Ubuntu hits the big time, for real this time

Ubuntu LinuxI just finished installing Ubuntu Linux 9.04 on my MacBook under Parallels Desktop. In the past, I’ve ventured boldly into the realm of triple-boot configurations to allow my Mac to run Mac OS X, Windows XP and Ubuntu Linux. But that involves modifying firmware and overriding the standard boot process, plus splitting your drive into 3 partitions and reciting dark incantations by the light of the full moon whilst drinking the blood of a calf slain with a silver blade.

Well OK, not that last bit. I’m not sure where that comes from (oh right, that was the part about installing Windows on the Mac). But suffice to say, while it certainly could be done, setting up triple-boot was not for the faint of heart, and once it was working, the question of whether it was all worth it loomed large. And no, I cannot think in non-clichés tonight.

When I got my new MacBook a couple months ago, I decided my days of triple boot were over. I was just going to go by the book (see what I mean?) and use Boot Camp. Well, sort of by the book. Never one to take the easy road, I wasn’t just using Boot Camp, but also running Parallels Desktop. And while you certainly can run a valid Boot Camp installation of Windows XP with an OEM license (the cheapest way to go, courtesy of Newegg.com) both directly via Boot Camp and also with Parallels, Microsoft doesn’t make it easy for you. It involves calling an automated Microsoft support line, and reciting dark incantations by the light of the full moon — I mean reciting a 48-digit number displayed on your screen, answering four simple questions asserting that you have only installed Windows on one computer and you would never, ever, ever, ever lie to Microsoft or Steve Ballmer will bite the head off a live goat and put it in your bed while you sleep, and then typing in a new 48-digit number the automated system recites back to you, while it slays a calf with a silver blade, yadda yadda.

Now where was I?

Oh yeah, Ubuntu. A new version of Ubuntu Linux is released every six months, the latest version, 9.04 (so named for being released in April 2009, get it?), having arrived on the world’s virtual doorstep earlier this week. Ubuntu releases all have clever, alliterative codenames too. This one is Jaunty Jackalope. I’ve been following Ubuntu (via the triple-boot ritual) since Gutsy Gibbon (7.10), through last year’s releases of Hardy Heron (8.04) and Intrepid Ibex (8.10), the latter of which powers this website, thanks to Slicehost.

I’ve been more and more impressed with each release of Ubuntu, as the Ubuntu development team has polished the user experience — especially the once-nightmarish installation process — and as the GNOME team has simultaneously polished the desktop software most Ubuntu users live in day-to-day. While I’m still a die-hard Mac lover, I’ll admit Microsoft has been making major improvements with its GUI design (despite other notorious issues) with Vista, and Ubuntu/GNOME has been getting better and better with each new release as well. But I really feel like 9.04, Jaunty Jackalope, has finally crossed the line where Ubuntu Linux now feels to me every bit as polished, professional, usable and pleasing as a commercial OS. The installation process is far easier, and faster, than a Windows installation, and the overall experience of the interface is clean, intuitive, and responsive.

So it occurs to me, even in this age of netbooks and Microsoft’s (and to a much lesser extent, Apple’s, at least where the Mac is concerned — iPhone is definitely their top focus these days) recent floundering, while Linux, Ubuntu in particular, is making inroads, it’s still just not going to be embraced wholeheartedly as a viable desktop alternative.

Why is that? Well, obviously Microsoft doesn’t want that to happen. Linux really much more of a threat to Microsoft than it is to Apple. Even though all three OSes can run on Macs, people as a rule just aren’t buying Macs to not run Mac OS X. I’m sure it happens but… really… why? So the major hit to commercial OS developers comes when a user buys a non-Apple computer and decides to install and use Linux (Ubuntu or otherwise) as their primary/sole OS instead of Windows. So even as Linux, and the world of free, high-quality software that comes with it, reaches maturity, and Microsoft gives us an OS that is best known as the butt of jokes (not to mention viruses and malware of all sorts), why aren’t more people switching?

Ultimately there must be some software that users are relying on for Windows that they just can’t get for Linux. It’s the same argument often leveled against Macs: “not enough software.” It’s a straw man argument. Sure there is vastly more software written for Windows than for the other OSes, but 99.9% of that Windows-only software is: a) highly specialized tools for specific industries, b) utter crap, or usually c) both. Especially when we’re talking about consumer software, whatever it is you want to do can be done just as easily on Windows, Mac or Linux. The software exists. Often between Macs and Windows it’s the same software, ported from one OS to the other or developed concurrently. With Linux it’s usually open source alternatives that are every bit as feature-rich as their commercial counterparts.

Linux has decent free options for managing photos, listening to MP3s, editing video, and all of the office tasks covered by iLife and iWork on the Mac, or by Microsoft Office and the parade of unimaginatively named Microsoft tools or OEM add-on crapware that generally comes preinstalled on Windows PCs.

Except one.

