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Two Simple Suggestions for Ubuntu

As Ubuntu's popularity increases, how can we help to ensure that new users get the best experience possible?

My last (admittedly strongly worded) article appears to have touched quite a nerve out there in the community.

Perhaps some readers jumped the gun when they saw the title and didn’t read the whole article, or perhaps I didn’t make my point clear. Either way, I’ve decided to clarify my perspective a little (if anyone bothers to come back to read it), because I actually do care about Linux.

Clarifications

The first thing I want to clarify is that I’m not saying Ubuntu is a bad operating system, or even a bad Linux distribution. For ease of use for new users it remains one of the best choices available. I’m also not even saying that Karmic is a particularly worse release than any other. I’m also not saying that Windows is good, nor that OS X is perfect. The reason I referred to OS X is because that’s Shuttleworth’s goal for Ubuntu – to surpass it.

I’m a Linux guy. For me, of course Linux is the best operating system ever there was. I want it to be even better.

As I mentioned in my article, Ubuntu has done (and continues to do) a lot of good for Linux. They have made many of the previously hard tasks much simpler. As a result, they have also converted new users like no other distro before them.

What I am saying however is that, in general, a new version of Ubuntu is simply not stable enough at the time of release. I’m not particularly complaining about everything else Ubuntu does, just primarily that the releases are not solid enough. Many people know this, which is self evident by the number of major issues people are having, the bugs in the release notes, and the fact that it’s common practice to not upgrade for a month. This is not a good thing, especially for new users.

This is what the article was about – issues with a new release, primarily the upgrade experience failing or causing issues. Shouldn’t we make Linux the best it possibly can be?

The Cause

Ubuntu Community Manager, Jono Bacon, recently wrote on his blog in relation to this issue:

“Karmic was a ballsy release: we shipped some adventurous new technology and in the short six-month cycle that we are committed to, we tried to ship the most exciting, feature-full and compelling release that we could.”

Non-LTS versions of Ubuntu are more bleeding edge, we all know that. Even so, they are still meant to be stable releases. It’s a fine line between stability and features, I understand that. It’s a hard thing to judge and get right. Add to all that a strict timeline and commercial pressure and you might get a less than desirable result. Can we have an exciting, feature-full and compelling release that is also highly stable?

At the end of the day, Ubuntu (and Linux in general) gets judged by what is put out there. If a release does have some major bugs, the perception among the community will reflect that.

Jono also said:

“I don’t want to denigrate the experiences of our users who face problems: if something goes wrong, that user’s experience is genuinely marred. Irrespective of whether the fault was in our package, with hardware, with networking, in the upstream version of the software or elsewhere, that user had a bad experience, and we need to come together as a project to help prevent these problems from occurring again.”

Exactly. He’s spot on.

A few days ago, a proposal was put forward to increase community involvement in testing Ubuntu before it’s released. A post on their blog reads:

“We cannot leave quality to good luck. We cannot rely in having millions of users who will find bugs as they use the applications. Our users want to use the software, not to find bugs and report them. FOSS projects in general and Ubuntu in particular need a new way of rethinking testing as a skilled activity and an opportunity to contribute to the project.”

Once again, this is dead right. With Lucid 10.04 being a LTS (Long Term Support) release, naturally it will not be pushing the envelope as much in terms of new features. It will also be much more thoroughly tested with an earlier freeze.

The Downside

Of course, there will always be bugs. The fact is that Karmic has caused a lot of problems and broken many peoples’ machines. The question remains, is that a good thing? Is it acceptable? I don’t think anyone can honestly believe that it is.

I know that there are a lot of excuses; “It’s free software,” “Canonical is a small company,” “There’s too much hardware out there,” etc. I get that. The bottom line however, is that it’s a reality which we need to deal with and tackle. Relying on these excuses is not going to cut it long term, especially as Ubuntu becomes more and more popular.

As I’ve said many, many times, I’m not so concerned about the technical people out there who come across an issue and workaround or solve it. What does concern me is the average user who has finally taken the plunge from Windows. They need the best experience possible and an upgrade which breaks their machine is the exact opposite of that. End users don’t care that it’s free. End users don’t care about any of the excuses we currently make, they just want things to work.

Sure, over time each release gets better as more bugs are found and fixed, and that’s exactly the point. It takes time after the final version is out. Updating to Karmic today, is much better than it was two weeks ago. Currently however, the update manager prompts users to upgrade right at the time of release before many major problems are resolved, and that’s just a bit too risky.

If Ubuntu is going to throw in lots of extra changes to a release and are expecting things to be dodgy, perhaps they should communicate this more clearly. The oft recommended solution is to only use a LTS release of Ubuntu. These releases are usually more thoroughly tested (which is to say that non-LTS releases are less tested), which is good.

Unfortunately however, LTS releases are not really a great option for the desktop because they end up being so old. For example, current LTS users only have OpenOffice.org 2.4.1 because Ubuntu doesn’t update packages within a release unless there’s a security or bug issue. So LTS might offer a more stable system, but it’s not ideal.

Sure, there’s PPAs and backports and all that, but that’s not a solution to this problem. Firstly, average Joe is not going to know how to set that up (it’s meant to be easy, remember?) and secondly this can introduce more conflicts with less stable software which could mean a worse user experience.

Does Ubuntu even recommend for end users to use LTS releases? Nope. In fact, the webpage defaults to downloading the latest release, not the LTS. Furthermore, the option for LTS (which is hidden) says it’s “ideal for large deployments.” Does that sound like an average Joe home user to you?

Two Simple Suggestions

If a new release of Ubuntu improves dramatically in the first little while following a release, then naturally those updating at this later point in time would have a better experience.

So if we have non-technical users who need a system which is as reliable as possible, they could get a better experience by updating at some later point after a release. Is there a way to achieve that?

Last week on my personal blog (yes, you can leave hate mail there too), I made two simple suggestions which might help overcome (or at least alleviate) these problems.

The first is for the update manager to not prompt the user to upgrade until the stable release has been out for a month (or whatever time frame works. It could even be dynamically flagged when ready).

The problem as I see it, is that the average user gets notified and upgrades straight away. Problems occur and they’re stuck. Ubuntu (and Linux in general) looks bad.

Simply delaying this a month or two means they are blissfully unaware of the newer version until all the major issues are resolved. They will still continue to receive updates on the previous version. Then when they do upgrade, they should have a much more trouble-free experience. Advanced users would still upgrade straight away, discover problems and get them fixed. This won’t solve issues with a fresh install, but many bugs seem to come from upgrading an older version.

Secondly, it seems to me that many of the problems faced with a new version of Ubuntu are due to the fact that it’s a time based release. Come hell or high water, it’s released in that scheduled month. The problem with this is that there’s no room to slip the release, especially when its due date is already at the end of the month.

So my other suggestion is simply to schedule the release for the 1st day of the month. If all is well, release it. If there are major bugs that need fixing, then you’ve got 4 weeks to slip the release and still make that month.

Missing The Point

Ubuntu improves over time once bugs are found and fixed. That’s how free software works. The problem is that the final release is shipped with too many bugs (for whatever reason), which means there are often all sorts of issues, especially with the upgrade process.

Of course it’s hard to find these bugs without a massive user base testing the release. That is supposed to happen with beta and release candidates, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. Most people will upgrade when it’s “stable,” not when it’s officially still in testing.

A month or so after a new release, the upgrade process in Ubuntu is much more smooth. Major bugs have been found and fixed. Known bugs have often also been resolved. How can we make the end user experience better for average Joe? After all, don’t we all want Linux to be the best it can be? Don’t we want user experiences to be as positive as possible?

If we can’t get more testing done before the release, and if bugs are going to be fixed afterwards, then there seems only one simple solution – delay the update option for end users by default.

What I care about is Linux looking good for the average user, that’s the bottom line. For technical users who are happy to fix problems, it doesn’t really matter. I work around the problems I run into with Ubuntu, but I have a lot of friends and colleagues who I have helped put onto Ubuntu whose machines often break every time there’s a new release. This means all the things I say about Linux being stable and not doing “weird things like Windows,” etc, make me out to be a liar and make Linux look bad.

On one hand you want Linux to have lots of new features and push the envelope, but on the other hand it needs to be rock solid. I understand that this is hard to achieve.

It’s hard to be stable when you’re always pushing the envelope, and it’s even harder when you do it on a short time-line. Ubuntu should keep doing what they’re doing but as it becomes more popular some things will need to change. If a stable release is going to have lots of issues (for whatever reason), then delaying the prompt to update seems like a simple and reasonable option (even though I’m not saying it’s the right answer).

We all want Linux to excel, but above all we need new users (especially those less technical) to have a really smooth and seamless user experience. Hopefully the Ubuntu community can achieve that.

