Five Features We Want To See In Ubuntu

Ubuntu isn't the only Linux operating system, but it's where the dream of a usable, completely free desktop is closest to reality. If everyone Ubuntu developer were assembled at one place, here are five things we'd ask them to accomplish.

Image by Andrew Mason.

Ubuntu's not a single service or application developed by a single-minded team, so our wish list is a bit broader than just asking for five features or tweaks we'd like to see. Ubuntu is an open-source distribution of Linux, improved and developed for by thousands of developers around the world, and it incorporates the efforts of many of the projects it relies on, like the GNOME desktop, open-source drivers, apps like Firefox and Pidgin, and many more.

But let's say there were a worldwide summit on how Linux could become a viable, convenient desktop for more people, and let's pretend I had a panel approved at said summit at which I could present to all the devs. I wouldn't argue about hardware compatibility, or pretend that games are an end-all issue. I'd admit I'm biased toward thinking about Apple computers more than Windows, because Apple has gained ground with a surprisingly similar product, and some corporate, locked-down environments will never switch from Windows.

Then I'd ask for these five things:

An App Store better than Apple's

One of Linux's most touted advantages over Windows and Mac systems is that, on distributed systems like Ubuntu, you can install thousands of applications right from your system, without having to Google, download, double-click, and Next, Next, Next through installation screens. That advantage is lost if you put all your applications in a big pile of searchable stuff labelled "Graphics" or "Sound & Video"—or, even worse, ask users to copy-paste repository sources and installation commands into text files and terminals. Those are great backup and uber-geek solutions, but terribly off-putting to those just trying to get a system up and working.

New users are coming to Linux looking for their Windows or Mac equivalents—Photoshop, iTunes, Winamp, AIM—and they're wondering what other users like them recommend in very particular areas. They're in a position similar to that of a new iPhone owner when it comes to software. Only certain applications will work on this very particular software setup, and they must be sought out. Apple's iPhone App Store is an utter mess when it comes to organisation, search and layout, but even its simple Top 10 Paid and Top 10 Free are more guidance than what Ubuntu users are being offered. The default, installed Ubuntu applications are okay, maybe a little esoteric in spots, but Ubuntu's builders and coders shouldn't be the taste makers.

Create a clean, tagged, search-friendly database of everything that runs on a standard Ubuntu desktop. Offer wiki-style, group-edited write-ups, reviews, and (maybe) ratings of what the applications do and what non-Linux apps they are similar to, and put it all on the freely accessible web. This kind of thing is already possible with Ubuntu's apt-url handler—all that's missing is the common URL.

Integrate dual-booting and virtualisation

Show up fresh-faced at an Apple Store and ask how your copy of WordPerfect would run on a Mac, and a T-shirted Genius will gradually guide you into Parallels or VMWare Fusion, or possibly suggest using Boot Camp to occasionally run Windows when needed. Ubuntu isn't really any different. If Ubuntu wants to reach beyond the technical-minded, it should eliminate the need to learn about partition tables to fit a Windows installation next to Linux.

Create something less imposing and more visually appealing than the default GRUB menu. Keep improving on the Ubuntu installer to better explain what one's multi-system installation options are. Do your best to make something like installing and running VirtualBox easy for a beginner, or break apart its open-source guts and integrate it so tightly into Ubuntu that an "Open in Windows 7" right-click command isn't some laughable dream.

A wave of right-brain rethinking

The achievements of a network of left-brain-oriented, technical-minded developers in creating a Unix-based system that installs on just about anything with a processor can never be truly appreciated. Apple created a Unix-based OS that installs on a smaller subset of computer hardware, but has a history and tradition of investing a whole lot of right-brain thought into making technically advanced features look clean and simple. Projects like Mac4LIn are mimicry at its finest, and interfaces like GNOME-Do Docky theme bring both Quicksilver and Dock functionality to Linux. What Linux and Ubuntu really need now, though, is something new.

Palm's Pre smartphone received generally rave reviews for its "deck of cards" interface, which was actually new and not hard to get used to. While it doesn't seem to be winning a sales war against the iPhone, Ubuntu has a distinct advantage—it's free. Something free and designed to look kinda-sorta like XP out of the box once did won't win hearts and minds. Something with a useful but new look, with advantages in speed, openness, and hardware support, will get noticed. To paraphrase what Mac guy John Gruber said about the Android opportunity—set your goals such that you can claim victory with just a fraction of Windows and Apple's installation base.

Awesome cloud-based backup

When the Linux-based Chrome OS drops, one thing we know it's going to try for is starting up in "a few seconds." Ubuntu's next release, meanwhile, is aiming for 10 seconds. Unless they're both pitched primarily for mayflies, that's not an insurmountable difference, but Chrome OS will also offer no-worry backup of all of a user's documents, emails, SMS messages and whatever other webapps, because it all gets done through a web browser, or, more likely, a browser running inside a stand-alone application shell.

There are a significant number of folks who aren't cool with having everything they do in the cloud, and might want hard copies of everything. More likely, it's probably wise not to use Google as the linchpin of one's entire productive life, because account lock-outs and password hacks do happen. Backup, however, is one of those things that's more powerful when there's a copy far away from your system. Ubuntu already has Ubuntu One, but right now it's a less convenient Dropbox look-alike, because it's accessible only through Ubuntu or the web. Its open source, so Windows and Mac synchronisation tools may eventually show up, designed by committee. But if a backup service is getting accolades from true geeks for being paradigm-shifting and mind-freeing, you'd do well to learn its lessons, or potentially open talks in the interest of open-sourcing it.

