimedia presentation including a video featuring Nelson Mandela. No tutorials and not much of a help file, though. You do get access to a large repository of applications, which appears to be the biggest bonus that they have going. That looks a lot like AOL, since they also boasted huge repositories of free games for downloading in their early days. And for Mac users like me, that was no small selling point.
AOL marketed itself as the internet, and for millions of people it really was the only internet they had ever known for YEARS. Nevermind that is was high cost, and there were better ISPs out there and that it was difficult getting help from a live person when needed. One of the biggest complaints about Ubuntu is the lack of useful help available on its forums. I have read some posts but I don’t feel I’ve spent enough time with anyone’s help forums to make a fair comparison.
I’ve spent enough time with Ubuntu to feel comfortable in saying that it is neither the best Linux distro nor the easiest Linux distro. It is merely the most hyped. Fans of other versions of Linux can learn a thing or two from folks marketing Ubuntu because it really has been cleverly promoted within the community. A recognizable icon, a clever motto (An OS for human beings) that also happens to be short and easy to remember. A snazzy and cool spokeperson in the form of Nelson Mandela, and making the thing extemely painless to acquire in the form of free postage. Not that free downloads are that difficult. Who would have ever thought that the color brown would suddenly become so cool?
I’ve tried to like Ubuntu. I wanted to like it. I really wanted to understand what all the fuss was about. Maybe someone can educate me (in newbie-speak) and explain what is so great about this distro. What is being done with it that is so different and better than what anyone else is doing? Besides generating the hype?
Is the hype bad? I don’t know. My fear is that people new to Linux will first get exposed to Ubuntu (which is not the easiest of distros) and that will be their first and last point of contact before going back to Windows. Like me, people who are generally savvy with computers will feel so foolish for even trying this thing that everyone in the community feels is the best thing since sliced bread and not knowing why it isn’t working. So in this way, Ubuntu departs from AOL which made the internet easy and accessible to newbies by the busload. They came, they stayed and then went on to better Internet options. If the same happens with Linux, it might be a good thing in the long run if they stay around long enough for an enjoyable experience.