Customizing the Ubuntu Application Stack Before Installation

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

February 22, 2010

3 Min Read
Customizing the Ubuntu Application Stack Before Installation

Ubuntu is way easier to install than certain other operating systems.  But it would be even greater if I could select which applications I wanted on my new system before the Ubiquity installer goes about its business–an idea that was proposed recently on Ubuntu Brainstorm.  Here’s why it should go through.

An Ubuntu installation requires two or three minutes of a user’s time configuring the setup, followed by about a half-hour for the system to be installed.  That’s not bad at all, especially compared to other operating-system installers that stupidly compel you to sit in front of the screen throughout the whole process rather than asking everything upfront.

After installing Ubuntu for my own use, however, I generally spend another half-hour adding and removing applications to fit my liking.  Multimedia codecs need to downloaded, applications like VirtualBox need to be installed and stuff I won’t use needs to be gotten rid of.

What would be great is if the application stack could be customized before installation, in order to save me and my computer the trouble of installing programs that I’m going to remove manually later on.  That’s precisely what a user named nhandler envisions on Ubuntu Brainstorm, where a mock-up of a configuration utility has been uploaded:

Mockup of Ubuntu Programs Configuration

Mockup of Ubuntu Programs Configuration

Granted, this may not be the most professional-looking (or grammatically sound) interface, but it’s a start, and provides an idea of the kind of functionality that would be a great addition to Ubiquity.  Being able to customize default applications and install non-free software along with the rest of the system would save a lot of time.

In defense of the idea

Not everyone agrees that an addition to the Ubuntu installer such as this would be in the best interests of the end user.  For example, d0od of OMG! Ubuntu! argues that it would turn new users off to Ubuntu by confusing them with options they don’t understand.

I agree that non-geeks shouldn’t be exposed to stuff like this.  But no one says it has to be an obligatory part of the installation process.  It could be hidden behind an “Advanced” button with adequate warnings telling people to stay away if they don’t know what they’re doing.  There’s no harm in that.

Others complain that Windows and OS X don’t provide options like this at installation time (although some other Linux distributions do), so Ubuntu shouldn’t either.

The obvious response to that reasoning, I think, is that proprietary operating systems don’t allow users to customize their application stack because in most cases, the alternatives to the default choices are third-party products.  Obviously Microsoft and Apple are not going to make it easier to replace Internet Explorer or Safari with Firefox or Chrome.  Where’s the monopoly in that?

In fairness…

Of course, there are some valid criticisms of a proposal like this.  Above all, it assumes that everyone has a high-speed, wired Internet connection available–or that the Ubuntu installer would start supporting wireless networking, which would almost certainly end in a huge fiasco if attempted–which is far from true.

Issues are also bound to arise if Ubiquity allowed users to install non-free software, especially because some of that code is of dubious legality in certain jurisdictions.  It’s already easy enough to install these packages from within Ubuntu itself, but offering them as a preinstallation choice would raise the ire of free-software advocates, and possibly some lawyers.

All the same, despite its limitations, this idea has merit.  After all, plenty of other Linux installers already offer functionality similar to that proposed on Ubuntu Brainstorm, and have done so for years.  I’d love to see Ubiquity follow suit.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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