Simplifying Life With MediaWiki and Ubuntu
After several years of trying to find a good note-taking solution, I've finally settled on a local installation of MediaWiki on my Ubuntu laptop for managing information relevant to my academic and personal pursuits. Below, I outline my experiences with the software, and explain why the ease of deploying it and similar packages on Ubuntu is one of the platform's greatest, and perhaps most under-appreciated, strengths.
Since college, I've tried at least half-a-dozen different approaches to taking notes, and until now was less than satisfied with each of them. Handwritten notes are difficult to store and search through. OpenOffice is bulky for notetaking, while plain text files offer little opportunity for mark-up. The various note-taking applications that I tried, like Tomboy, were decent, but none offered exactly what I wanted.
In contrast, MediaWiki, the open-source wiki software used by Wikipedia and numerous other sites, has so far provided a compromise-free solution to notetaking. I can easily organize notes into individual "articles" for each book or topic that I deal with, and the built-in search allows me to find information quickly. Best of all, since MediaWiki is installed locally, I don't have to worry about having Internet access to take or read notes, and my wiki data gets automatically backed up with the rest of my system.
Why it matters
Of course, it's not exactly news that MediaWiki can be installed on a personal computer. That can be done for free on virtually any modern operating system.
What really impressed me, however, is the ease with which I got MediaWiki up and running. Installation was as simple as opening Synaptic, searching for MediaWiki and clicking "Apply." Dependencies were resolved automatically and seamlessly, which is considerably easier than installing the application on Windows.
I did need to refer to the Ubuntu documentation to discover that a quick edit to /etc/apache2/conf.d/mediawiki.conf was required before MediaWiki would run, but otherwise, the installation was smooth enough that a "normal person" would be able to handle it with no problems. (Note to MediaWiki package maintainers: why don't you make the application active by default so that editing mediawiki.conf would not be necessary?)
Promoting Ubuntu's package management
MediaWiki is not unique in its ease-of-deployment. Ubuntu developers have focused on making the installation and configuration of applications quick and easy; the dovecot-postfix package in Ubuntu 9.04 server edition is the most recent product of such work. Gone are the days when only experienced systems administrators had the skills to deploy Apache, mail servers, MySQL and other popular but complex software.
Ubuntu deserves more credit than it currently receives for this kind of work. Its extensive and well-maintained repositories simplify the deployment of complicated packages in a way uknown on proprietary platforms and rare even on most other Linux distributions. As such, features like these should be at the core of Canonical's efforts to promote Ubuntu both on servers and desktops.