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    November 2011
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Tipping Point

Embarrassing:  Monday morning I came to class, opened my notebook’s lid, and loud music filled the silent room.  I was caught by surprise.  It took me three long password entry attempts until I unlocked the screen and could hit the mute button – “Fn F8” did not work in locked screen mode.  In the meantime Tim Simenon and Mark Saunders remix of Strangelove, from the last Depeche Mode release, digital download, pumped up the beat.

Ex-post analysis: the previous evening I had my earbuds on while working on my exam summaries.  My last actions have been to close the notebook’s lid and unplug the earbuds, in that order.  Kubuntu remembers different audio settings when earbuds are plugged.  Unfortunately the sleeping notebook did not register the unplugging and on waking up from sleep did not bother to check if something has changed.  This makes the difference between a useful feature or a useless one; and between a smooth experience and an embarrassing one.

This was also the moment I decided that my next personal computer will be a Mac.  I will make the switch at the next opportunity and will relegate Kubuntu where it belongs: in the toys box.  I am thankful to Kubuntu for the great playtime, but I no longer have time to play.   I need a machine that delivers quickly and predictably.  I need to be productive.

Initially I thought I could get through law school using Kubuntu.  Indeed the only thing that I could not make work was the exam writing software.  Everything else I got working, including access to the library’s printing infrastructure, the university’s email system and knowledge base, and document interoperability with my Mac and Windows using friends.

However, this came at a cost I can no longer afford: time.  Three month into it, I am calling the experiment off.  There is no major problem with Kubuntu, just a lot of papercuts – little issues that can mostly be worked around but cost me more time than I can afford.

When I started school, in September, I had set up both my workstation and my notebook from scratch.  I bought a new hard disk for the desktop and a new solid state drive for the notebook.  I installed a clean Kubuntu 11.10 from scratch when it was still beta but quite promising.  I needed a dependable infrastructure.

My conclusion after three months (and after years of general ‘buntu usage) is that Open Source desktops do not qualify for the “dependable” qualifier yet.  And I think that a purely free organization based solely on the principles of Open Source is not well equipped to make a dependable desktop.

A few examples:

I have a Brother all-in-one inkjet and a Brother laser printer.  On my first day at law school they were both fully functional.  During the past three months, I have lost twice use of the printing functionality following updates of the cups package.  Once only the desktop was affected.  Once I also lost the ability to print to a PDF file.  I was able to re-install and re-configure things.  Not a wise use of my time when approaching a deadline for a paper that had to be submitted in print.  I also lost the scanning functionality, on the notebook but not on the desktop.

As a law student, I mostly deal with text.  LibreOffice stopped scrolling horizontally.  I can move the cursor inside the window, but it is time-consuming.  In October LibreOffice Writer stopped displaying formatting characters.  The button in the toolbar would not toggle them. Finding the workaround was time consuming, and the issue reappears spuriously.  I can work around it going to the menu Tools -> Options -> LibreOffice Writer -> Formatting Aids and checking the checkboxes.  Every time I have to do it I am tempted to save my time and buy a Mac.

At some point, gimp did not start.  I found the workaround online.  It only fixed it for my notebook, not for my workstation.

And of course I do email.  Kmail has been updated and now it only saves email addresses and not the names associated with them.  It is a major time waster to manually connect semi-random sequences of letters and numbers to actual names.  I even took the time to file a bug report.  I did not have time to migrate to a different mail client, but I am seriously considering it, especially since I get a whole bunch of cryptic errors messages from Akonadi and Nepomuk, usually just when I do not need it and they cover the area of the screen where I am typing class notes.

This duo of underlying technologies managed to fill my new 400 GB Kubuntu partition on the desktop and crash it with a disk full error.  Now I only use webmail on that machine.  Akonadi is also terrible at dealing with mobility – when I move between home and campus, or even between different campus locations, I will not see new emails until I kill Akonadi and its spawned processes and restart Kmail.  This alone is so complex that I had to write a script for it.  Why can’t Akonadi kill its spawned processes?

Another papercut I bump into constantly is the interference of the touchpad while typing.  Ubuntu has a setting for it but I have not found anything equivalent in Kubuntu.  Disabling the touchpad while typing (i.e. for about a second since the last key stroke) should be default on notebooks in 2011!

I could go on listing plenty of such small issues.  Individually they may be small and insignificant, but together they consume a lot of my time.  And I am learning that listing them is not helping me, which brings me to my conclusion that a purely free organization based solely on the principles of Open Source is not well equipped to make a dependable desktop.

Unless there is somebody who thinks of the user’s experience, end-to-end, integrating all the different bits and pieces of Open Source code into a cohesive unit that makes sense, Open Source desktops will be a waste of time, like this bug report.

In the coming weeks I need to focus on exams, and I will work around the papercuts until then.  But it is most likely that 11.10 will be relegated to be second (or third) in the boot up pecking order of my desktops soon.