No disrespect to the developers of GIMP, but the one software program Linux absolutely needs in order to be taken seriously as a desktop OS is Photoshop. That’s it. Once Adobe stops wasting its time writing terrible custom installers and decides instead to devote those resources to porting Creative Suite to Linux, it will be all over. Windows will never go away, I’m sure, but it will be reduced to a niche OS: it will live on mainly to support legacy point-of-sale systems and industrial fabrication applications and the other arcane and ugly commercial applications that companies generally deployed in huge numbers back in the Windows NT 3.51 era and have left untouched for more than a decade.

Adobe, it’s all up to you. You owe the world a karmic debt after Bridge.

Fun with site usage stats

OK, “fun” may be an exaggeration, but it is interesting to look at these stats for room34.com courtesy of Google Analytics.

The usage statistics that are always of the most interest to web designers and developers are the web browser and operating system breakdown among site visitors. “Conventional wisdom” is that Windows makes up about 90-95% of most sites’ users (with Mac OS X making up almost all of the rest), and that among Windows users, Internet Explorer is at about 80-90%, with Firefox making up the bulk of the rest, while on the Mac about 90-95% are using Safari and the rest are on Firefox.

The stats for my site paint a much different picture. Now, granted, I am probably by at least a couple of orders of magnitude the most frequent visitor to my site. I can accept that. So that means Mac OS X/Safari should skew high in the results. But just how high? Let’s take a look.

The following are room34.com stats from the past month, January 19 to February 18.

Web Browsers

Here’s the breakdown of web browser usage among my site’s visitors:

Site Usage: Web Browsers

Firefox appears to be winning this war, with Safari close behind and Internet Explorer strong, but decisively in third place. Chrome trails far behind in fourth place, but I get a twisted pleasure from seeing Opera disappearing into irrelevance.

Operating Systems

And now for the operating systems:

Site Usage: Operating Systems

Well, how about that? There are enough other people looking at my site that Windows manages to still be the most widely used OS, though its 56% share is far below the roughly 92% share it (supposedly) holds among the general populace of computer users. And what do you know, the iPhone is third! Actually, iPhone and iPod should be identified together, since they run the same OS. I’m not sure why Google breaks them out (but doesn’t break out something much more useful: the different versions of Windows). Look at #7: the Wii! Sweet. Those were not from me. I must confess I’ve never heard of Danger Hiptop, but it’s obviously a mobile OS. Perhaps I should care, at least 0.04% of the time. (That works out to about 2.9 hours a month. Considering the average time on my site is about 3 minutes, one could [carelessly] deduce that Danger Hiptop users like to spend nearly 60 times the average amount of time per visit!)

OS/Browser Combinations

And now, all together:

Site Usage: OS/Browser Combinations

It’s no surprise that the Windows/IE combination manages to land the top spot, but it is surprising that the combo’s share is less than 29%. I’m a little surprised that Windows/Firefox also edges out Mac/Safari, although I should be glad that I represent, at most, about 1/5 of the visits to my own site. (I’m sure it’s actually only about half that!) Fully 12% of visitors to my site are coming to it on an iPhone or iPod touch. That’s incredible. And almost none of those are me. I guess it’s time to make sure I’ve optimized for that platform! I think this represents a turning point in the viability of mobile browsers, and we web designers and developers had best take notice.

Microsoft does well by their customers… and even better by their non-customers

I was curious to read today about Microsoft’s new Windows Genuine Advantage changes coming in Windows Vista Service Pack 1.

The current draconian system of locking down machines that appear to be running pirated versions of Windows has not been well received, apparently, especially a few weeks back when a buggy update was released prematurely and left thousands of “genuine” customers without working copies of Windows. So Microsoft is softening the approach, as described in the article linked above.

In the new version, PC users found to have a pirated copy of Vista will continue to be able to use their computers, but with unmistakable signs their operating system is a fake. The desktop wallpaper will turn black, and a white notice will appear alerting users to the problem. Each time they log in, they will be prompted to buy legitimate software, and every hour, a reminder bubble will appear on the screen.

Users with a high tolerance for irritation can put off switching to genuine software indefinitely, but those who relent and buy a real copy of Windows can do so at reduced prices — $119 for Windows Vista Home Premium, half the regular retail price.

OK, well that does seem to be an improvement, but… wait a minute! Read that second paragraph closely. Surely it can’t mean what I think it means, but it sounds like what they’re saying is that if you pirate Windows first, and then after enduring the automated nagging for an indefinite period of time, you’re entitled to buy Windows for half the regular price paid by loyal customers who purchase a legitimate copy up front.

Well, at least it’s consistent with Vista’s backwards approach to system security. (Throw up excessive warnings to the user about nearly everything they’re about to do, but don’t actually restrict their access to those things based on permissions.)

Giving Microsoft a ribbin’ over the ribbon

OK, that was an incredibly lame title; I guess I’ve just read too many headline puns in Entertainment Weekly over the years.

