Ubuntu, which direction are you heading?

Updated: December 28, 2009

What prompted me to write this article was the unveiling of first Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid Lynx alphas, the next Ubuntu edition and the upcoming Long Term Support (LTS) release. This article is not just a rant. It's truly an open question.

It all started when I came across a rather interesting article over at ghacks.net, showing off the new Ubuntu looks. Please spend a moment or two reading. Yup, the rumor has it that Lucid Lynx might ship with the new Windows-like looks out of the box. Smoked glass effects like Aero. What?!


Rumor and the fear of future

I do not know if this is true or not, but it sparked my curiosity that I downloaded Lucid Alpha and tried it, against my own rule of not testing Alphas, in general. Firing up Lucid, it's virtually indistinguishable from Karmic. You get the stock Human theme, no transparency out of the box. It's all there.

I could relax. For a moment there, I was truly frightened that Ubuntu might become a Windows clone, in looks if not in functionality. And it may, yet.

Think of this article as an alternative future. What would happen if Ubuntu truly decides to go for the Microsoft kind of styling, mistaking it for a good thing. Needless to say I truly dislike this approach, even if it's only a theoretical concept. But what if ... Well, read this article.

To make you understand what I'm so vehemently protesting against, I did quite a bit of artistic homework. I grabbed one of my Karmic test machines and hacked it so it could show off some of the transparency tricks, called RGBA, like the rumored future theme.

I hacked the Gnome and Nautilus, set up Compiz and installed a few Vista-like themes, trying to mimic the image you've seen earlier.

And here's a series of images I produced in my own testing:

Transparency 1

Transparency 2

Transparency 3

Transparency 4

Transparency 5

Transparency 7

Well, you may think the end result is stylish. You may call it cool. In general, I might agree with you. For three whole seconds of fun. And then, I'd go back to work.

What do you see? A whole lots of overlapping, semi-transparent windows. Some might call it dashing and whatnot. I say unnecessary. Complete visual distraction. Instead of focusing your eyes on the active window, where you actually work, you have snippets of inactive content peeking at you from underneath, not really in focus, kind of blurred, kind of wrong.

Did you ever trying reading a newspaper through smoked glass or watch TV with a shirt pulled over your head? You see, of course, but not quite as sharp as your eyes can manage. That's only one part of it. Pandora's Box has been opened.

Then, there are other changes coming. Like the revamp of the package management utility. According to rumors, no more Synaptic. GIMP is gone too. And so it goes, a revolution. So, what we have here is the Ubuntu Software Center (USC) but no Synaptic and a new theme, with sickly, blurred transparency akin to Windows 7. Which brings me to my original question, the title of this article.

Where is Ubuntu heading?

I have a few speculations that I'd like to share.

Mark Shuttleworth is a very smart man. He's done once and he's trying to do it again. He wants to be the man who brought Linux to the masses and the man who snubbed Steve Job's nose. Steven Ballmer comes later.

This is an interesting idea. Most importantly, it may introduce more heat into the computing market, which is always good for us, the customers. The more competition there is, the higher the quality of the software offered, the wider and better the range of goods. Take a look at the browser wars.

A healthy competition between Windows, Mac and Linux will mean cheaper software and software licenses, more software, better compatibility of file formats, better driver support, more official support from vendors and OEMs, more games for Linux. It will surely be a winner, if it happens. But can it? Ubuntu is heading in one of the two following directions:

Trying to overcome Mac

To do this, Ubuntu has to leverage its free price with solid support, impeccable stability, and a flawless and artfully crafted user interface. Not an easy task. And by going with a new sickly transparent theme, Ubuntu just yanked the mat under its own feet. You are not going to win Mac users over if you give them ugly Windows 7 like looks.

And yes, the transparent Windows borders used in Windows 7 or Lucid are not pretty. There's a difference between transparent and hazy. Apparently, some people can't see the difference. Does Snow Leopard use that fuzzy shadowing thingie? Nope.

GUI has to be crystal clear. Windows borders, fonts, whatever, need to be sharp. You can have excellent visual effects without making someone's eyes water. Take Mandriva 2010 KDE as a great example.

Mandriva looks

Superb finish, without straining your vision. You have lovely colors, compositing, shadows, everything, all working marvelously. The fact Microsoft have come up with an idea how the user interface should look like does not turn in into a holy grail. And seriously, how can anyone, honestly, like this:

Win looks

Baby colors? Swapping the color palette does not make it any better. Or the pseudo-transparency that comes with Aero.

