Non-Geeks Installing Ubuntu: Why Linux Needs Better Wireless Support
My day job revolves around early-modern European history, which I study in graduate school. While most of my fellow graduate students know very much about obscure dead people, computers are generally not their forte: many of them remain unsure of the difference between Microsoft Word and Microsoft Windows, for example.
I was thus quite surprised to hear a colleague mention recently that she purchased an MSI Wind and installed Ubuntu on it. (She would have bought the Linux edition to begin with, she said, but found it nearly impossible to find any mention of the Linux selection on MSI’s website—a fact that the company ought to take into consideration.)
She has no background as a computer nerd and decided to give Linux a try, she explained, only because she’d grown tired of fighting the daily war against Windows malware.
The fact that my classmate decided of her own volition to give Ubuntu a shot is very significant—it demonstrates the inroads that Linux has made among the “human beings” (i.e. the non-geeks) among us, as well as the increasing recognition that it’s not just for computer nerds anymore.
Her success in independently installing and running her Linux system with few problems, despite her total lack of Unix experience, also attests to Ubuntu’s ability to be a distribution for the masses.
That said, the one glaring problem experienced by my colleague with her shiny and sleek new Ubuntu system was wireless. The Wind comes with a Realtek RTL8187B wireless chipset, a relatively new device. Although drivers for it were integrated into the Linux wireless stack with the stable release of the 2.6.27 kernel earlier this month, these will never reach Hardy, and it’s unclear whether they’ll be merged at this late date into the Intrepid kernel. Consequently, compiling Realtek’s Linux driver from source is the only way to get wireless working on the Wind.
While compiling kernel modules may seem trivial to experienced Linux users, it is hardly so for someone who’s never touched Linux before. Even though there is ample documentation online explaining the process, Ubuntu neophytes are not likely to be able to find such information, let alone readily apply it.
My classmate spent several hours trying to get the wireless working on her own, to no avail. This is not a problem unique to the Wind: five minutes browsing the Ubuntu forums turns up numerous posts along the lines of “how to install wireless driver?” on a wide range of hardware.
In cases where native drivers exist and have been around long enough to be merged into the kernel stack, Linux wireless is easier than in Windows—it “just works,” as Steve Jobs likes to say, without the user ever having to think about it.
But for the numerous chipsets that lack out-of-the-box support, wireless too often becomes the deal breaker for individuals trying to make the switch to Ubuntu. If I hadn’t been able to help my classmate figure it out, she likely would have uninstalled Linux, as a netbook without wireless access is a plane without wings.
This is why projects like the Linux wireless stack, which has finally centralized and standardized Linux wireless drivers, remain so important. Campaigning by Linux users, companies and advocates for better cooperation by hardware vendors and more timely releases of Linux wireless drivers is also crucial. If even a netbook made by an ostensibly Linux-friendly company lacks out-of-the-box wireless, the Year of the Linux Desktop clearly remains quite far away.
WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Christopher Tozzi is a PhD student at a major U.S. university. Tozzi has extensive hands-on experience with Ubuntu Server Edition and Ubuntu Desktop Edition. WorksWithU is updated multiple times per week. Don’t miss a single post. Sign up for our RSS and Twitter feeds (available now) and newsletter (launching January 2009).