Give Me The Dang Button!

I should probably start out by letting you know that it's now official! Yes, Ubuntu/Kubuntu and all the other *buntus are out in release 9.10, the very Karmic Koala. After months of running 9.10 alphas, followed by betas, I am now running the official Karmic release. Feels good to be official for a change.

What about you? Did you attend any of the release parties? Heading out to one of the parties still to come? Throw one of your own, perhaps? I did pop the cork on a rather nice bottle of 2007 Archangel Pinot Noir Rose last night, a wonderful, dry, sparkling wine from Angels Gate Winery. Here's to 9.10, even if Canonical didn't use my new mascot.

This past Saturday, I gave a talk on "Linux Without Fear" at Ontario Linux Fest which took place in Toronto, Ontario. Sorry, make that Ontario GNU Linux Fest -- the name was changed a couple of weeks before D-day. Before I get into that, let me doff my hat to the organizers for putting together a first rate Linux/FOSS conference. It gave me the opportunity to meet and chat with friends I don't see anywhere near often enough, like LinuxPro's own Rikki Kite. I also enjoyed meeting Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, who I've spoken to a few times over the years, but had never actually met in person.

What I talked about last Saturday was Linux on the desktop, specifically the definition (and delivery) of a user-friendly Linux distribution. To make my point, I ran VirtualBox where I had preinstalled five purportedly user-friendly Linux distributions . . . six if you count the copy of Kubuntu 9.10 I was running on my own desktop, on top of which everything else was running.

My demo choices were Fedora 11, OpenSUSE 11.1, Mandriva 2009.1, Ubuntu 9.10 (for the GNOME side of things), and LinuxMint 7 which is built on *buntu 9.04.

Every one of these distributions has real positives, regardless of your personal favorite. They are, after all, built using the same base operating system and a common set of tools. One might go further and suggest that the desktop itself is a shared idea, or at least, two popular shared ideas.

The sessions weren't particularly long and we had wardrobe, er, room partitioning malfunctions, so this tour of user-friendly Linux and promoting these to people coming from other, lesser, operating systems was more of a rapid tour -- I called it a rogues gallery. But I digress . . .

In comparing the various distribution, I talked about what I thought they did right, and what they did wrong. For example; Fedora, I know you believe in the whole total freedom thing, but Abiword is not a replacement for MS Word. That would be, a choice that most major distributions make. And that, was in fact, my point.

To lure the masses from the clutches of Microsoft Windows, you need to provide an experience that is more than just technically superior. Linux has been technically superior for years -- it's a done deal. What you need to do is provide a way to continue doing those day to day things a Windows user takes for granted. provides an obvious answer by making it possible to open, edit, and collaborate on, documents created with Microsoft office. Kopete and Pidgin make it possible for people to continue their instant messaging conversations over MSN or Yahoo, as well as the open protocol Jabber/XMPP. Firefox and Thunderbird are available for both Windows and Linux desktops thereby making that transition painless.

Then there's the browser and multimedia experience. Yes, yes, I know all about the whole free/non-free codec argument. I know that some countries, notably the United States, have very strange laws about being able to watch and/or listen to content created in various formats. It's stupid but politicians aren't, by and large, the most technically adept people in the world (oops, that was supposed to be my inside voice). Here's the experience in a nutshell. If you visit a Flash site, or try to play an iPod format file, or play a Java game, the hoops come out for you (or your users) to jump through.

Only LinuxMint, in all these distributions, makes it possible for me to do all this without having to install anything special. It's already there. I can hand over a copy to my Linux-timid friends and most of their wants and needs are taken care of without having to look through community documentation or finding packages to install.

Ubuntu almost does this by telling me that I need to install this codec or that plugin in order to listen to a song or view a Website. Ubuntu tells me it can install the Flash plugin. Cool. It tells me it can install an MP3 codec. Cool again. Sure you get a warning, but we're all just going to click Okay anyhow. Next time, there's an MPEG-4 format file that doesn't play. Oh, Ubuntu is telling me it can locate and install the necessary plugin. Cool. Then I stumble on a Java site. Will you look at that? There's apparently a plugin for this too. Cool. I think.

