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Letter from Linuxland -- Part 3

In which Rupert Goodwins rolls up his sleeves and discovers why Ubuntu won't play audio and video files, and finds something else that can

If you've been at all interested in Ubuntu, you'll have read what it's like to use when you first install it. You've got the world's best browser, some damn fine office software, a few games, a nice clean windowing interface and almost everything you need right there on the desktop.

All that's true. One of the biggest buzzes I got from the software was that first heady half hour. All my Firefox extensions loaded just fine, I got my head around enough of Linux' idea of how the disk is organised to save files from OpenOffice and send them off through Gmail, my USB stick popped up on demand with the dragging and the dropping -- the revolution had begun, comrades, and not a drop of blood to be found.

Then I clicked on a link to an audio file. Something called Totem appeared, and sadly declared that it didn't know nothing about no MP3s, sir. I soon found out that Totem was also charged with video playback, at which it was similarly clueless.

It was at this point that I first deployed the single most important skill any Linux noob needs -- Google. "Ubuntu won't play MP3s" I typed. The first few hits were merely confusing or infuriating -- forget about the clash of cultures out there in the real world, if you want to see religious warfare practiced by committed professionals, just get stuck into Linux flamewars.

But there at number six was the answer. I had some inkling it was going to be something like this. Because of obscure, annoying and mostly pointless legal problems -- I'll bore you with the details some other time -- Ubuntu can't or shouldn't distribute the software that actually decodes most of the popular media types. Other people do, most notably a mildly maverick bunch who produce a tight little package called EasyUbuntu.

Here's what they say about themselves: "EasyUbuntu is so easy to use in fact, that even your grandma could be playing encrypted dvds, streaming Windows Media, and sporting the latest Nvidia or Ati drivers in minutes!" Well, perhaps. It's improved now, but when I got there the installation involved opening a terminal window, cutting and pasting a chunk of BASH commands and watching in bemusement as a thousand incomprehensible messages about dependencies scrolled past.

My gran would have thought dependencies were obscure islands in the South Pacific. She would not have coped for one second with the digital version, and even the more up-to-date instructions ("Once downloaded, double-click on the package to install") would have floored her. "Click here to make it work" is granny level, and the unsupported Ubuntu is still far from that.

To be fair, so is Windows -- and unlike Windows, you can create a duffer's distro under Linux that really does work with the technophobe. Have a look at Puppy Linux for something you could lock down on a second-hand laptop and give to anyone aged from five to 500.

And EasyUbuntu (to be renamed just as soon as Stelios hears about it) lives up to its billing. Once it's in, media plays perfectly -- and a lot of other loose ends are tied up. But it was my first brush with the brasher, more abrasive side of Linux -- not just the tech side, but the bumptious in-yer-face attitude of some of its proponents. It's not easy to deal with, even if it is better in lots of ways from the bland corporate boosterism of Microsoft and pals, and while Ubuntu goes a long way to calm things down it's still something that frightens the straights.

I watched my videos and listened to my music. Hey, this is fun, I thought. Now, let's network it with my other PCs -- and the inkjet. How hard can that be?

I found out. And next time, so will you. -RG