6 Responses

  1. Hi Yuv

    Although I can understand the reasons, I feel sad seeing you leave the OSS world. And no, using just OSS applications is not the same as fighting the odds of fledgling desktop operating systems.
    I could provide advice like “Don’t use [A-Z, ]ubuntu, use someting stable like debian, SuSE or RedHat or even [K]ubuntu LTS”, but this won’t be the bleeding edge experience that I know you are fond of.
    So, please don’t look back in anger, but try to remind all the positive experiences you had by being able to fix a problem by your own or even help others doing this.
    And, who knows, someday you will be back at the light side of the force …

    All the best

    Stefan Peter

  2. @Stefan: there is no dark or light side “of the force”. Both sides are indistinguishably gray and have advantages and disadvantages. In areas where the end-to-end user experience is the most important factor (like on the desktop) the integrated approach wins. Sadly, the incentives in the FLOSS world are disincentives in the integrated world (and the other way around). The problem is not ‘buntu vs. other distros. It is also not a bleeding edge thing. The problem is too many hands on the steering wheel.

  3. Your really think a Mac does not have issues? It does. I had been a Mac user before switching to Linux. And I also have supported some computers where the Mac did make the most work. Macs problem is that it always knows better than you. So if you think you are smart a Mac will block you from what you want to do, because it thinks you are stupid and cant be trusted. From my perspective Macs look so good because of some accmomplishments and multiplied aith a lot of propaganda. When you really need to work with a Mac, thinks do look very differently. The “always works out of the box” is a computer myth.

    Nonetheless my bug and feature wish list for Linux is endless. But when you write you installed a Linux that was a beta version I think you might have made different experiences with a stable version like Ubuntu LTS or Debian stable.

    The current distros are mostly experimental. And I also dont see any distro that really took the effort to create a usable and stable desktop. the open source developers of GNOME and KDE like what the do – but from a user perspective a lot LESS would be MORE. I am always astonished how many new features and changes are coming in while simple things that dont work for more then 1 years are not even touched. I like to point out the fact that Linux users still dont know the status of the ink of their printers. This alone could be rhe argument to not use Linux as a desktop user. You cant expect people to buy new ink just because this might be the problem. Bit now we get things like GNOME 3 with all that nonsense I never thought about.

  4. @tlow: I am pretty much sure that every computer system has issues. The question is not whether there are issues or not, but how important they are. This is, in turn, a function of the user and their context.

    For example, you mention how you would like an ink status indicator on the desktop. I could not care less. For me such an indicator is bloatware wasting precious pixels on my screen and generally clogging the system with one process too many. My printer has an indicator and I would not buy a printer without one.

    I don’t dispute your statement that the Mac’s problem is that it always knows better than you. I find the statement to be even more true for Windows and Linux desktops.

    In my previous context, a Linux desktop (with all of its shortcomings) was great. I love the bleeding edge (when it is evolving well). I needed the bleeding edge of graphics applications. From my perspective, sticking to LTS ‘buntus has no significant advantage over using Windows.

    My context has changed. My needs have changed. In the past I craved access to the latest creative graphics tools. Now most I do is word processing. In this context, the Mac has its advantages. Plus, Lion’s trackpad gestures are “bleeding edge” state of the art.

    In my current context, a Mac seems to be the right choice. More than two third of my school mates use a Mac and very few are complaining. Most of the rest use Windows and many are complaining. I am the only one, in a class of 175, using Linux, still.

  5. On the point of “For me such an indicator is bloatware wasting precious pixels on my screen and generally clogging the system with one process too many.” – I did not mean an application that always tells me if the ink status is down. I mean an application that telles me which ink color I need to change or what ist wrong exactly. The printer companies ship with this software and often depend on it for changing ink. So if you dont hae that software you really cant use the printer as it is intended.
    OTOH about precious pixles: Nothing ever turned be more of as then Mac icon bar on the bottom with dancing pixels. No OS seems to be more bloated to me than the Mac – and my feeling was that GNOME and KDE started to take the same ideas with all kind of “neat” effects.

  6. @tlow: I would never buy a printer that relies on software installed on a computer to tell me its status. Status indicators are a must on a printer and optional on the computer. Personally I do not need more feedback on the computer than the driver’s notification of whether printing was successful or not.

    Re precious pixels, I agree with you that the Mac’s icon bar is waste and bloat, luckily I can downsize it and toss it to tthe side, and it becomes less annoying than the KDE panel at the bottom of the screen where I have to click on the widgets to make them go away after they expanded outside the panel. On the same hardware, the Mac feels much more responsive (and less bloated) than recent KDE. I have not used Gnome for a couple of years.

    In general I find all desktop environments that I am aware of to be dissatisfying. I feel like computer UI design has not made much significant progress beyond eye candy in the past twenty years. I believe that the introduction of touch interfaces is about to change that in one of two ways: either computer UI design will improve through the adoption of touch, or it will be made irrelevant by the adoption of post-PC devices. Given how post-PC devices are still hostages of walled gardens, I hope for the first alternative, but I think at this point the chances are very slim as all major industry players are too busy building up their walls around their gardens.

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