Ahh! Don't make users go through this! Pre-install it or offer a version that is pre-installed. Again, I understand the laws and the philosophy behind not providing these things, but you're half-way there by telling me how to do it. Couldn't we go a little further, Ubuntu? Put a button on the desktop that says, "Install All Those Goodies You Know You Need" (or something like that). Have it pop up a card with appropriate warnings about non-free software, proprietary blobs, and what have you, provide a "Do It Anyway" button.

If you can't pre-install it, then give me the button. I understand there are times when you can't -- you don't want to put your business customers in a potentially sticky legal position. But your casual home users probably aren't in that position. For many of them these codecs and plugins are completely legal. Give them the button.

I want the button. And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one.

Until next time . . .



I have no I.T. background; I'm basically a secretary. I began learning to use computers in college, with DOS. I can use new software typically more quickly and effectively than the next person, but that only includes installing if the choices and commands are simple and do not involve knowing anything about system architecture, programming considerations or anything else not in common use by secretaries.

I have hoped to use a FOSS system for about five years now, and have had to totally re-store (from the disks) computers three or four times during that effort. What I think would help me would be (a) simple to me (not just to those with I.T. background) choices during installation, with explanations and legal releases as needed, covering "background" things like codecs that few end users are even aware of as well as the more predictable functions such as audio, video, eamail, etc., and (b) as with the rest of the computer business, actual paper or easily printable documentation written at a grade-school language level by people who are not I.T. specialists and could therefore relate more easily to the rest of us.

It's not really that easy, it's just that we tell you it's easy...

I think the real problem now is the marketing machine. I work in the industry and see people every day who bring in machines with pirated Windows XP and expect we'll reinstall it for them without a valid license. Then they ask if doing it themselves would be difficult. I'm always amazed at how many people assume that XP just loads up with all drivers loaded, all updates installed, and Microsoft Office installed. Of course to anyone in the industry it sounds silly, we know better. Everyone who works for me agrees that installing Ubuntu is a much smoother experience. Granted we do run into the occasional exception (e.g. one client hooking his Ubuntu machine to a Panasonic Viera 32" television and they just told us "install Ubuntu."). And here's where I think Linux can excel, but often fails, the after market service... what we need to do is make sure the client's needs are being met, even if the client doesn't know what many of their needs are.

I saw Marcel Gagné speak at Ontario Linux Fest and I agree with him that we sometimes suck at providing this after market service (our organization is guilty of that ourselves). What I'm talking about is making sure end users are getting technologies like Flash support in Firefox, mp3 support, and making sure they're supported for things like printers, cameras, and media players.

In the last two weeks we've seen 40 Windows systems come in chock full of spyware and trojans. After awhile we find ourselves fed up removing spyware, even though it helps bring money in. And it's probably not even the fact that we're removing the same old junk, but that at least 75% of the time it's from machines that don't have a valid Windows license.

"Technically Superior" vs. market success

The Sony Betamax(tm) and the Digital(tm) Rainbow PC(tm) were both "technically superior" products.. Need I mention the Studebaker(tm) and the Edsel(tm)? All of these failed in the market place for a variety of reasons. Let's not get tangled in the details
about these examples. Consider the following:

A "european sports car" conjures the image of a machine that spends more time in the shop
or being tinkered with than it does hauling you or your family or your goods. It seems that "Linux
workstations" conjure a similar image filled with constant arcane tinkering. I offer as example issues and troubles
surrounding use of commercial [aka, bought in a store] audio CDs and video DVDs and the need
to identify, locate, and install codecs and utilities and such. We must find some way to (1) eliminate
these tinker points, and (2)market a linux-based workstation to Ms. and Mr. Average End-User.

