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Ubuntu Hardy: The latest and greatest or a total mess?

UbuntuUbuntu has become so popular, so quickly, that it is almost synonymous with the word "Linux". Common wisdom holds that it is the easiest to use, simplest, and most stable Linux based OS out there, and that it is the best hope for "Linux on the Desktop". This reputation is a well earned one, but after trying out the latest beta of Ubuntu Hardy, due out this April, I can't help but wonder if they are getting a little careless. More on this after the jump.

My laptop specs are as follows:

Dell Latitude 640
Pentium 4 @ 1.8 ghz
768 MB RAM
160 GB Western Digital IDE Hard Disk
ATI Radeon Mobility 7500
Intel 802.11b/g wireless
LITE-ON DVD-RW USB 2.0 drive

Ubuntu comes loaded with a spiffy update manager that is capable of cleanly upgrading to a new release, which intelligently removes conflicting or obsolete packages. It took about two and a half hours, but everything seemed to install intelligently and efficiently. I was pleased to find that none of my packages were broken, and I couldn't help but notice some cool new features.

The Nautilus file manager now supports the Windows icon standard, so if you insert, say, the Diablo II play disc, it actually shows the Diablo icon for the CD instead of just a picture of a CD. It also supports CD "autorun" files, which means that if you have WINE installed, Windows application CDs will launch just as they do in Windows. Don't worry though, it warns you first. There are also several other enhancements that a help make it feel like a more professional and user friendly environment, such as helpful popup notifications and a refined file progress dialog.

It disturbed me that crash reports popped up when I first logged in, but I figured that this was just the last remnants of Gutsy getting cleared up. I was wrong. I've been using this for about a week now, and random crashes are the norm. It's never been anything as dire as a kernel panic, just segfaults in some of the Gnome applets, but it's still troubling. Now, I know people are going to point out that this beta isn't meant for daily use, but that just doesn't cut the mustard.

Then there's Firefox. Not only is Firefox 3 still incompatible with Blogsmith, but every single time I launched it, I had to uncheck offline mode in the file menu. That got old REALLY fast. I'm as excited about Firefox 3 as the next guy, but including it as the default browser is a real mistake. To add insult to injury, the default fonts in Firefox 3 are a complete eyesore, assaulting the user with huge bold letters every time one enters something in the address bar. I've used betas of Ubuntu ever since Dapper, on a Powerbook G3 no less, and never had any problems like this.

Betas are supposed to be finished products going through last minute testing. This is clearly a late alpha, not a beta. They haven't even finished implementing Pulse Audio yet! None of the system sounds work, and there is no way to control the volume of individual apps yet. Would you let people start test driving your car when all the tires aren't even bolted on yet? This is what I feel like when using Hardy beta. Sure it runs, but I'm driving on the rims, and sparks are flying everywhere!

I think there are bigger problems here than early adopters getting burned. I've seen a real lack of quality control ever since Dapper Drake came out. That release was hard as a rock, had all the modern features I needed, especially NetworkManager. Even though I was happy with Gutsy, I had to do geeky tweaks just to get it to boot properly, because the default framebuffer settings were wrong, and so all I got was a black screen. Compared to Dapper which "just worked" from a fresh install, this is disconcerting. Can I feel confident giving a laymen an Ubuntu CD and telling him or her to check it out? The answer used to be yes, but now I'm not so sure.

Ubuntu has had a remarkable, larger than life rise to fame. It has taken Red Hat's now abandoned throne as the distro that the uninformed consumer perceives as "THE" Linux. Most people have a hard time understanding that there are hundreds of Linuxes, and just assume the most talked about one is the official version. With adoption at a steady climb, Ubuntu's popularity and visibility is a huge boon to Linux as a whole. It would be a damn shame if the community dropped the ball at such a crucial time. Hardy is supposed to be an LTS release, meaning it will be the new gold standard for stability and support. Let's hope that Canonical and the Ubuntu community don't make the same mistake Microsoft made with Vista and rush this thing out, or else it will be a blow to not just them, but the entire open source community.

Tags: analysis, hardy-heron, linux, opensource, osupdates, tweet-this, ubuntu