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Ubuntu's desktop not ready for primetime, declares Walt Mossberg

Ubuntu's desktop experience gets panned by Walt Mossberg. Who cares?

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Let's be very clear: nobody but Apple gets much desktop love from Walt Mossberg's influential consumer tech column in the Wall Street Journal. Not Windows. Not Linux. Not anything except OS X.

Part of this is because of his audience ("This column is written for mainstream, nontechie users of digital technology"). Part of it is because he simply prefers the Mac or other Apple technology to just about anything.

Whatever the reason, it's not all that surprising that Mossberg largely pans the Ubuntu desktop in a recent article, as CNET's Stephen Shankland notes on his blog.

My verdict: Even in the relatively slick Ubuntu variation, Linux is still too rough around the edges for the vast majority of computer users. While Ubuntu looks a lot like Windows or Mac OS X, it is full of little complications and hassles that will quickly frustrate most people who just want to use their computers, not maintain or tweak them.

Before every passionate Linux fan attacks that conclusion, let me note that even the folks who make and sell Ubuntu agree with it. Mark Shuttleworth, the South African-born founder of the Ubuntu project, told me this week that "it would be reasonable to say that this is not ready for the mass market." And Dell's Web site for its Ubuntu computers warns that these machines are for "for advanced users and tech enthusiasts."

Of course it is. Today. That need not mean that it will still be this "rough" tomorrow. I've talked with Mark before about the Ubuntu desktop, and I'm convinced that he has ideas that will make the Linux desktop relevant to a wider body of people. More to the point, the community has ideas about how to do so.

This may actually be part of the problem.

I do think that Mossberg puts his finger on the pulse of a real problem with the Linux desktop, generally, and a fair amount of community-driven open-source software, generally:

Open source is a two-edged sword. While it draws on smart developers from many places, nobody is ultimately responsible for the quality of the product, and open-source developers often have an imperfect feel for how average people use software.

It's the latter point that I think has merit. Simply put, a developer's "itch" is not necessarily the same itch that the average user has. This is why it's important to have commercial entities involved in open source: they can afford to "scratch itches" that plague a wider pool of software users. This is why Novell's Linux desktop, for example, is better than any I would develop on my own.

It's too early for cheers or jeers on Ubuntu's Linux desktop (or anyone else's). It's also not worrisome if mainstream markets don't pick up on it, since arguably the real battle is for the majority of the planet that has not been conditioned to think about the desktop experience in any particular way. Most of the world will first experience computers and the Internet through their phones, as Jonathan Schwartz is fond of saying.

What that next step will be, after the phone, is largely up to you.