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April 24, 2009
I had to set up a Fedora 8 machine recently. The installation process was simple enough, but configuring the system reminded me of several simple features that I take for granted when using Ubuntu, but which, when absent, make the user experience significantly more daunting. Below are four of the features that provide an extra boost of user-friendliness to Ubuntu.
First, though, a disclaimer: I know that some of these features come thanks to upstream developers, at least in part. I’m also aware that Ubuntu is not unique in offering these features; many other distributions, especially those derived from Ubuntu, sport similar functionality. Finally, my purpose in this post is not to present Ubuntu as superior or provoke angry responses from users of other distributions; if you think your distribution of choice offers features that uniquely contribute to the user experience, I’d love to hear about them in a constructive manner below.
When Ubuntu users working in the terminal call an application that exists in the repositories but is not installed on the local system, the ‘command not found’ utility conveniently explains how to install the program they’re looking for. This has come in handy for me numerous times when trying to follow tutorials or use applications whose executables have different names than the packages by which they were installed.
When I try to play a video or audio file in Ubuntu but don’t have the appropriate codecs installed to handle it, Ubuntu conveniently pops open a dialog box asking if I want to download and install the software necessary to play the file. This is a major help to new users, and a good compromise between advocates of shipping multimeida codecs with Ubuntu in order to make things work better out-of-the-box, and those who argue that the distribution should come free of proprietary components.
Ubuntu is the only mainstream Linux distribution I know of whose live CD contains all of the software I need to be truly productive. Other live distributions lack important components, like a full-fledged office suite, and tend to assume that users will burn a stack of four or five extra CDs full of packages and keep them on hand while working in a live session.
Although it’s easy enough to use the package manager to install additional applications in the live environment, there are situations where that’s not possible–when no Internet connection is available, for example, or the machine is low on memory. Having a live CD that’s remarkably useful on its own is a distinct advantage for Ubuntu.
Auto-completion of commands in the bash shell via the ‘tab’ key has long been a feature of most Linux distributions. But Ubuntu–and the upstream developers upon whom it relies–have taken auto-completion to the next level, incorporating it into command-line based applications like apt-get and init scripts.
This feature saves a lot of time and thinking. For example, if I’m trying to install a package in a terminal but am unsure of its exact name, I can simply type ‘apt-get install’ and the first few letters of the application, then press tab to have the shell automatically fill in the rest. Similarly, if I want to ‘su’ into a different user account but am unsure of the user’s name (or don’t want to type the whole thing), Ubuntu can auto-complete the string for me based on the first few letters.
I wouldn’t call any of the features above essential, but they give Ubuntu an extra touch that makes the user experience especially smooth. And on its march to become ‘Linux for human beings’, an added dose of user-friendliness is precisely what Ubuntu needs to convince the masses that free software can work for them.
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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