Intellectual curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to test the forthcoming Ubuntu 20.04 release. Long-time readers will recall Ubuntu was my daily driver from 2014 to 2016. I also continue to use Linux (Ubuntu Mate) as a technical writer, so I wasn't exactly going into this experience as a wide-eyed virgin.
Curiosity aside, cold hard economics are also a factor. With Apple products growing more and more expensive in Australia, there's a certain appeal to being able to switch to cheaper, but otherwise perfectly adequate PC hardware. Given our dire economic times, a lot of us will be looking to get more life out of what we already own, and that's one of Ubuntu's virtues.
Creatives tend to be walloped in economic downturns. With that in mind, my initial thought was to review Ubuntu as a writer, rather than a nerdy developer — and I may still do that…maybe.
Unfortunately, that idea met an early hurdle. I made the mistake of running Ubuntu on a live USB drive using an old hacked Chromebook I had lying around from my Linux years. The resource-deficient Chromebook really struggled with Ubuntu's desktop shell (GNOME 3.36), choking to the point of a complete crash every time I attempted to open Firefox. I shouldn't let that colour my experiences or opinions — macOS would do far worse on 2GB of RAM. It means, however, I'll have to source some better quality hardware if I want to write a full and fair review.
Hardware issues aside, my first impressions were favourable. The Ubuntu desktop is pleasing to my eye, at least on first glance. Aesthetics alone aren't enough. Out of the box, Ubuntu is pretty lean, so I headed to the Snap Store (Ubuntu's app store) and had a look at what's available these days.
I was pretty disappointed. My search revealed the old issue that bothered me back when I used Ubuntu full time. Namely, the quality of available apps is still questionable at best. While it's unfair to expect to find Ulysses, Scrivener, Final Cut X, Logic, Photoshop, Pixelmator or Affinity Photo… there aren't even decent analogues. I believe this problem persists because Ubuntu lacks the useful utilities and core system libraries that macOS and iOS users and developers take for granted.
macOS runs rings around Ubuntu in terms of functionality for creative professionals. Admittedly creatives are Apple's traditional market — Canonical's Ubuntu has always been for developers. Both companies seemed to forget that, but in the last 18 months, that's changed for the better.
So can Ubuntu cut it for non-developers? Of course, it can, as Linux goes Ubuntu is user-friendly, and its appeal has gone far beyond its traditional heartland. There's even Ubuntu spins and derivatives targeted explicitly to creative professionals, namely Ubuntu Studio.
For writers, there are glaring deficiencies. Gedit, the default text editor, still can't do an accurate word count and the native spell checker is garbage. Ubuntu has nothing like Core Text to handles text and typography beautifully and consistently across apps. Nor is there the Quartz compositor that makes PDF rendering and creation a first-class citizen. Meanwhile macOS ships with licensed copies of several excellent dictionaries from Oxford University, as a writer I use them all the time — across all native Cocoa apps. Not in a thousand years will Ubuntu get something like that. That same Cocoa framework makes apps like Scrivener, Ulysses, iA Writer so much easier to create on the Mac and iOS than any other platform.
The story is similar for other creative endeavours. Graphic design, video and image editing, podcasting…all benefit from Apple's unique core libraries, which are absent from Linux or exist in silos that don't interact in a meaningful way.
None of this is Ubuntu's fault, nor is it to say that Ubuntu can't be used by creatives. Far from it, many do, and I wish them the best. But for me, hacking together workflows in the hope that I can recreate the experience I like isn't the best use of my time in 2020.
In trying 20.04, I came to the realisation, once again, that Ubuntu isn't as agile or adaptable as I need. Yet my reasons have changed from when I came back to the Mac in 2016. Back then, it was the Mac desktop and Scrivener, today it's iOS that keeps me rooted deeply in Apple's ecosystem.
Ubuntu 20.04 might be a tremendous desktop release…but in many respects Canonical has merely skated to where the puck was — four years ago. Desktops and desktop operating systems are beginning to feel like niche solutions to niche problems. Sure, I continue to use macOS, not because I'm a writer, but because I'm a developer. For almost everything else, I prefer to use an iPad. There's no iPad equivalent for Ubuntu or even the Microsoft Surface.
Where's the Ubuntu device that adapts to my needs as I shift from one mode to another? Like many creatives, I want a device that acts like a slate, a drawing tablet with a first-rate stylus, a workstation with a keyboard and big screen. Devices must conform to their user, not the other way around.
As an aside, Canonical (the owners of Ubuntu) to their credit tried to create a convergent device years before — mainly on the back of Android tablets. They failed, as Android tablets ultimately failed. In light of that failure, Canonical returned Ubuntu to its GNOME desktop roots a couple of years ago. