Introducing the Linux user interface

Ubuntu Linux may be more familiar to Windows users than OS X Leopard

A few days ago, Walter Mossberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, offered a verbal peek at the Mac user interface (see Some General Tips for Switch to Mac From Windows) intended as heads-up for Windows XP users thinking of switching.

I'm not a Mac user, but from reading the article, it seems that the initial learning curve for switching from Windows XP to Linux, is less than that for switching to Macs. Both Macs and Linux are immune to the vast majority of malicious software, so from a Defensive Computing standpoint, each is good choice.

One advantage Mac users have is that there is, at any given time, a single latest and greatest edition of OS X. Someone switching from Windows XP to Vista has about six editions of Vista to deal with, but on the Mac side it's Leopard, just Leopard; nothing but Leopard.

The choices available to someone interested in Linux can be mind boggling. Different editions are referred to as "distributions" or "distros" for short. There are dozens of popular Linux distributions to chose from and I can't even guess at the total available, hundreds for sure. For this article, I chose the desktop version of Ubuntu 8.04. Not the server edition or the MID edition. Not Kubuntu or Xubuntu or Edubuntu or Gobuntu. Just plain vanilla Ubuntu.

Below I offer the Linux side of the various user interface aspects that Mossberg raised and contrast it with Mac OS X Leopard.

Menu Bars

Macs are drastically different than XP on the fundamental issue of menu bars. In both Windows and Linux each running program/application has its own menu bar across the top of its window. Below is a screen shot of Klondike solitaire and the Calculator running in Ubuntu. Solitaire has the colored menu bar because it's the active application.


According to Mossberg, Macs have " ... a single menu bar at the top of the screen that changes, depending on which program you are actively using." That must take some getting used to.

Task Bar

Both Windows XP and Linux have a task bar along the bottom of the screen that provides an inventory of currently running applications. In the screen shot below you can see that Calculator and Klondike solitaire are both running, and that Klondike is minimized.

Just as with Windows, left clicking in Ubuntu on the task bar button for a minimized application makes it visible. Right clicking on items in the task bar brings up the same five options as in Windows (Minimize, Maximize, Close, Restore, Move and Size). In addition, Ubuntu offers an "Always On Top" option and a handful relating to workspaces, a concept you can grow into or easily ignore.


As Mossberg describes it, there is no Mac equivalent to the task bar. The Dock comes the closest but it sounds more like the Windows Quick Launch toolbar in that it holds icons for the programs you use most often, rather than those running now.

Start Menu

The Start button also doesn't have an exact equivalent in Leopard. Mossberg says "Its functions are divided between the Dock and the Apple menu at the upper left of the Mac screen."

Many Linux distributions have a Start menu/button exactly like Windows. For example, here's a a screen shot of Mandriva Linux. The yellow Mandriva button in the bottom left corner is exactly analogous to the XP Start button.

Rather than a single starting point, Ubuntu has three, and they're at the top of the screen instead of the bottom. This was visible in the top left corner of the prior screenshots. The starting points are: Applications, Places and System. The screen shot above shows an expansion of the Applications menu. Below you can see the expanded Places menu. The System menu is the next topic.

Control Panel

The area where all three operating systems seem the most similar is their self-configuration. Windows has a Control Panel, Macs have System Preferences and Ubuntu has the System menu, shown below. Apple offers a hidden path to System Preferences in the Apple menu and wastes real estate by including it in the Dock. Ubuntu makes system configuration always visible while using a minimum of screen real estate.

Keyboard Shortcuts

All three systems offer keyboard shortcuts for when you don't want to move your hands off the keyboard to the mouse. Windows and Linux use the Control key, typically abbreviated as "Ctrl". Macs use a Command key. According to Mossberg, the Command key isn't called that on the keyboard (that would be too easy), it either has "a cloverlike symbol or an Apple logo". He doesn't explain which Macs have which, let alone the inconsistency.

As you can see in the screen shot below of the Gedit text editor, Linux does many of the same keyboard shortcuts as Windows.

