What makes Ubuntu so user friendly?

Of all the Linux distributions, the consensus is beginning to become clear that Ubuntu is, hands down, the most user friendly of the Linux distributions. Naturally there are people that claim other distributions like PCLinuxOS, and Linux Mint are even more user-friendly than Ubuntu. But what exactly makes a Linux distribution user-friendly?
I have been using Linux for over ten years. My first induction in the “cult-o-Linux” was with Caldera OpenLinux 1 and Red Hat 4.2. Back then it was a completely different Linux. If you wanted to install an application you most likely were going to install from source or, if you were lucky, you could find an rpm package for your Red Hat installation. But so many day-to-day activities were handled from the command line. You mounted (and unmounted) floppy disks from the command line. Most likely you started your dial-up modem from the command line (and even had to write a bash script to get it connected – remember Minicom?)
Today, Linux is an all together different beast. But what makes it user-friendly? And what, in specific, makes Ubuntu so appealing that it could easily become the flagship Linux distribution? Let’s take a look.
Familiarity: As much as I hate to say it, in so many instances, you have to mimic Windows in order to gain a level of comfort with new users. In many instances, Ubuntu has done just that. But it’s not overt mimicry, it’s subtle. It’s changing the way users have to deal with removable media. Now you can plug in that USB key, write something to the key, and remove the key. Of course you should be unmounting the key before removing it (just like you should in both Windows and Mac), but at least it has become possible to, quite literally, plug-and-plug. Is this unique to Ubuntu? Not completely. However, Ubuntu has pieced together a system that is much more consistent with the methods of the “market share”.
Software management: Ubuntu has, and continues to have, one of the simplest tools for managing software. Open up the single tool, search for what you need, select it, and install it. And with Ubuntu 9.10 coming out, this task includes commercial software. What this does is, in many instances, keep the user from having to search the web endlessly for commercial-grade software for Linux. The next step – ease the adding of repositories.
Sudo: This is a very sore point for many old-school Linux users. Most see this as a security risk. But with regards to user-friendliness – why would you want to make the new user have to learn about a “super user” or “root” account? Most average users cringe at the thought of doing anything administrative to a computer. So you remove the idea of their needing an administrative user and you take one step towards giving the users what they want. With Ubuntu your user has administrative rights through sudo, so the worst thing they will have to do is enter their user password when handling administrative tasks. Most users can handle that.
Choice made simple: A lot of distributions have chosen one desktop over another. And let’s face it, the desktop ultimately will determine how user-friendly a distribution is. I can take a user-friendly distribution like Ubuntu, put AfterStep or E16 on as the desktop, and that distribution is no longer user-friendly. The desktop is the make or break for Linux and we all know, for user-friendliness, there are two serious choices: GNOME and KDE.
Ubuntu makes this very simple: If you want GNOME you download the standard ISO and burn it. If you prefer KDE, download Kubuntu. Ubuntu goes even further than that by offering Xubuntu and Edubuntu versions of the distribution. So instead of having to download and install a distribution with one desktop and then install the desktop you want on top of that, you just download the version of the distribution that includes the desktop you want.
Installation: How much easier could it be than booting a Live CD and then clicking the install button once it is up and running? Not much. Of course many Linux distributions have a Live CD version (some only do Live DVDs) which is great. But the Ubuntu Live CD offers a cleaner, easier start up and installation than most. If you’ve ever tried the Elive Live CD you know EXACTLY what I am talking about.
Boot time: Ubuntu Linux has one of the fastest boot times of all the Linux distributions. The goal of Ubuntu is to reach that elusive 10 second boot time. They are coming very close. Along with boot time would be a clean boot. By clean boot I mean not giving the user more information than they need. Long gone is the boot up process that tells the user every single process, system, and sub-system that is starting up. The only users that want to see that are the old school users trying to debug various issues.
Remove the clutter: I am a big fan of virtual workspaces. I love (and use) the Linux pager. Most people, however, do not. Ubuntu has the right approach to this tool, strip the virtual workspaces down to two to appease the old school users AND not so easily confuse the new users. In all honesty, I think for the standard release, the pager needs to be disabled all together. Sure, leave it there so users who depend upon it can enable it, but why have more clutter than the average user can stand? Ubuntu is on the right path.
Final thoughts
Of course what you really need to do is define “user friendliness”. For many people that means “just be Windows”. But for some it’s much more than that. If you say “Just be Windows” – doesn’t that include Vista? And Vista was not the most user-friendly OS. User-friendly, to me, is an operating system (as a complete whole – not in pieces) that does not interfere with the user. A real user friendly operating system will allow the user to do what they need to do without confusing road blocks or cumbersome sub-systems. And, finally, a user-friendly operating system should be secure from the threat of viruses and malware without the inclusion of third-party software. Linux has that in spades.
What do you think? Is Ubuntu the most user friendly Linux distribution?

2 Replies to “What makes Ubuntu so user friendly?”

  1. I don't know if Ubuntu is the best distro since I've only used Debian and Ubuntu. I do know that it Just Works for the most part. Ubuntu does a fair job of juggling keeping things simple and making sure the advanced options exist.

    I'm really happy with the way components like codecs are handled. I didn't like the idea of sudo at first, but now I simply don't install it on production (server) systems, using it only on workstations.

    However, there are still gaps. Multimedia is another problem, Pulse is an overly complex system and from what I can tell doesn't support modern requirements like AC3 pass through. Support is another big problem – wading into forums, with their ambivalence and occasional hostility is not a good solution for most people. A system that is more aware of the user's configuration and packages would be helpful.

    I've also been experiencing wireless problems for a couple of years across two different computers which require an occasional reboot.

    But ultimately the vast majority of hardware and software requirements are managed out of the box, without configuration, for free, and the work is shared around the world in many different environments. The big win here is it's open source, so everyone can build on everyone's best efforts. Thinking about the worldwide free/open source movement is very exciting no matter what free/open source software is used.

  2. Hello David, you are right. Ubuntu has achieved a lot, but it equally has a long way to go. It really needs to tackle those nifty annoyances like those you mentioned then it would finally be taken seriously by the masses. However, all in all, it has done alot

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