I suggest that we prepare a set of Top-Ten lists: 1-10, 11-20, etc. Each list is a set of tasks that
Ms. and Mr. Average End-User are likely to expect to find working. For each task listed,
we then make sure that any distro delivers that work-age, fully functional, without tinkering,

I know there will be debate about whether package-A or package-B best delivers functionality
for any given OoB task. I welcome and encourage that debate. However, that debate might best
be served given a strong positive OoB experience rather than after a struggle to tinker a package
into minimum or other mediocre operation.

~~~ 0;-Dan

spell things

To the guy below me. Please learn how to spell. Especially when you put things in quotation marks that are unnecessary. 'Know' comes from the word 'knowledge' not 'nowledge'. When spelling a title ALWAYS make sure it is also spelled correctly, for that is the one thing that stands out the most. Excellent.


I agree with all the codecs coming standard. All I do when I install a fresh distro is install VLC, the all-inclusive app. But I agree, Flash is a pain and I can never seem to get it to work flawlessly.

Excelent article

It's completely true every word you said. Sometimes we forget that new users "don't have to now" how to deal with the software. I always recommend Ubuntu to my friends but I always have the same problem: I have to help them with the installation of a lot of software that it's necessary for the "day to day" work in any computer.

But it isn't just the problem with multimedia, it's also the problem with a lot of simple things that they have to deal (e.g. automatically mount of a Hard Drive in every session, etc.). And another multimedia software that is appearing every day (like the new Silver Light by Microsoft, but it has its addon in Firefox with Moonlight).

And as well as you think, I think that's an issue relating to the distributors because new users "don't have to now anything" about their distros. They have to concerned about developing new software but they have to take as a main worried the improvement of their old appliances...

Thanks for share your opinion...

What really needs to happen

What really needs to happen in the U.S. is that the DMCA needs to be repealed. There are free codecs, but it is illegal to use them in the U.S because of certain parts of the DMCA. These free codecs do NOT violate anyone's IP/copyrights/ is just that the RIAA/MPAA got a provision put into the DMCA that using them instead of licensing (and paying outrageous fees) for the original codecs is illegal.


You people are buy Windows OS and get codecs and then get a Linux distros for FREE and complain about having to go and install illegal codecs. Mandriva offers a Powerpack distro for $79.00 with ALL the codecs installed BUT the same people complaining won't buy it. Everyone wants everyting for FREE. People get a life.

Maybe have an icon on the desktop called "mutimedia"

I'm a long time Linux user. I don't mind installing whatever I need when I need it.
The average user just wants everything to work out of the box. I think if Ubuntu had an icon on the desktop, called "enable multimedia support" or something a layperson could understand, it would be helpful. When the button is clicked a license agreement/disclaimer pops up, they click OK and then ubuntu-restricted-extras is installed.
This may help the average computer user.

easier said than Done

it's easy to say "just put a button" but will you be tehre to pay their legal bills when they are sued? And the patent holders DO sue. Microsoft was sued over MP3 support a couple years ago.

Yes, totally agree

You are completely right on. That is exactly what distributions should be doing. At this time too many are avoiding the issue using excuses of legality etc. instead of creating the completely user friendly desktop experience that Linux is more than capable of doing.

An example from years ago that used the same kind of avoidance excuse.

Mandrake discovering a "WinModem" during install and rather than automatically setting it up the installer would post a message listing a website address and telling users to go there for help setting up the modem.


Like that was going to happen for your Windows switchover candidate.

Another example is the whole KDE 4 fiasco. Now don't get me wrong here. KDE 4 has huge potential and I totally recognize this but...even now, after several updates, its barely touching the desktop functionality of the previous 3.5 version. Yet, rather than using the practical approach of testing releases until it reached parity with 3.5 its been shoved out too early into distribution after distribution. Even the newest versions still lack what I would consider basic desktop functions.

You nailed it!!

This has been my exact conclusion, sir!

Yesterday I succeeded in converting my neighbour to Linux Mint 7. She had a Windows Vista laptop, and her harddrive died a few weeks ago. She went to the computer shop with it and they wanted to charge her like 200 euro's for a new harddrive plus a new OS, because she had a OEM version (not too sure about the exact reason though).

I advised her to get the laptop back from that shop and I tossed out the harddrive and let her buy a new 2.5 harddrive. I installed Linux Mint 7 and managed to get everything working (there is still 1 thing missing, if you look at what she is used to do on Windows).