Aero 1

Aero 2

You get a sort of a bottom-of-the-Russian-pickles-jar effect, which kind of smears everything underneath. You might call it smoky, but you can also call it distributing. Smears don't sit well with our eyes. Ask any optometrist.

And what if I want to hide my stuff that's underneath? Why should anyone have a peek of what's beneath my active window. For Aero users, a serious question, aren't you bothered by the weak smudges. Look at the address bar, where it says bbc.co.uk. Look at the pale areas of gray there. It's unclean, it's chaotic.

I maybe an old git when it comes to style and whatnot, but I think I'm not far off the mark with my astute observations.

This is how it ought to be done ...

Ah yes, on the other hand, Apple does this:

Apple looks

Notice how they go for sharp outlines and only gently smooth things with soft gradients? There is no color variation horizontally, only vertically, because people have problems with horizontal changes. Go figure why, but that's how it is. Notice the contrast. If there's GUI you should mimic, then go for Mac.

Or, if you want the quick, simple alternative, the stock Gnome looks that served us so loyally so far will suffice. They are sharp, rounded and soft. Much closer to Mac ideal than the new theme.

Gnome theme

Or maybe this:

Looks 2

Much simpler, much more elegant. Sometimes, less is more. A well known saying in the Interior Design department. I knows, cause I watched some episodes of Collin & Justin.

Getting the Mac looks is not difficult. Even small distros running Xfce with a few lovely themes can be pimped up to a high level of visual classiness. Take Vector Linux for example.

Vector Linux example

Or perchance Crunchbang, which does wonders with Openbox.

Crunchbang example 1

Crunchbang example 2

The point is, you get Mac-like elegance by adhering to a few simple rules: few colors, sharp lines, soft gradients, crisp fonts. Very simple and yet so hard to achieve by so many.

Trying to overcome Windows

To do this, Ubuntu needs to leverage its free price and security against Windows popularity, familiarity and the range of available software. The new theme might sway a few stray souls, but at the end of the day, it comes down to people being able to chat, watch movies and write documents in something that feels and behaves like Microsoft Office.

Then, there's the matter of life cycle and release support. With 18 months support, Ubuntu has no chance against Microsoft. Even LTS can't do much. Just to give you a crude example, Windows XP, officially released in 2001, is going to be supported until 2014, at the very least. And the end date may yet stretch, as it has already many times in the past years.

Can you imagine your average user reinstalling every six months?

Now, you may say, Ubuntu has the upgrade function. But, let's examine this function:

It does not work with proxies. It fails in about 20-30% of cases, if I can use the official Ubuntu forums as its own benchmark. The official recommendation is to install fresh rather than upgrade. Can you imagine your average Windows user/convert handling partitions or the bootloader? Every six months?

Then, when and if the upgrade completes, you get kernel crashes or your audio stops working. Happened to me, I don't see why it can't happen to anyone else. No drivers for the old ATI graphic card on my T42, just five years old, deliberately removed from the repositories. Are you going to tell the T42 users they should buy new computers, because you can't be bothered to support old, boring hardware?

The, there's the matter of things changing between releases. Rather drastically. Ubuntu Jaunty had both Add/Remove and Synaptic available for package management. It also had Pidgin. Ubuntu Karmic uses Synaptic but replaces Add/Remove with Software Center, which does not permit multiple installations at the same time. It also comes with Epiphany as the choice Instant Messenger, rather than Pidgin, except that is supports fewer protocols and does not work with proxy. Ubuntu Lucid is going to drop Synaptic and use only the Software Center or a variation thereof. You are also going to lose GIMP.

Throw in GRUB 2 bootloader, added to the official release while still in beta. Can you imagine Microsoft or Apple shipping their operating systems with such a critical piece of software like the bootloader, beta quality?

GRUB beta

Can you imagine them making no less than three total overhauls to software management in just one year? And each time, getting a different set of programs and no guarantee things that worked perfectly ain't gonna get broke.

Personally, if you ask me, the most important thing about operating system is the stability. The knowledge that it's going to run tomorrow the same as it does today. I've come to fear updates and upgrades, because I honestly do not know what perfectly working component is going to break. And then you get kernel crashes, which I've never ever had before with Ubuntu. Or any home Linux, for that matter, save Fedora, which is essentially alpha software all the time.