Quitting Programs

In both Windows and Ubuntu, when you're done with a program, just "X" out of it. That is, click the X in the top right corner of the application window. You can see in the Gedit screenshot above, that Ubuntu has the exact same three buttons in the top right corner as Windows. And, they do the same thing that they do in Windows.*

Macs will confuse Windows users. For one thing, the "X" is in a circle in the upper left corner. But most importantly, it doesn't shut down the program. In fact, as Mossberg described it, it's not clear to me just what it does. He says that it closes the window rather than quitting the program. Close the window? Could he mean that it minimizes the window? Maybe this is Mac terminology? When Windows and Linux users "close" a window, we're shutting down the program.

Maximizing Windows

Maximizing windows in Ubuntu works exactly the way it does in Windows, you click the middle box in the top right corner. Not so with Leopard, says Mossberg. Never mind that you start off with a green circle in the upper left corner, clicking it results in a window size "deemed optimal for its contents, which isn't always the whole screen." Apparently Apple knows best. Mossberg didn't explain how to force a window to occupy the entire screen.

Double-clicking on the title bar in Windows also maximizes a window. Same in Ubuntu (although you can configure this with a system preference). Other Linux distributions take a different approach. With Mandriva, for example, double-clicking on the title bar rolls up the window so that just the title bar is visible.

Switching Programs

Not much to say here. Both Windows XP and Ubuntu can use the Alt-Tab key combination to switch between running applications. On a Mac it's Command-Tab.

Right Clicking

The Mac legacy is a mouse with a single button. Apparently that's in the process of changing. According to Mossberg "Most desktop Macs now come with a mouse that allows right-clicking..." He didn't say which desktop models do and don't. And, I suspect he chose his words carefully. That is, "allowing" right clicking probably isn't the same as actually having two buttons on the mouse.

He goes on to note that "...you can use almost any two-button USB mouse with any modern Mac". But again, "modern Mac" is spelled out and he doesn't say why some two-button mice won't work. They all work in Windows. Then there a Mac laptops, which only have one button forcing users to fake things out to get right clicks.

Ubuntu, like all Linux distributions, fully supports two button mice and right clicking. Windows users will feel right at home.

Adjusting The Screen

Not a lot to say here. Macs configure the desktop background image, screen saver and screen resolution in System Preferences.

Ubuntu configures this in the System menu under Preferences. You can see this in the screenshot of the System menu above. The desktop background image is either configured using the "Appearance" System Preference or by right clicking on the desktop and opting to "Change Desktop Background".

Final Thoughts

Not to paint too rosy a picture, Linux has more than it's share of annoyances. Firefox running on Ubuntu, for example, wants to open audio .PLS files in the Movie Player program. And, to chose another program, you have to browse the file system rather than a list of installed applications. Even saving the PLS file locally and opening it with the Rhythmbox Music Player didn't produce any sound. Ubuntu knows that PLS files are "MP3 ShoutCast playlists" yet, it can't play them.

But, on the subjects that Mossberg chose to focus on, Ubuntu offers a more familiar environment for people switching from Windows. And, it's cheaper.

For more on Linux, see my previous posting Is Linux right for your mother? , a comparison of Linux vs. Windows at my personal website and Why you want a Linux Live CD .

Update July 9, 2008: As luck would have it, I spent some time with a Mac laptop today running OS X 10.4.11. As a Mac newbie, it gave me a chance to add something to Walter Mossberg's points. One of the first things I noticed was the lack of a backspace key. On Windows and Ubuntu, the delete key deletes whatever is to the right of the cursor. On this Mac at least, the Delete key deletes what is to the left of the cursor, thus, it's the backspace key, at least to me. I didn't bother experimenting to find the Mac way to delete stuff on the right.

The three circles in the top left corner all look the same, they're circles. Sure, they're color coded but I didn't get the memo on what the colors mean and I shouldn't need a memo. Windows and Ubuntu offer better visual clues for their window handling icons. Hovering the mouse over the circles does not produce a tooltip explaining what the circle does. It does produce a symbol in the circle, but it was too small for my aging eyes to decipher.

Finally, the lack of a task bar was a major annoyance. Other than Cmd-Tab is there is a visual way for Mac users to track the currently running applications?

* I have to vent. The gOS Linux distribution has three circles in the top right corner and they all look exactly the same. What were they thinking? If you hover the mouse over a circle a tooltip pops up that tells you what it does. But, the mouse pointer blocks almost the entire tooltip making it impossible to read.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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