Comments on "Two Simple Suggestions for Ubuntu"

gyffes

Lovely how the trolls come out to play: way to prove that Linux users truly are no more superior than their Windoze-using compatriots.

It\’s an opinion piece; a well-informed, considered, and remarkably gentle opinion piece from someone who cares to the author of something he cares about. Whooo, let\’s jump on him and call him names! Even my 7-year old behaves better when offended.

I\’ve got a VM on 9.10 but I\’m sticking with 9.04 because — to quote the MacAddicts — \”it just works.\” 9.10 doesn\’t appear to offer me anything I need and, in fact, has been problematic in myriad niggling ways.

My own personal \”upgrade to 9.10 NOW!\” fail story is that the update manager pushed me to upgrade my 9.04 eeepc and then failed 3/4-way through because — surprise surprise! — my 4gb SSD didn\’t have enough room for both systems at the same time. Sure wish I\’d been informed before the long-ash process began how much room the install would take (even M$ does this) and/or check available space before beginning the process.

I love the 2x-year release schedule: it gives Ubuntu the sorta cachet Apple gets from their sporadic Release Events (oooh, hey, there\’s one coming up in 4 hours!), but I agree that the pressure is causing increasingly half-assed … ooh, ok, half-baked… releases at a time when Ubuntu (and, accordingly, Linux) can least afford glaring black eyes.

It\’s hard for us to evangelize when its flagship name (deny it all you like, you know what people think of when they buy \”facial tissue for blowing the nose\”) releases product that doesn\’t \”Just Work.\” Slow down, breathe easy, get it right.

The release schedule (and a quality product) got Ubuntu where it is; to say, \”we\’re gonna take a step back, move to a 9month release and ensure truly polished product\” would NOT, IMHO, be nearly the black eye another bug-filled release would.

ctalk01

Sorry, there is such a thing as a Long Term Support release, which you people are free to choose to use for business use. The regular releases aren\’t meant for that, so this is a bit disingenuous. YMMV.

csmart

@ctalk01
Sure, maybe for business. What about everyone else who is using it and spreading the word about whether Linux is good or bad?

The bi-annual releases are promoted as being STABLE and reliable. If that\’s not the case, then it should be more clear that these are not meant for general use.

-c

ctalk01

@csmart – A little on the defensive side with the shouting? I am trying to understand what you are arguing, is it that the software should \”protect the ignorant\”? If so, that\’s a fallacy. All software is subject to errors and issues in different environments. I\’d love to see \”perfect software\” – but I never have, because not every environment is a uniform and homogeneous environment (thankfully, or one bug would take us all out).

Calm down a bit, and think about this, millions of people are using Karmic, and aren\’t complaining. A lot of people are complaining because it isn\’t Windows (glad it isn\’t) and a lot of people want to champion their own distribution. There are legitimate complaints of issues, but they get resolved quickly from my experience. Patience is a virtue after all.

What works for me may, not work for you and vise-versa. Arguing that \”brand X is bad because\” is the game that every marketing person loves to see people waste time arguing. It\’s a trolling game that some will love (and live for).

I guess I just want to know why you think people should not use a solution that works for them. If Joe wants to run Windows, BSD, OSX, AIX, Haiku, etc. – I don\’t think it matters to me. The end of my liberty begins at the end of my personal choice, and that is the same for everyone (unless you happen to live in a fascist nation).

I\’m a strong believer that if you can stand next to someone espousing diametrically opposed opinions to your own and allow them to speak – you believe in free speech. Free software, like free speech, is a matter of opinion. You\’re free to have one and that\’s why I ended my response with YMMV. I\’m sorry that bothered you, but that\’s the way the world works. Limiting the argument by not stating all of the facts is simply narrowing the facts to reach a conclusion. It\’s a bad debater\’s trick, meant to ensnare a responder into an emotional response.

Have a nice day.

ryoohki

Ubuntu is doing a lot right and a lot wrong…
Everything can be in the LVM now, even /boot, thanks to their upgrade to grub2.
They don\’t have SELinux as a default.

csmart

@ctalk01, I didn\’t mean that to come across as me shouting..

My points have been made in this article, and the previous one, so I don\’t think there\’s much point in me going back over them. I don\’t disagree with you (if you\’ll excuse the double negative) on much that you\’ve said. I still believe there\’s an issue with Ubuntu and its development model, which is causing it to become less reliable. This should be addressed, about which some other Ubuntu devs agree.

-c

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