New priorities for Ubuntu?

I have been an Ubuntu fan from day one. When Warty Warthog was released on October 20, 2004 I downloaded and installed it immediately.

I remember thinking at the time that the result was less than impressive, given all of Mark Shuttleworth’s billions. And yet, despite initial impressions, I stuck with it and soon come to enjoy using Ubuntu. Which is pretty much how I’ve always used Ubuntu: It’s pretty good and I can accept a few bumps in the road because something new and exciting was being created.

But recently I’ve started to think that perhaps Ubuntu needs new priorities, new approaches to what it is doing. And I’m not alone.

Let me explain.

For the first five years of its existence Ubuntu was playing catch-up. Developers were trying to at least match the features that Windows and Mac OS X offered, features that users expected. It’s true to say that Ubuntu in 2004 was miles behind Windows, it looked reasonably attractive but the features that users wanted weren’t all there.

During this time users like myself, the season-ticket holder fans of Ubuntu, were willing to put up with this or that not working or make do with a workaround rather than a fully-fledged solution to what we wanted to do. After all, Ubuntu was still growing.

Skip forward to 2010 and things are different. Ubuntu is not really playing catch-up anymore. It is now a perfectly good, usable desktop operating system. Perhaps you don’t think it does A as well as Windows or B as well as Mac OS X, but the core features of both these operating systems are present in the current release of Ubuntu. It’s a solid OS.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that I think that over the past six years everyone in the Ubuntu community has become ingrained with the ideology of pushing out new, better, faster releases every six months. And while the six-month release cycle has made Ubuntu exciting to use and was of great benefit during the catch-up phase, it has a downside.

The downside is that it has created a constant need for new features. New features are not a bad thing but new features for the sake of new features are a problem.

Each new release of Ubuntu includes something new, something different, something only half working.

Take UbuntuOne, the online storage service. It’s a great idea and has huge potential. But it doesn’t really work properly. It works okay most of the time but it is not reliable.

Initially UbuntuOne promised to synchronise documents online but it didn’t really do that very well. With the next release it promised to sell music online from its UbuntuOne Store. It sort of does, but chances are your purchases won’t download first time and you may even have to resort to going to the web to finish downloading the music you paid for.

And while this is going on the UbuntuOne developers have added in contacts, notes and Firefox bookmark syncing, more features that mostly work.

So instead of making sure that my documents stored on UbuntuOne are synchronised reliably each and every time, developers are working on new features, most of which will work most of the time.

I want to rid myself of Dropbox and switch to UbuntuOne. But UbuntuOne needs to be as good as Dropbox. Dropbox only does one thing for me: synchronises documents. So I don’t need all the other features of UbuntuOne until basic synchronisation is working properly. I’d rather have one excellent feature that makes UbuntuOne irreplaceable than 10 that are unreliable.

It’s not just UbuntuOne, it’s the new SocialMe desktop, the switching window buttons, the ever-changing selection of default applications. Each new release of Ubuntu brings with it new tools, new ways of doing things and new challenges.

Change is necessary and one of the things I most value about Ubuntu is the ever-present push to innovate. UbuntuOne, SocialMe and others are great examples of how Ubuntu is innovating.

The thing is that as Ubuntu grows it begins to attract new users, and the quickest way to alienate new users is to make it hard for them to do what they want to do. Or worse, promise something but not do it. Users are more likely to stick with something that works well than something that mostly works but has lots of potential.

I’m not about to abandon Ubuntu. I enjoy it too much. But I would like to see all of its promise realised. And to do that, each and every feature and application in the release needs to work as advertised. That way anyone can recommend Ubuntu to anyone else, safe in the knowledge that Ubuntu is the best available.

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New priorities for Ubuntu?