I managed to configure ekiga so she could use her highly needed sip account to make international calls to her home country. I configured pidgin and skype and everything worked perfectly. I even installed the avast security suit for Linux because she insisted on having that.

However, the only thing she was complaining about is that her webcam is not supported in Pidgin (or I couldn't find a way to make it work). Her webcam does work in Skype though!! Today I asked a friend of mine for some help regarding this issue and he advised me to look at Kopete, because apparently he managed to get his webcam working with it.

This last part is the only reason I wouldn't give Linux Mint a 10/10. But overall we can conclude that Linux Mint is THE Linux desktop and I am comfortable suggesting it to ordinary people!! I was so delighted everything worked out well and will continue to monitor her experience with this desktop. I will even try to convince her to donate some money to the Linux Mint developers because they deserve it. I agree that Ubuntu could be made even more user-friendly by providing a "restricted extra included version".

Thanks for the article.

Legality Issues Regarding Software

Don't complain to the distributors. Complain to the lawyers and the politicians. If you really want the situation to become simplified, then you have to get every nation in the world to agree that it is not illegal to install these codecs onto their machines without paying for them. By the way, in the USA, it is illegal for home users to possess the codecs without paying for them. It is not strictly a corporate issue. It actually affects everybody in the USA.

The system at large needs to change before the distributions can.

why is any of this harder than windows

Why is any of this harder than windows? Take DVD ply back for instance. In linux you just install libdvdcss and media players magically play dvd's. In windows you have to first purchase a legal DVD player and install an entire application to play dvd's.

And most distro's do offer an easy way to install this. Mandriva has codeina, it pops up when you try to play anything that it can't play. It says, hey, we can't play this, do you want to buy and install legal codec or install this free stuff, naturally you click on free codec and it works.

Release Party and Install-fest

"What about you? Did you attend any of the release parties? Heading out to one of the parties still to come? Throw one of your own, perhaps?"

As a matter of fact, yes we are throwing an Ubuntu 9.10 Release Party and Install-fest. Our local Linux users group ( is hosting a free party on November 7th, 2009 from noon until 6. Thanks for asking.

Sure, it's there ...

... but the very good point being made is a new, Windows-using newbie will have absolutely no clue that it's there. You know it's there. I know it's there. The author knows it's there. And how long have you been using linux? I've been using it off and on and on and off for about 9 years now. Back when getting a functioning desktop could turn into an experience in black magic and voodoo.

One better than a desktop button, how about a dialogue on first boot (live or install) that goes "Hey, if you want to watch videos or listen to music, you're going to need all this extra stuff. (list stuff) Do you want me to install it for you? Yes/No" DONE!!

Because of the philosophies that matter to the folks making things are being catered to more than a lot of the folks using it for the first time and know nothing of the philosophical side of software, it's giving a lesser first impression of linux than it should.

Maybe there needs to be a YOUbuntu distro that has this stuff already figured out.

re: restricted stuff

Hi Will,

Thanks for the reply :

"Installing this package will pull in support for MP3 playback and decoding, support for various other audio formats (GStreamer plugins), Microsoft fonts, Java runtime environment, Flash plugin, LAME (to create compressed audio files), and DVD playback. "

Sounds great. It is great. But again, don't make users search for it. When they log into to Ubuntu for the first time, there should be an intro pane that say's "You'll probably want all this stuff" because people will. It should be that easy. You knew what to look for, but most people coming at this for the first time, certainly won't.

-- Marcel

Re: Dang Button

From ubuntu-restricted-extras description:

"Installing this package will pull in support for MP3 playback and decoding, support for various other audio formats (GStreamer plugins), Microsoft fonts, Java runtime environment, Flash plugin, LAME (to create compressed audio files), and DVD playback. "

Dang Button

Isn't that what the "ubuntu-restricted-extras" package is? I used Ubuntu a few years ago, and installing this package installed most of that stuff.

The expanse of space surrounding Planet *buntu is getting busier and busier. As a result, achieving a stable orbit is particularly difficult when you're easily distracted. Consequently, Marcel Gagné's blog looks at pretty much anything and everything that orbits Planet *buntu. News, howtos, rumors, opinions, controversy, tech tips, helpful hints . . . you'll find it all here. Oh look! A shiny object!

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