Ubuntu 14.04: A Pleasant Surprise

This is a long personal rant that most of you may find TL;DR. Feel free to skip it, or feel free to read it and enjoy a walk through my tumultuous past with Ubuntu.

If you have been reading posts on this blog you already know that it has been quite some time since I gave up on Ubuntu.

The last Ubuntu release that I had installed on ALL of my computers at home was probably 10.10. Then, Ubuntu announced a lot of changes so I switched to Fedora (verne) on most of my home systems. But, I have always found Fedora, and Redhat, a bit weird. Add to that the fact that I had a bunch of scripts that I used frequently to manage my Ubuntu systems, from package updates to package listing and everything else. But, more than anything else I missed the Ubuntu community.

I feel that, as a Linux distro, Ubuntu’s biggest achievement was the creation of a wide (and very helpful) fan-base around something as trivial as Linux. I say trivial because for people who have been using Linux for some time now, there were always newsgroups and mailing lists. But, Ubuntu’s web based “knowledge management system” (the wiki, askubuntu, etc) combined with, numerous Ubuntu-focused blogs that seem to crop up out of the blue made Ubuntu interesting. Add to that Google’s fantastic search engine, and Ubuntu’s popularity was guaranteed.

Way back in late 2004, a young engineer “gifted” me a whole bunch of Ubuntu CDs. All I could say was “OK! Thanks!”.

That night, at home, I installed Ubuntu on an ancient Thinkpad 600E. Without a doubt, Ubuntu was very easy to install, but, then almost 5 years earlier I had installed Mandrake Linux on that same notebook. And my thought/feeling was that Mandrake Linux felt far easier ages before Ubuntu came on the scene. Bottom line: Ubuntu’s ease of installation didn’t impress me. That night, after playing with Ubuntu for about 2-3 hours, I realized that Ubuntu wasn’t bad, but neither was it as great as most of my colleagues wanted me to believe. Ubuntu felt like a decent Debian based distro.

Oddly enough, I continued to install and use Ubuntu on all of my systems at home. But, I was NEVER happy with Ubuntu. And the fundamental reason was all the useless packages that they were pushing, or rather FORCING,  on to the users. I don’t like people pushing useless pieces of code onto me. And Ubuntu pushed and peddled a lot of useless, open source, crapware onto its users while leaving useful and essential packages out of the distro. And all along, while pushing this bad-ware onto us, Ubuntu did not include essential-ware like compilers and build-tools on their CDs! Or codecs!! You had to download and install the build-essential tools and restricted-extras!! But you had access to absolutely useless pieces of software like Tomboy, Gwibber, UbuntuOne and other stuff that I am fairly certain a VERY SMALL portion of Ubuntu user’s actually found useful.

It’s one thing to say that “you may find the following pieces of code interesting and useful” and its a completely different matter to actually go ahead and just install useless software onto a user’s system. But much worse than those useless software packages was the horrid package dependency tree that required you to uninstall the ENTIRE operating system if you attempted to uninstall a seemingly trivial package!

Realize something: if/when Microsoft installed crapware onto our system, we all – you and I – would be up-in-arms against the 800 lb gorilla from Seattle, WA. But, in Ubuntu’s case … most people seemed to be praising Canonical for peddling useless pieces of software while leaving useful pieces off the distro-CD.

In spite of all my complaints, I continued to use Ubuntu on almost all of my home computers for a L-O-N-G time. There was always one or a few old laptops dedicated to trying out weirdo Linux distros, but, most of my laptops at home ran some version of Ubuntu.

But, by Ubuntu 10.10, things were getting unbearable. Unity and Compiz were well set to make their way onto Ubuntu. And compiz kept crashing on my systems. And Ubuntu had a hard-time supporting hardware devices as trivial as 10-year old Ethernet chipsets, and Wifi and built-in cameras.

Even worse, the “social” features were getting tightly integrated into Ubuntu for reasons that I did not understand. Even worse, trying to remove the stupid “social indicators” like “you got mail” or “your FB friend is trying to bother you” meant a complete system uninstallation.

So, in stead of pulling out my left-over hair, I decided it was time to find a different Linux distro. So, in late 2010 … part ways with Ubuntu … I did.

Somtime in late 2010 or early 2011, I ran back to a distro I had used quite extensively in earlier life: Redhat. But, I never really liked Redhat. For an unknown reason RedHat never felt like a distro for human beings. RedHat always felt snobbish. Ubuntu’s community made Ubuntu the “Linux distro for human beings.” But, I didn’t want to use Ubuntu any more … and I wanted to try GNOME 3.0 … so Fedora seemed to be the best option.

