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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ubuntu Desktop part 2: Applications

This is the second post in a series relating my experiences as a relative Linux newbie using Ubuntu as my primary operating system. See the first post here.

Any operating system is essentially useless without additional software to do the work the user wants to get done. Software support and the quality of software on any platform –be it a desktop operating system, games console or mobile phone framework- will often be it’s biggest make-or-brake aspect.

Out of the box software

Windows user familiar with the ‘free addon software’ in windows such as MS Paint and Outlook Express are likely to be very pleasantly surprised with what they get when installing a default Ubuntu distribution. Besides variations on these simple applications, the OS comes bundled with a stellar office suite (Open Office), email client (Evolution), art package (The Gimp), and much, much more. The average user that just wants to browse the web, chat to friends, email, enjoy media and work on the odd document or spreadsheet is likely to be satisfied with Ubuntu without ever having to make any changes.

Third party software

Walking into your local Incredible Connection it may not appear as if there is as much third party software available for Linux flavours as for Windows. Appearances can be very deceiving. There may not be many boxed products out there, but the internet is brimming with software to do just about every task imaginable. The inherently technical and open Linux user community provides a plethora of applications at no extra financial cost to every day users. For the most part these are easy to find, through the software repositories (I’ll cover these next) and developers’ websites.

Software Installation

Installing software in Ubuntu is something of a mixed bag. The Synaptic Package Manager is a GUI application which hides the command-line complexity of Ubuntu’s apt software installation tool. It allows a user to easily perform a search for an application which suits their needs. Once found, installing the application is as simple as double clicking the app listing, and clicking apply in the package manager. Any dependencies will automatically be installed and downloaded as well. As a result any application which exists in the repositories is a snap to install, and Windows could really use something similar to make it easier for users to find the applications they need. Just as Apple’s iStore is one of the most compelling aspects of the iPhone platform, the software repositories are a huge win for Ubuntu.

Software which is not found in the repositories is another story entirely. In some cases installing these applications is a simple case of downloading a .deb file and double clicking it. Then there are the .deb files that have dependencies which may or may not be available in the repositories, or worse, have a newer version installed already and cannot be downgraded. There are other installation formats as well (typically executable installation scripts) which may or may not run successfully and frequently do not report results to the user either way, or clean up after themselves if they fail. These can be a real pain for even experienced users and are an absolute nightmare for inexperienced ones.

Uninstallation is another area that is decidedly spotty, and with various standards and philosophies on where files should typically reside, a manual cleanup is seldom as easy as on a Windows machine. This gives the distinct impression Ubuntu is intended to be freshly installed when new versions come out to keep things clean, rather than just upgraded.

Software updates

Just as the package manager is an absolute pleasure to use, the update system works as it should and gives exactly the right mix of options for set-and-forget or manual updates. Having all applications installed through the package manager automatically updated through this system is another plus, and mostly removes the need for manual software upgrades. Again, this is something Windows could really use. The one downside to this approach is that the repositories and update system are often far behind the most recent stable versions of some applications.

Of course updating software not installed through the package manager is once again another story and the ease of updating varies wildly between applications.

Software Stability

This is one area where Ubuntu really falls flat in my opinion. I would expect at least fully supported out-the-box software like Open Office to work almost flawlessly. Sadly the various stability and quality quirks in that package alone are enough to have caused my wife to beg for me to reinstall Windows.

The stability of applications –whatever their source- tends to be very diverse. There are those that will run for days on end and never give the slightest problems, and others that will randomly crash for no apparent reason, sometimes taking the system with them. This is of course not unique to Ubuntu, and is just as much of a problem as windows, however the problem seems more pronounced in supposedly mainstream Linux applications than in their Windows peers. The feeling here really is ‘you get what you pay for’.


In conclusion, on the software side of things Ubuntu certainly has no shortage of out the box or third party software support. The quality and ease of use of this software, however, is extremely unpredictable and this could easily put off users.


Next week I’ll discuss my experiences with regards to hardware compatibility and perhaps development.



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