Kernel crash

For those wondering what kernel crashes are, they are the Linux equivalent of Blue Screens of Death (BSOD). On Windows, they usually happen when people use bad drivers or lame security software that cripples their system. Or when your GPU overheats. In the last five years, my two Windows XP machines, running 24/7, have suffered a total of one BSOD each, both due to GPU overheating. My experience with Ubuntu 9.10 Karmic resulted in one kernel crash within less than two hours of testing it. That's not how you beat Microsoft.

What about Linux users?

Ah, let's not forget the Linux users, the loyal crowd who actually made Ubuntu so famous, someone like me, spreading the word far and wide and educating masses on the wonders of open-source.

Why am I not entitled to being a happy Ubuntu user, too? Why is all the effort directed only toward getting Windows users converted and screw the loyal fans?

I don't know what happened when Apple started, but I guess it was pretty much the same. They took Unix and they de-unixified it. Ubuntu is doing the same. No inittab, no runlevels, no Xinetd, init is gone and replaced by Upstart. Slowly, Ubuntu is becoming more and more detached from the conventional Linux standards.

This might be good. This might the only way it is going to make it big. In a few years, Ubuntu may become the new operating system. Not Ubuntu Linux, rather just Ubuntu. The fact it came from Linux won't matter much. I understand this, but I do not like this.

And it would not bother me, if I could still keep doing things the way I want. One of the coin words in the open-source world is freedom. The freedom to choose and use software the way you want.

This does not happen when you take away my runlevels. But forget that. That's geeky stuff. Although important, no one sane really cares about that. What about software? I did not ask for new subversion client. All I want is to use GUI. GUI! To be able to install programs like I've been doing the last 3-4 years. Why take that away from me? Why take away GIMP. I work with it. It's great. It's the free alternative to Photoshop and everyone loves and adores Photoshop. When people want to make some small changes to their images, they say, I'm gonna photoshop that. So why take it away?

Why do I have to fear the upgrade cycle? Why do I have to dread every six months what new nasty surprise is going to break my software? And I'm a relatively new Linux user, only about five or so years using the operating system. What about people who have dabbled in Linux since early 90s? Are you going to reeducate them, too?

I'm not a monkey you can potty-train every three days a new trick. I'm a serious user and I don't accept any games with my productivity. The fact the operating system comes for free does not turn me into a beggar. I want to spend my time coding in Perl, writing Web articles, using virtualization, and profiling the kernel. I don't want to waste my time relearning new update managers or IM clients. I'm not an unemployed teenager who gets impressed by shiny colors. Gimme a break. I want stability. Stability means knowing what tomorrow brings. Period.


All in all, this alternative future where you must use a Gnomified version of Aero may never come. And it small bits, the changes might be easy to swallow. But three package managers, Upstart, a beta version of GRUB, and stripping away essential software, all this in the time it takes to say Vorsprung durch Technik, well, it's too much. There's change and there's Captain Picard, Warp 9, engage.

I have no doubt Mark Shuttleworth is a man of great vision. I see his vision. I know that he has also marked me and thousands of other geeks as an unnecessary burden in his goal to operating system market dominance. Because we like things the way they are, we are conservative, minimalists, and we don't get easily impressed by useless eye candy, and we prefer functionality over trifles.

Competing against Windows and Mac is a very noble goal. I really applaud it. I hope the fight gets more serious. In the end, the customers are going to benefit from it. You and me will have more software for less money. But ...

But you can't beat Windows by offering a Windows-looking clone. Because people will still want their Office and their whatever. You may claim that people will have a free Windows alternative available and will flock to it. Well, they already have a free Windows alternative. It's called pirated Windows and it's rampant.

Winning over Mac is not going to be easy. How do you beat perfect looks and perfect stability? Price? Can you leverage price against everything? The way things are, stability has not been Ubuntu's prime goal in the last few releases, and it's getting worse. The ultra-short release cycle does not help.

The market has Windows and it does not need a new one. The market has Mac and it does not need a new one. It needs something else, unique, different. If Ubuntu wants to become the next big operating system, it must make a real change, a revolution. Now, Moblin sounds like a revolution. Google Chrome OS sounds like a revolution.

I do not really know how to make a desktop that will beat Microsoft or Apple. In the netbook and smartphone industry, yes, definitely. On the high-end machines? I really can't say. I hope Ubuntu will make it. And this article, my frustration, they stem from my genuine fear that the way things are currently, it's not going to get any better for Linux.

Time to wrap this one. My message is, stability first, gimmicks later. I want my stuff to work, all the time, every time, forever. Once we get past that bridge, we can discuss eye candy and killing my programs.