Apr 282007

This is intended to be quite a long piece and may be saved before it is fully completed. Some of the content will be more general ramblings on Linux in general rather than specific to Ubuntu 7.04

I recently installed Ubuntu 7.04 (not without a few problems that most people are unlikely to encounter) and thought it worth rambling through a few thoughts that occurred to me. Most of the ideas are related to how Ubuntu would come across to less experienced users although to be frank I find it difficult to put myself in their shoes. One point to make fairly early is that Linux distributions have conflicting goals … they need to appeal to the less experienced user without putting off the ones who have been running Linux for years, compiling their own kernels and generally getting used to the deeper levels of Linux. One idea here is to have two “sides” to every configuration screen … one for the easy options and one for the advanced options. This does not necessarily need to be implemented as a GUI window that can be turned over, although that is not a bad idea.

I installed using the “alternate” installation CD and did not bother with the “user-friendly” partitioning options, so I can’t say much about the normal installation CD or the partitioning experience. However it is worth noting that partitioning is a somewhat tricky concept to someone new to Linux who has not necessarily done much in the way of partitioning under Windows. Also selecting different filesystem types (ext2, reiserfs, xfs, jfs, etc.) is not something that the average user will be comfortable with.

Mind you Linux installation is not exactly difficult. Those who claim it is, are frequently overlooking just how difficult XP is to install. Either they are already used to it, or have never installed it in the past! Of course installing Linux is trickier than running the Windows that was installed in the factory on the average PC.

Incidentally, whilst I understand that setting up complex partitions and filesystems is inevitably going to take a while, my configuration took as long to setup as the rest of the installation! This is somewhat extreme!

So the ordinary user has managed to work their way through the installation routine and has rebooted the system. They are now faced with a blank screen with just a ‘username’ prompt in the middle. It would be nice here to have a one-off prompt in a seperate window here to explain that the user needs to login with the username and password they created during the installation and a brief explanation of why logging in is a wise mechanism

So the user logs in and is presented with a fairly typical GNOME screen which is quite blank. It would be quite nice to start a “What To Do Now” screen here. The GNOME help feature is quite useful when started, but it should be started for new users. However advanced users may prefer to “turn it over” to get a more complex default index with content that applies more to them. This could be nothing more than a single item on the help screen titled “Advanced Users” to give instructions on how to do it (something like dpk-reconfigure yelp advanced-view) … a command line command here is appropriate to indicate a barrier that should be climbed before it is appropriate to “turn this page over”.

One other thing on a series of documents explaining Linux to new users. It could explain some of the typically installed applications … which ones to use to do what, and where to find them in the menus. It could also explain the reason for the funny names … that many of the applications are created by programmers and named by them, and not to let their sometimes peculiar sense of humour be offputting.

Traditionally Ubuntu has avoided including proprietry codecs for common multimedia formats such as MP3. This is for genuinely legitimate reasons and I am not suggesting this changes, but the help screens should have a number of entries relating to this. “Playing Proprietry Encoded Music And Videos” should point to a help screen saying why these formats are not included by default and simple instructions in installing them. “Why Can’t I Play MP3s” and “Why Can’t I Play DVDs” should give a short explanation and point to the instructions on installing them. By all means make the point that priorietry formats are evil, but be helpful too.

Oh! And don’t lie in help screens. At one point Ubuntu claims that their package manager is the only way to install software. This is obviously not true to advanced users and could eventually be seen as not true to ordinary users too. Just say that it is strongly recommended to install software using the package manager as an obvious mistruth makes one wonder what else is wrong.

Ubuntu comes with a fairly easy way of enabling “desktop effect” with an appropriate warning about their stability. However it only enables compwiz and I wanted to have a quick look at beryl. This was acomplished fairly easily, and I suddenly had access to a great deal more desktop effects. Some very interesting eyecandy it was too, some of which I can see could be quite useful.

However the preferences screen was a little swamped with different configuration options. Whilst beryl is most definitely in an early phase of development, it would be wise to look at this. Not that all of the options should be removed, but going back to a phrase I used earlier, “turning over” the options screen to keep the advanced options hidden from most users should be considered. It also needs far more explanation of what all the options are. Perhaps a button to “grow” a simple explanation into a longer more detailed explanation.

What if things go wrong and the new user needs assistence ? Well there are two parts to this … problems during the installation that results in a system that cannot be booted, and problems that crop up after installation.

For the second, there needs to be a section in the help screens on obtaining assistence. This should assistence in obtaining information about the broken system (perhaps Linux needs a tool like “Sun Explorer” which generates a compressed archive containing the output of many different diagnostic commands such as fdisk -l, cat /proc/cpuinfo, etc). Also explaining how best to phrase support requests … anyone who has done technical support knows the problems that can come about because of badly expressed problem issues.

Ubuntu helpfully has pointers to sources for free online support, and to commercially available support. However it would be useful pointing out the basic difference between the two … free support can be of as high a quality as commercial support, but you cannot be certain of getting a response. Whereas commercial support has the downside that it costs money.

Finally (well … if you are lucky 🙂 ), Ubuntu comes with a fine graphical package manager called Synaptic; whilst as a crusty old Unix veteran I prefer the command-line equivalent, it does do a pretty good job. However a new user looking at Synaptic could be a little overwhelmed by the number of packages that are available. Synaptic has a series of ways of viewing the package repositories which can be helpful in finding what you want; why not add an additional default view (with a prominent button saying “See the rest”) that has just one (well perhaps up to five) “best of breed” package listed for each application.

A new user is less likely to be overwhelmed when installing software if they visit the package manager and see “3D Modeler” -> “Blender” instead of the current situation where “Blender” itself consists of half a dozen packages that they need to hunt through several hundred applications to find.

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