The latest version of Ubuntu, Raring Ringtail, is billed as business and user-friendly. There are still significant obstacles to its widespread adoption in the enterprise, but if your employees only access applications via the browser, and your company doesn't use complex spreadsheet macros or document formats, then Ubuntu 13 might be worth considering.
We had no trouble installing it from scratch, and no trouble upgrading from the previous version of Ubuntu. Installation took about 20 minutes total, we saw no driver issues, and Wi-Fi worked right out the box. MP3 support is not included by default, but is an option during the installation process.
The biggest problem we had with our initial install was that we couldn't run Google Chrome. The open-source version of the browser, Chromium, worked fine. The Google Chrome dependencies problems were fixed in late May, however, and we were since able to download and install the browser.
By default, Ubuntu 13.04 comes with the Unity 7 interface. It's nice to look at, and fairly snappy. Existing Ubuntu users who like the Unity style will already be familiar with it. Those who don't like Unity have plenty of other user interfaces to choose from. Unlike Windows and Apple platforms, Linux separates the back-end functionality of the operating system from the front-end look-and-feel.
This version of Ubuntu is supposed to be faster, but we didn't see any significant speed improvements in our applications.
The latest version of Ubuntu, in an attempt to attract more users, also comes with social media support, 5GB of free cloud storage with Ubuntu One, and access to the Steam game platform.
[BACKGROUND:10 things we love and hate about Ubuntu]
In our tests, we couldn't get the social media integration to work consistently Tweets would appear on the desktop for a while, then disappear again. A Facebook launch icon would show up, sometimes, when Firefox was running, but not other times. There's also a new Photo Lens feature, which allows you to see your photos from Facebook, Google Plus, Picasa and other social accounts all in one place.
The built-in search functionality is fast, and powerful, and includes online search results as well. The downside is that it also includes Amazon results. Turning off online search turns off Amazon, but also useful online results such as Photo Lens.
There is also now paid software for download in the software center. This is good news, since we might start seeing more developers port their applications to the platform. However, given the small installed base of Linux on the desktop, it's doubtful that there will be a sudden influx of developers offering business-friendly applications right away.
One of the ways in which this release is simpler than previous ones is that, by default, there is only one workspace. Windows users are already used to working in a single workspace, but Linux users have traditionally been able to work in multiple workspaces simultaneously. In practice, what this means is that an experienced user might have all their work applications and windows open in one workspace, and all their games and social media in another, and with a click of a button be able to switch from one to the other when the boss walked by.
For newcomers to Linux, however, what this means is that they'd have all their applications up and running, have several browser windows open, be happily switching between documents and then accidentally click the button to switch to a new workspace and everything instantly vanishes. They're looking at an empty desktop and all their documents, windows and applications are gone, resulting in panicked calls to tech support.
Having a single workspace by default does make the learning curve easier for people switching from Windows. Power users can still get the multiple workspace feature back, however, in the settings. It's under Appearance, under the Behavior tab, where you need to click on "Enable Workspaces."
Can it replace Windows?
If I'm a Windows user sitting down at a Linux machine for the first time, the first thing that jumps out at me is that there's a column of icons to the left of the screen, instead of at the bottom where I would expect a launch bar to be on a PC or Mac. The power button is at the top right instead of the bottom left.
This is different from both the PC and the Mac, and there isn't any good reason for it to be different. Moving the launcher bar and power buttons to familiar locations would make the desktop more approachable for Windows and Apple users, but as it is, it is relatively easy to adjust to.
The function of the launch bar icons isn't immediately obvious for all the icons, but users who take a couple of minutes to explore them can quickly figure them out.
The first one pulls up your most used applications, and lets you search for others, kind of like the Start button in Windows. The second is your documents folder. Then there's the Firefox browser, and launchers for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation applications. The next icon is the software center, Ubuntu's answer to the Apple App Store. It makes it easy to find and install software. The next icon is for Ubuntu One, which offers free cloud storage similar to DropBox. Then you've got a button for Amazon and a button for the system settings.
That's a lot of useful functionality, reasonably easy to figure out even for people totally new to Linux.
When I sit down at a new computer, the first thing I usually change is the desktop background. Right-clicking on the Ubuntu desktop does bring up the display settings window, as you'd expect, but trying to change the desktop wallpaper to any solid color results in an all-black background. This is a known bug, and the solution involves directly editing the configuration settings not something an average user is likely to want to do.
This illustrates what is probably the single biggest challenge for newcomers to Linux. Online instructions for how to do things often involve dropping down to the command-line interface. This may feel natural to experienced Linux users, or to network administrators and software developers, but not to regular computer users who have long since gotten used to being able to do everything in a point-and-click environment.
Other than that, arranging the desktop to suit your tastes is easy. Right-click on any file, program, or folder to create a shortcut called a link in Ubuntu and drag it to the desktop. Or drag icons directly to the desktop from the launcher. This is all very similar to how it works in Windows, so newcomers should have a relatively easy time of it.
The next annoyance is that the little icons to minimize, maximize and close a window are at the top left instead of at the top right.
It is possible to fix it this but only to a limited extent, with a free program called Unity Tweaks. I installed it through the Ubuntu software center, and was able to move the buttons to the top right of the windows. Sometimes. When windows were maximized to take up the whole screen, they'd move back to the top left again. This is annoying, and difficult to get used to, especially if you switch back and forth between Linux and Windows computers on a regular basis.
Once I had things set up or not set up the way I liked them, I moved on to doing some real work. The Firefox browser is pre-installed, Google Chrome is available, but not Internet Explorer. There's no Microsoft Office, but LibreOffice is pre-installed and is a decent alternative for simple documents and spreadsheets.
I've been using LibreOffice and OpenOffice for years without any problems. In fact, I like having the option to export to PDF built right in. Even "track changes" are supported. However, you may run into problems if your spreadsheets have macros or your Word documents have extremely complex formatting.
In fact, the most obvious difference between say, Word, and LibreOffice Writer for most users will be that the menu bar, the one with File, Edit, Format, Tools, and other drop-down menus, seems to be missing. It's not, but it took me a while to track it down. It's at the top of the screen, just invisible, and only appears when you mouse over it.
When we first installed this version of Ubuntu right after it came out, I would have said that these annoyances, while minor individually, add up to significant obstacles to adoption for the average Windows user, and that the Linux laptop was sentenced to permanent duty as the living room table video-watching and Internet-browsing machine. But then my regular Windows desktop went into the shop for repairs, and I was stuck using the Linux laptop for work.
And after a couple of weeks of use, however, I've learned to deal with the placement of the window close icons and the disappearing application menu bars. And I found that I was able to work on the Ubuntu machine with only a couple of minor difficulties.
Those difficulties were those pesky disappearing file menus and windows close buttons, and the lack of some critical software.
I use Filemaker, for example, which is not available for Linux, so I was not able to modify the database structure or layouts. But since we run Filemaker through a hosting company, I could still access the database itself and do regular work in it via a browser.
Bottom line? Switching a Windows user to Ubuntu is not much of a difference than switching to, say, Windows 8, as long as LibreOffice meets their needs, and all the other applications they use are either available for Linux, or accessible via a browser.
As more and more enterprise applications are migrated to a Web-based delivery model, or are replaced by cloud-based solutions, migrating to Linux might become feasible for more companies.
Maria Korolov is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about software in Network World's Software section.
This story, "Ubuntu 13 challenges Windows 8" was originally published by Network World.
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