Good video editing software

This one's a bit more fiddly, but definitely worth mentioning. Trying to edit a video so that continuous sound played over different clips, two Lifehacker editors found themselves amazed at how difficult, or at least hard to find out, iMovie '09 had made such a task on a Mac. On Windows, there's the free Windows Movie Maker, which has actually lost features since the XP version, and then professional packages starting at $US450 dollars. In Linux, there are a range of options, almost none of them with a finished feel, and all of them front-loaded with codec, dependency and interface headaches galore. OpenShot seems like a step in the right direction. While Ubuntu isn't in the video software business, the many folks who contribute time, thought, and sometimes money to the project could consider this a serious missing link in the Linux application space.

Our imaginary panel comments at the Worldwide Ubuntu Summit are now finished, but we left some time for comments at the end. Tell us what you think Ubuntu needs, or needs to change, to become a great alternative desktop in the comments.


    That picture made me want some Jello. Also convinced me to try Ubuntu, as soon as I can find a powersupply and a case at a price my wife will let me buy.
    Gumtree here I come!

    I think the holistic wants list is great. I am a user who from an ethical and moralistic point of view doesn't want to use either MS or Apple where possible. I think that Ubuntu is going the right direction and as this post suggests, some more user friendly management would take the OS further.

    One thing I find completely unhelpful and annoying about some of the linux community are the large number of people who just hate anyone that doesn't dream of command line bliss. If thats your thing then your well catered for! if its not... it can be pretty hard to work things out for a new user who just wants to use their computer free of MS and apple's shackles.

    What about wifi networking that works right out of the box without having the screw around under the covers to fix it? I've been using Ubuntu/Edubuntu for years and they still haven't got that right.

    I think its an ok list, but One key feature that Ubuntu is missing is an easy way to install software off the Web, I tried and tried to create a Home Theatre PC from Ubuntu, but it was no match for Win 7 MCE... MythTV & XBMC just didn't install or play together well, way to complicated... To really get a ton of people using it, it needs better media capabilities... oh and retarded ATI & other hardware Co. to get behind it and support their stuff more...

    There's one important aspect to MacOS that Ubuntu hasn't copied -- the limited hardware platforms that are supported.
    When XP MCE first came out, it only supported a limited hardware set, which probably contrinuted to its lack of uptake, however: I think that a similar approach could work for Ubuntu. Compile a limmited list of hardware that is most likely to make this dream a reality and put all efforts into making Ubuntu work for them.
    This version of Ubuntu could be made available as Ubuntu MCE or Ubuntu premium, but it could encourage update by individuals and box shifters such as Dell.

    Additionally, I think Ubuntu could learn a lot not only from Apple's app store but also from Social Media apps such as Farmville and Mob Wars in Facebook. There's clear evidence here of micropayments being a viable income stream. With Ubuntu providing the platform and the gateway, developers could be encouraged to write commercial software for Ubuntu...

    ...which leads me to my final point. Ubuntu should make it easier for developers to release closed source and/or commercial software. It is ludicrous that software such as the Gimp is free whilst people are happy to pay a few dollars for a middling iPod game. Many software developers live in the real world of mortgages and families and need to earn a living. The free software movement is admirable but I honestly don't believe that Ubuntu and Linux in general will hit the mainstream until they provide a means for the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Adobe to release Office, iTunes and Photoshop onto their platforms.

      Instead of Ubuntu premium, how about an Ubuntu Box, which you could buy and install during your lunch break onto any popular PC from participating manufacturers that ships with Windows? The box would contain a bootable USB-ROM stick wik an installer of Ubuntu giving the choice of dual-boot, migrate, or fresh single-OS modes and include any appropriate drivers or weirdness needed for that machine and a choice of default or PC-OEM theme. Also included would be a handi-wipe.

    What you want is a wish list for Windows users, not Linux users. Do you think that Linux users really want to change the way the way they operate to suit others or even care if it gets popular?

    Linux does not have to conform to anyone's ideas, especially those based on making it easier for disgruntled Windows users. Windows users are used to crummy operating systems cranked out by people who don't care what they think. I have little sympathy for them. You get what you deserve. Now to try to get Linux to follow that trend is absurd.

    OS/X is no better. It is a DRM laden proprietary OS. We don't want to go there, no matter how good Mark Shuttleworth thinks OS/X looks.

    Linux is what it is. Take it or leave it. It does not need to be popular or to become like anything else.The only thing that I agree with is that Ubuntu needs to evolve, but get out of your mind forever that it should become like anything that currently exists.

    As for the comment that it would be nice if you could install programmes from the internet. You can. They come in the form of debs and you can get them from sites such as However, this is not a good idea. Most of what is on the net for Windows is pure crap. You can have it. Just don't inflict that on Linux. Use Windows if that is what you want.

    If we start listening to Windows users we are done for because they don't know what a good OS is because they have never used one.

    LinuxCanuck, you have the point.

    Personally I also want a good video editing software and this time I do see problems with 6 to 8 applications pointing in similar ways but as obvious in different projects.

    But going back to the previous comment. Linux is not an attempt to be the others OSes. Linux is what it is because the things you seem to disagree with. In a car analogy, what's the point of buying a Sport car to want it to behave like a cross motorcycle.

    I think you got it wrong when you try to request features that may not even belong to what the Linux users ever wanted.

    As a Linux user, at the beginning I've used to think this way but later I've found why Linux is different and why it doesn't need to be like other proprietary systems.

    I don't understand why users from other systems want to move to Linux and to change it to be like the system they came from.

    "If we start listening to Windows users we are done for because they don't know what a good OS is because they have never used one".
    I'll keep that.

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