I loved GNOME 3.0. I still do! In fact, I have an old Lenovo 3000 v100 running Ubuntu 13.10 minimal with all GNOME 3.x additions. I feel that GNOME 3.x is a nice departure from the usual Unix/Linux desktops. And I feel more people should contribute to the GNOME 3.x development to make it stable, leaner and overall better.

Within about 3 weeks of starting to use Fedora Verne I knew that I really needed a Debian based distro. And that is how my my search led me to my current favorite distro: Xubuntu.

I believe I started using Xubuntu from the 11.x series. Xubuntu felt like the desktop OS I had always wanted. It’s simple, but NOT ugly. You can install most of the software that is there in Ubuntu repos. And Xubuntu didn’t and still doesn’t come with half the crapware that Ubuntu packages by default. There’s no useless social integration. And there are no useless programs to do useless things that you really don’t want to do: like make notes in software written in C# using Mono on Linux! (What the …)

Sure, I still had to download the compilers and build-tools on Xubuntu, but that was a “hangover” from the parent (Ubuntu). And sure I still had to download the codecs and what have you, but that was because of the bad decisions the parent (Ubuntu) made. But most importantly Xubuntu felt like Linux, not a lame attempt at copying of some fruity, feline operating system that Ubuntu was trying to be and failing miserably. Add to that the fact that most of my scripts from the Ubuntu days worked flawlessly on Xubuntu. And most importantly, I once again had access to the fantastic and helpful Ubuntu community.

So, that was that. Back in Oct 2010 I severed my ties with Ubuntu. And then sometime in late 2011, I established ties with Xubuntu. And I have been using Xubuntu on all-but-one of my home systems for the past 2-3 years without any significant complaints.

For all practical purposes, I had completely forgotten Ubuntu. And I would have never thought of it if Ubuntu hadn’t sneaked up on me the way it did a week ago.

So, a week ago, I got myself a new laptop. At the time of ordering, I knew it did not have any version of Windows on it … which was the reason I bought it … but at least in India, the “cute” thing most of these PC vendors do is that they install FreeDOS on the system when they send it to you. Not the company which made my laptop! Or at least not that reseller from whom I bought the laptop. My new laptop came with Ubuntu 12.10 LTS!! Imagine my shock when I started the notebook and it said “finalizing Ubuntu“!! I was like “no! no! no! what the heck are you doing? nobody installs ubuntu in my house …” but, before I had finished uttering those words … in my head, of course … the laptop was happily smiling at me, asking me for login information. I figured what the heck, why not give it a try … so I logged in and looked around. And lo-n-behold, a lot of the complaints and the bitchin-n-moanin I had done as an Ubuntu user seemed addressed in that release!! I don’t know who did it: was it the hardware manufacturer or was it Canonical/Ubuntu. But, the Ubuntu installation on my new laptop did not have Tomboy or Evolution or Gwibber or all the useless social integration. It had UbuntuOne, but, I purged it even before that piece of software could say a word. There was that ugly Unity interface, but, I could live with it. Unfortunately, the application menu (file, edit, view, etc) still shows up in the top bar. And because of that, there’s no way to switch the “x [] _” window control buttons from left to right because … the application menu still shows up in the top bar. How idiotic is that? Who puts window controls in the top bar other than some tooty-frooty, lame, unncessarily high priced operating systems named after feline species?

But, you know what … just the absence of all that crapware (Tomboy, UbuntuOne, Gwibber, Evolution, etc) and a saner package dependency tree in Ubuntu 12.04 LTS made me happy. Just to give it a hard time, I purged avahi. Without complaints Avahi was gone from my system. I tried to uninstall a few more packages (cups, anyone?) and still no complaints. I was “almost” impressed.

I tried uninstalling a few apps (Thunderbird, etc) and thankfully, the package manager did not suggest that I should try a different distro like it used to in earlier days. So, after playing with Ubuntu 12.10 LTS on my new laptop for about 2 hours, I was pleasantly surprised. Surprised because Ubuntu seemed to have taken some feedback … not necessarily from me … but from a lot of its users and purged a lot of the crapware and cleaned up the package dependency tree. Yes, Unity was still around, as was Compiz … but, then it is never easy to convince people to do ALL the right things.

I attempted a system update from 12.10 LTS to 14.04 LTS but things seemed to break at first. Some editing in /etc seemed to fix a few things, but, I am not sure what else is broken at this point in time. On the whole the system seems to work fine. For an unknown reason this Ubuntu feels OK to use. I may actually use this Ubuntu installation for some time before I install Xubuntu on that new system.

Bottom line: I am going to play with my old friend “Ubuntu” for some more time. All I am hoping for is that my old friend (Ubuntu) doesn’t remind me all over again, all the reasons I had to hate it: like useless packages and even worse, a broken dependency tree that required you to uninstall the operating system or live with all the crapware.

Kudos to the Ubuntu team on FINALLY producing a decent enough Debian based Linux distro.