Ubuntu isn’t the only Linux operating system, but it’s where the dream of a usable, completely free desktop is closest to reality. If every Ubuntu developer were assembled at one place, here are five things we’d ask them to accomplish.
Image by Andrew Mason.
Ubuntu’s not a single service or application developed by one team, so our wish list is a bit broader than just asking for five new features or improvements. Ubuntu is an open-source distribution of Linux, developed and fixed by thousands of developers around the world. It incorporates the efforts of many of the projects it relies on, like the GNOME desktop, open-source drivers, apps like Firefox and Pidgin, and many more.
But let’s pretend there happened to be a worldwide summit on how Linux could become a viable, convenient desktop for more people, and let’s pretend I had a panel approved at said summit at which I could present to all the interested parties. I wouldn’t argue about hardware compatibility, or pretend that high-end games are an ultimate issue. I’d confess that I’m biased toward thinking about Apple computers more than Windows, because Apple has gained ground with a surprisingly similar product, and because some corporate, locked-down environments will never switch from Windows.
Then I’d ask for these five things:
An App Store better than Apple’s
One of Linux's most touted advantages over Windows and Mac systems is that, on distributed systems like Ubuntu, you can install thousands of applications right from your system, without having to Google, download, double-click, and Next, Next, Next through installation screens. That advantage is lost if you put all your applications in a big pile of searchable stuff labeled "Graphics" or "Sound & Video"—or, even worse, ask users to copy-paste repository sources and installation commands into text files and terminals. Those are great backup and uber-geek solutions, but terribly off-putting to those just trying to get a system up and working.
New users are coming to Linux looking for their Windows or Mac equivalents—Photoshop, iTunes, Winamp, AIM—and they're wondering what other users like them recommend in very particular areas. They're in a position similar to that of a new iPhone owner when it comes to software. Only certain applications will work on this very particular software setup, and they must be sought out. Apple's iPhone App Store is an utter mess when it comes to organization, search, and layout, but even its simple Top 10 Paid and Top 10 Free are more guidance than what Ubuntu users are being offered. The default, installed Ubuntu applications are okay, maybe a little esoteric in spots, but Ubuntu's builders and coders shouldn't be the taste makers.
Create a clean, tagged, search-friendly database of everything that runs on a standard Ubuntu desktop. Offer wiki-style, group-edited write-ups, reviews, and (maybe) ratings of what the applications do and what non-Linux apps they are similar to, and put it all on the freely accessible web. This kind of thing is already possible with Ubuntu's apt-url handler—all that's missing is the common URL.
Integrate dual-booting and virtualization
Show up fresh-faced at an Apple Store and ask how your copy of WordPerfect would run on a Mac, and a T-shirted Genius will gradually guide you into Parallels or VMWare Fusion, or possibly suggest using Boot Camp to occasionally run Windows when needed. Ubuntu isn’t really any different. If Ubuntu wants to reach beyond the technical-minded, it should eliminate the need to learn about partition tables to fit a Windows installation next to Linux.
Create something less imposing and more visually appealing than the default GRUB menu. Keep improving on the Ubuntu installer to better explain what one’s multi-system installation options are. Do your best to make something like installing and running VirtualBox easy for a beginner, or break apart its open-source guts and integrate it so tightly into Ubuntu that an “Open in Windows 7″ right-click command isn’t some laughable dream.
A wave of right-brain rethinking
The achievements of a network of left-brain-oriented, technical-minded developers in creating a Unix-based system that installs on just about anything with a processor can never be truly appreciated. Apple created a Unix-based OS that installs on a smaller subset of computer hardware, but has a history and tradition of investing a whole lot of right-brain thought into making technically advanced features look clean and simple. Projects like Mac4LIn are mimicry at its finest, and interfaces like GNOME-Do Docky theme bring both Quicksilver and Dock functionality to Linux. What Linux and Ubuntu really need now, though, is something new.
Palm's Pre smartphone received generally rave reviews for its "deck of cards" interface, which was actually new and not hard to get used to. While it doesn't seem to be winning a sales war against the iPhone, Ubuntu has a distinct advantage—it's free. Something free and designed to look kinda-sorta like XP out of the box once did won't win hearts and minds. Something with a useful but new look, with advantages in speed, openness, and hardware support, will get notice. To paraphrase what Mac guy John Gruber said about the Android opportunity—set your goals such that you can claim victory with just a fraction of Windows and Apple's installation base.
Awesome cloud-based backup
When the Linux-based Chrome OS drops, one thing we know it’s going to try for is starting up in “a few seconds.” Ubuntu’s next release, meanwhile, is aiming for 10 seconds. Unless they’re both pitched primarily for mayflies, that’s not an insurmountable difference, but Chrome OS will also offer no-worry backup of all of a user’s documents, emails, SMS messages, and whatever other webapps, because it all gets done through a web browser, or, more likely, a browser running inside a stand-alone application shell.
There are a significant number of folks who aren’t cool with having everything they do in the cloud, and might want hard copies of everything. More likely, it’s probably wise not to use Google as the linchpin of one’s entire productive life, because account lock-outs and password hacks do happen. Backup, however, is one of those things that’s more powerful when there’s a copy far away from your system. Ubuntu already has Ubuntu One, but right now it’s a less convenient Dropbox look-alike, because it’s accessible only through Ubuntu or the web. It’s open source, so Windows and Mac synchronization tools may eventually show up, designed by committee. But if a backup service is getting accolades from true geeks for being paradigm-shifting and mind-freeing, you’d do well to learn its lessons, or potentially open talks in the interest of open-sourcing it.
Good video editing software
This one’s a bit more fiddly, but definitely worth mentioning. Trying to edit a video so that continuous sound played over different clips, two Lifehacker editors found themselves amazed at how difficult, or at least hard to find out, iMovie ’09 had made such a task on a Mac. On Windows, there’s the free Windows Movie Maker, which has actually lost features since the XP version, and then professional packages starting at $450 dollars. In Linux, there are a range of options, almost none of them with a finished feel, and all of them front-loaded with codec, dependency, and interface headaches galore. OpenShot seems like a step in the right direction. While Ubuntu isn’t in the video software business, the many folks who contribute time, thought, and sometimes money to the project could consider this a serious missing link in the Linux application space.
Our imaginary panel comments at the Worldwide Ubuntu Summit are now finished, but we left some time for comments at the end. Tell us what you think Ubuntu needs, or needs to change, to become a great alternative desktop in the comments.