Anyone who has read Slashdot will be very familiar with the rhetoric that Linux is on the verge of taking the desktop crown away from Windows, but also anyone who isn’t an open source zealot who has tried it will know that it still has a long way to go before it can touch Windows and OS X in the usability and overall polish stakes. Recently Ubuntu has become something of a cult within the cult, coming from nothing to being the most popular Linux distro in a little over six months by selling itself (or not selling itself, as the case may be) on the fact that it was “Linux for human beings”, so I got my hands on a bunch of the free CDs to try it out.
I’d never really thought of using anything other than OS X on my iBook so it was with some trepidation that I slid the live CD into the precious. The free CDs that you can order come in a nice card slipcase, each containing both the installation CD and the live CD so that you can test it out before installing, and it really makes the package look professional. Within a few minutes it had detected all my hardware (even the Microsoft Bluetooth mouse, and only the Airport card was unsupported) and booted from the CD into the full GNOME desktop. I’d previously only used KDE under Knoppix and was pleasantly surprised with how nice to use GNOME was.
Obviously a live CD is no way to test the speed of an operating system but performance on files that had been cached was nice and snappy. I messed around with Firefox and played a few rounds of the included Poker game while holding a few chats on Gaim and only recall a slight delay for the disc to spin up upon loading the programs for the first time.
I’d imagine that it would be as fast as can be expected of any OS when running from the HD, but I’m too careful with my iBook and its contents to try that. I might drop it onto one of the spare partitions on my Windows PC at some point but I haven’t even plugged that thing in since I switched to OS X.
Linux had seemed like something too esoteric and impenetrable to the beginner for me to think seriously about trying, but the developers of Ubuntu have done a fantastic job of making it very usable. Even though I admittedly I have more computer knowledge than the average person I still think it would be easy enough for most to use. I’m something of a pessimist in that I can’t see Linux ever becoming the dominant desktop OS platform, but this shows the potential of it to become a viable general use alternative for most with a few years of development. They have a stable and fast OS already, so with some more work on user-friendliness the saving of at least £80 on every PC you own starts to look better and better.