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How Does Ubuntu 9.04 Measure Up to Mac OS X?

Bypassing Windows altogether, Mark Shuttleworth has stated that OS X is the operating system to beat. With Ubuntu's 9.04 now in wide distribution, we look at how it stacks up with the competition.

Software Updates

Both operating systems can perform software updates through a graphical tool, although they take different approaches.  Ubuntu’s Update Notifier periodically checks for new packages, which the user can then choose to install on a package-by-package basis, and users can manually perform updates with Synaptic.  Apple’s Software Update also makes periodic checks, but Apple only infrequently makes releases.  When it does, they are bundled together; iTunes and iPhoto may receive stand-alone updates, but updates to the core of OS X are all-or-nothing, whole-OS affairs.

Apple’s update tool begins downloading available packages in the background without user intervention, so when the user is notified that an update is available there is usually no waiting.  On the down side, Apple’s system makes it impossible to downgrade to a previous version.  Not only that, but Apple’s update service does not update all software on the machine, but only core Apple products. Any third party applications are not managed and must be tracked manually by the user. In fact, even Apple’s own software development suite is not integrated in this service! Synaptic on the other hand allows users to skip or roll back an update if it proves problematic, and can be used for any package available on any Apt repository.  There are more and more third-party vendors running Apt repositories, including open source (e.g., Boxee) and closed (e.g., Google). 

One of the best Ubuntu innovations in recent years is the Launchpad Personal Package Archives system, with which any developer or team can painlessly run a robust Apt repository for the package of their choice.  It is easy to take such power for granted, but on OS X, if a non-Apple application wasn’t coded to automatically check for updates of itself (which some are), the only way to learn about a new release is to visit each application’s Web site and look for an announcement.

Grade: A+, for simple automatic updates, the ability to pick and choose, and integration of software regardless of its source.

Pricing

This category is a gimme for Ubuntu, which is free no matter how many machines you install it on, and no matter whether they are servers, desktops, laptops, netbooks, thin clients, or anything in between.  But it is also a good place to point out that not only is the OS free, but so are the applications.  iTunes, Safari, and Mail have their legions of fans on OS X, but don’t forget that Apple charges for iLife, iWork, and MobileMe.  It even charges for MPEG-2 support in QuickTime due to some 640 software patents which also affect free software users.  Plus, the “professional” creative apps Aperture, Final Cut, Logic Pro, Shake, and the rest cost considerably more.  As mentioned earlier, Ubuntu is still in need of better video tools, but a Raw photo workflow like Aperture provides is available for free, as are heavy hitters in audio editing and 3-D. While Ubuntu itself it free to install, commercial support is available for a fee, which means you can really get your money’s worth!

Grade: A+, because it can’t get lower than free.  Use the money you saved on Ubuntu to buy hardware, or — worst-case scenario — a commercial Linux application or support.

Support

Both Apple and Canonical will sell support contracts attractive to enterprise buyers, but for a typical desktop user these paid plans are not the usual approach.  To get help with Apple software, you can physically travel to the nearest Apple retail store, either making an appointment or waiting in line, and talk to an employee.  Depending on the question, you might have to pay.  You can also post to Apple’s discussion communities, which are organized by application, or search its online knowledge base.

Ubuntu has no retail stores, so face-to-face help is not an option, but it does have both online documentation and highly-trafficked user forums.  In addition to the official Ubuntu documentation site, the user community manages an extensive “community wiki” with more tutorial and troubleshooting content.  The ubuntuforums.org site groups discussions by release, desktop version, and subject, and hosts specialized forums for groups like local Ubuntu community teams (LoCos).  All old discussions are archived, constituting years’ worth of questions and answers.  Finally, the toughest questions that stump both wiki maintainers and forum regulars can always go directly to the developer.  Launchpad provides bug tracking and the ability to get in touch with the actual programmers working on the product in question — something Apple would never allow.

There are weaknesses in Ubuntu’s support system, such as the tendency for wiki pages to fall out of regular maintenance and either become obsolete or confused by too many independent, sometimes conflicting edits.  Sometimes the forums are so crowded that it can be difficult to search for an answer among previously-opened topics, many of which may sound similar from the subject heading and contain several pages’ worth of replies.  Still, if you are persistent, the forum volunteers will eventually notice your question among the others and you will find personal help.

If all else fails, commercial support for Ubuntu is available via their founding company, Canonical.

Grade: A-, better options than Apple’s, although the sheer volume sometimes makes it hard to navigate. Commercial support available, but overall Ubuntu has less presence than Apple and no shopfronts.

Concluding Thoughts

Over all, Ubuntu 9.04 averages a B+ in this comparison against Mac OS X usability.  Big changes in the last two of three years have raised the usability of desktop Linux as a whole — just consider the importance of being able to configure the monitor without editing xorg.conf; the difference is night and day.  The areas in which Ubuntu comes up short OS X in this review are considerably smaller in scope — an unpredictable “suspend” here, a not-very-helpful help system there, some missing or difficult to use applications.

But that does not mean that filling in all of the small gaps is easy work; in fact it may get more difficult.  As Shuttleworth admits, it is not going to be an overnight story.  A part of that challenge, he adds, is figuring out how Canonical can inspire both consistency and innovation in the broader open source community. Ubuntu has also recently launched a project to fix niggling usability issues, called One Hundred Paper Cuts. The project aims to improve the user experience by identifying one hundred issues which negatively impact the user’s experience, but which can be fixed relatively easily. It’s certainly a move in the right direction!

That emphasis on the community is a critical point — Ubuntu and the other distributions can do integration work, and can accomplish impressive feats through integration, but pushing real usability changes through requires buy-in from desktop environments, applications, library developers, kernel developers, and everyone else in the Linux food chain.  Shuttleworth thinks there is widespread interest in the usability challenge, noting that both GNOME and KDE have raised their commitment to usabilty.  “Canonical is participating in their efforts, as well as driving the new cross-desktop-usability ideas we’re pursuing under the Ayatana flag,” he said, “Whether we can pull all of those threads together in something harmonious remains to be seen.”  Bill Gates made the mistake of underestimating Linux when his product was in its crosshairs — we’ll see whether Steve Jobs learned anything from that story in the months and years ahead.

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