As promised in my last blog entry, I spent a little time test driving Ubuntu, a free, open-source, Linux operating system. Ubuntu is published by a UK company called Canonical. It is billed on its website as “The leading operating system for PC’s, IoT devices, servers, and the cloud.” I wanted to evaluate Ubuntu as a possible alternative to Windows for day-to-day PC operations. I’ll cut right to the chase: for me, it’s not a viable alternative.
Ubuntu was relatively quick and easy for me to get up and running. I found a pretty good document on Lifewire which helped me set up a spare laptop (our old Dell Latitude E6520) to dual boot Windows and Ubuntu. Dual booting allows the user to choose between two operating systems at startup.
I downloaded the latest LTS (long-term support) version of Ubuntu, released in the spring of 2018 and patched afterward, then created a bootable flash drive and ran through the setup without problems or long delays. Setup was pretty straightforward and all of the hardware was supported — two obvious strengths of Ubuntu, especially compared to older versions of Windows. Most computer users buy a computer with an operating system already installed and never change it, except for updates. Therefore, if you want to compete with Microsoft and Apple for installed base, you have to make it as painless as possible.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take me long to feel the pain. One of the many applications bundled with Ubuntu is Mozilla Thunderbird, a popular email client that probably works well for a lot of folks. But one weekend last autumn, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Thunderbird stopped working correctly with Comcast email accounts and it still hasn’t been fixed. Yes, it’s possible — though not easy — to find information about the problem, along with conflicting suggestions about fixing it. I implemented a fix that required pointing the program to a server that neither Mozilla nor Comcast seemed to know much about. My email then worked.
Problem solved, right? Not exactly. The fix required setting a security exception to ignore a security certificate discrepancy. Doing so was against the guidance provided by Thunderbird itself, but I was just trying to get into my own email. Within minutes, however, I thought “What the hell am I doing?” I realized that I was getting my email via a server I knew nothing about, aside from the fact that it had a sketchy security certificate and I was accessing it with my UNENCRYPTED email password. This is something that I never would have recommended to anyone else.
I promptly deleted the email settings, uninstalled Thunderbird, and changed my email password via another computer. A few days later I got rid of Ubuntu, reclaimed my disk space, and cleaned up the boot menu.
What went wrong? An application bundled with the operating system failed to work with my email provider, which happens to be a very big company, and the problem has been going on for months. If Microsoft Outlook stopped working with a Comcast email account, I’d expect either Microsoft or Comcast to fix it quickly, as in hours or days. With a free OS and email app, apparently all bets are off. The problem hasn’t been fixed and one workaround poses an unacceptable security risk.
In prior blogs I’ve talked about commercial products approaching or reaching end of support. Just as bad, or even worse, may be free products that have little or no official technical support to begin with. In the case of a commercial product — an older version of Microsoft Windows or Office, for example, or our old Dell laptop, for another — there are usually fairly long product cycles. These things are supported for a long time (though not forever) and there’s usually a a legacy of published documentation and updates. But where does one turn for reliable, authoritative information about free software? Who is responsible for making this stuff work?
One of the utilities that ships with Ubuntu has a disclaimer that states flatly “This program comes with absolutely no warranty.” It also appears to come with little or no documentation. I found the following in the product’s frequently asked questions listing:
Q: Where can I find some documentation?
A: (Product Name) was designed to be hopefully work for most people without the aid of any documentation. But if you want to find some technical information, the (Product Name) Wiki page might be useful.
It doesn’t inspire confidence. And while I’m sure there are people who are willing to try to figure out how to use a program completely by guessing, I also know that I’m not one of them. I don’t care if something is “free” if it’s so hard to use or so poorly supported that it wastes my time.
If you want a proprietary system that is easy to use and well supported, and one that doesn’t change radically from one version to the next, a Mac is probably the way to go.
I used to joke that Macs are just like PC’s, except in every conceivable detail. In truth, they are just different enough from PC’s that I have trouble using them and they’re expensive enough that I have difficulty affording them.
Computers SHOULD be easy enough to use that they don’t require so much work. They’re supposed to be tools right?
Linux operating systems like Ubuntu are not taking over the desktop, contrary to what some of their fans have been telling us for the better part of thirty years. Linux may be running tons of embedded systems, servers and supercomputers, but the overwhelming majority of personal computers are running some version of Windows or Mac OS X.
Why is Linux still failing on the desktop after all these years? I think it’s largely because the OS and bundled apps still don’t feel like consumer products; they feel like something written in a programming commune.
Too many rough edges and too little support equals not a better mousetrap, just a cheap one.