July 19, 2008

Ubuntu hits new high in Linux boredom

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Last weekend a friend was moaning about endless problems with Windows XP on his desktop PC. We installed Ubuntu 7.04 on it. The problems went away. That started me thinking about my own "daily driver" computer, a Dell Latitude that also runs Ubuntu 7.04, and it made me realize that I hadn't thought about my laptop or its operating system in many months. Linux -- especially Ubuntu -- has become so reliable and simple that for most end users it's simply not worth thinking about, any more than we think about tools like wrenches and screwdrivers. Does this mean desktop GNU/Linux has become so boring that it's not worth noticing?

Right now 8.04 is the latest Ubuntu version. I've stuck to 7.04 because I feel no great need to update a reliable system that does everything I ask of it. Yes, there was one major security flaw in 7.04, but Ubuntu's auto-update feature took care of that for me long ago, and took care of it immediately during the install process on my friend's machine.

And, as I type this, I'm (automatically) downloading and installing 24 Ubuntu software updates. Since I'm using a mature, "tried and true" version of Ubuntu, and haven't moved to the latest/greatest version of any software I use regularly -- I'm still running Firefox 2.xx, for example -- I run almost no risk of these updates breaking my system. I haven't thought about Ubuntu updates in several years; they've become that reliable, another "it just works" situation that doesn't impinge on my consciousness. Indeed, I only really thought about updating Ubuntu now because I'm writing this article.

A problem with Microsoft Office 2007

Let me make one thing clear: I personally have no problem with Microsoft Office 2007 or any other version of Microsoft Office, since I do not own and have never owned Microsoft Office. The problem I'm talking about here was with a political candidate friend of mine, who has a new computer and a new copy of Vista and a new copy of Office. He sent document after document to another friend, who is helping him with his campaign, and she couldn't read them -- with an older version of Office.

I had no problem reading his Office 2007 docs in OpenOffice.org (OOo). There's an odf-converter-integrator add-on that seems to handle Office 2007 formats just fine. The version of OOo that came with Ubuntu 7.04 supposedly didn't have it or may have had a primitive alpha version -- but it seems that somewhere along the way a workable method of reading Office 2007 documents with OOo was installed in my system by one of those nifty Ubuntu updates. How nice!

Meanwhile, after some rooting around, we found that Microsoft has some sort of add-on utility that allows users of pre-2007 Office versions to read files from Office 2007. But in the end it was easier to teach the candidate to use the option in Office 2007 to save his work in the old .doc format than to try to get the eight or 10 people with whom he routinely shares files to update their copies of Office.

And somewhere in there, two of the candidate's friends learned that I used some sort of magic, free office software and wanted to know how to get it. I told them. Two more (Windows, for now) OpenOffice.org users in the world!

A tiny, minor victory for open source.

An only slightly larger one is that I have helped a group of about eight people switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox (sorry, still Windows) and several of them have dumped Outlook Express in favor of Thunderbird. More expect to jump on this train before long.

Will any of them jump completely into the GNU/Linux pool? Not yet, but I don't think it will be long before more of them ask me to put Linux on their computers. They've seen my laptop and admired its clean, rapid simplicity and lack of extraneous browser toolbars and desktop icons for software I don't want, and have grown tired of the endless cost of antivirus software, which they all seem to buy from whatever company paid their computer vendor to put its trial version on their computers.

The Vista elephant in the room

My friends and neighbors are not necessarily prosperous. Some are plain blue-collar workers, some are artists, some are retired. Not many of them enjoy using computers. They do it, often reluctantly, and upgrade their hardware and software only when they feel they have no other choice, not because they enjoy playing with the latest technology. Buying a new computer is a major step for most of them, and their most typical reason for doing it is problems with the computers they already own, not a desire for new features.

Now that the only Windows choice for most computer buyers is Vista, I am seeing a new reluctance to buy new hardware. Even my least-computer-sophisticated neighbors have heard and read enough about Vista to know they don't want it. Imagine their quandary: they can either keep their current "broken" computers or replace them with Vista computers that may be nearly as problematical as what they already have.

A third choice is to have a professional fix the computer they already own, but the vast majority of local computer owners I know have had poor experiences with well-known computer repair operations, notably ones associated with major electronics retailers we will kindly not name here, which brings them to a common, fourth alternative: Find a friend or a friend of a friend who "knows about computers" and beg for help.

If I am that friend -- which, due to a hectic schedule I try hard not to be -- I refuse to reinstall Windows unless the person asking is totally dependent on software that isn't available for Linux.

Otherwise, I insist on installing GNU/Linux on the "broken" computer. Yes, I end up answering a bunch of questions. As many Linux.com readers know, once you help a non-knowledgable computer user in any way, you seem to become their (free) computer advisor forever.

For whatever it's worth, I've found that, after an initial spate of questions, a moderately current (but not leading edge) Linux installation tends to generate less stress and less pain than either a Windows XP reinstall or a brand new computer running Vista.

Yes, it's exciting to have that new computer smell and a brand new, heavily advertised Windows operating system. But for most people I know, a boring "it just works" computer is preferable to a new, exciting one, and Linux has become a complete snooze for almost any computer user -- even those who need to have the difference between the left mouse button and the right one explained to them.

With all that said, I will now reboot. The Ubuntu update that went on in the background while I was typing includes a kernel update, which, unlike most updates, requires a restart. Unlike Windows, Ubuntu has not constantly pestered me to reboot even though I was in the middle of a task where it would have been inconvenient.

Once again, we have a true-to-life example of how Linux has become boring -- in the best possible way.


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