Anyway, I’d like to take a moment out of my ongoing obsession with translucent menu bars and open source operating systems (OSOSes?) and turn to the “dark side,” if you will. (That’d be Microsoft.)

A few weeks ago I took a training course for work. The course was not actually on Office 2007, but the computers in the training room were equipped with it, and it did come into play a few times. This was my first exposure to this version of Office, and needless to say I was stunned (and not necessarily in a good way) by the radically altered user interface.

I wouldn’t say I have any kind of unhealthy attachment to the lowly menu bar, but it is, after all, one of the cornerstones of a graphical user interface. I suppose being a Mac user has an effect on my sense of its importance, since it is ever-present at the top of the screen. I do think the Windows approach, where the menus are integrated into the application window, makes more sense and is — perhaps (gasp!) — more intuitive for novice users. But regardless of where it is, in most applications it just needs to be there, and without it I’m as lost as I’d be if I were looking not at a computer screen but at the inscrutable LCD display of a photocopier or a fax machine. (Have I ever mentioned how much I hate photocopiers and fax machines?)

If you’ve not yet seen Office 2007, you may not understand where I’m going with this, but, yes… it’s true… the menu bar is gone — GONE!!! — in all Office 2007 applications. Instead, you have… this:

Microsoft Word 2007 ribbon

Credit where credit is due (so Microsoft will not sue, since this image is surely copyrighted), I swiped this screenshot from here.

Maybe it’s just the effect of Steve Ballmer‘s voice ringing incessantly in the ears of their developers, but Microsoft actually has the audacity to suggest that this “ribbon” reduces clutter. Never mind the fact that you likely will have no idea where your formerly familiar menu options have gotten off to in this sea of buttons. And do not for a moment ask yourself why, if the tabbed ribbons have replaced the menus, they couldn’t have at least given them familiar names and organization (“File, Edit, View,” etc.).

Maybe I’m too “old school.” Maybe I’m a “dinosaur” or a “curmudgeon.” Some have made the valid argument that this interface may in fact be more intuitive to a new user who’s not familiar with the older versions of Word, Excel and the rest (yes, PowerPoint and Outlook are the Professor and Mary Ann of Office). But I have to ask this: how many people who are going to be using this really have never used Word (or for that matter, a computer with a GUI) before? And even if they haven’t, is an interface that assaults the new user with no less than sixty-one (according to my count in the above screenshot) buttons, tabs, or other clickable thingamabobbers, really going to instill in them a sense of ease, comfort and self-confidence at the keyboard?

But the ironic beauty (for us Apple fanboys) of this new interface is more than skin deep. For me, the most, erm, (I’ll use the word again) stunning thing about the interface is the magical, shiny, multi-colored and oh-so-enticing (yet strangely off-putting) Office button in the upper left corner, which not only beckons to you like a mercury-flavored Spree in this screenshot, but in fact pulses (yeah, that effect was cool in 2001) to the point of literally begging you to click it.

Go ahead. Click it.

But only click it once. For if you click it once, it spreads before you the most wondrous, the most essential (and for that matter, just about the only) menu in the entire application, containing options for opening, saving, printing and whatnot.

Click it twice, though, and guess what. No really, come on. Take a wild guess. That’s right, it closes the program. Brilliant! That’s really taking the novice into consideration. If there’s one thing I know about novice computer users, it’s that they don’t understand the difference between a single click and a double click. In fact, it seems the human brain must be hardwired to intuitively grasp that any quick poking motion with a finger should be done twice in rapid succession, and it’s only through years of experience with a computer that the tech savvy among us have trained ourselves out of this habit. Why else would so many websites (the first realm in computing that so boldly ventured into the netherworld of the single mouse click) have to plaster their pages with warnings not to click “Submit” buttons twice, lest Amazon.com should send you a duplicate copy of The Birds in My Life. (For the record, I found that particular item by going to Amazon and typing “stuff old clueless people like” into the search box.)

Now where was I? Oh yeah… my desktop. Because that’s what I’m looking at now that I accidentally double-clicked the mercury Spree. I assume that button is intended to be the Office counterpart to the new Start menu icon in Windows Vista. I have yet to use Windows Vista, or even to encounter a computer that has it installed. Nor have I yet talked to anyone who’s actually purchased it or a computer that came with it, but I’d guess that’s mainly because I don’t know anyone like this guy:

A typical Windows Vista user

Yes, that guy was in a picture on this page. I went to Microsoft’s website, looking for information about Windows Vista, and the first human face I encountered was that of Andy Samberg‘s stoner (or would it be “stoner-er”?) little brother.

OK, well… I don’t really know how to wrap this up. It’s almost 2 AM and I’m spent. I might go weeks minutes before I can find anything more to criticize about Microsoft. But don’t worry, when I do, you’ll be the first to know.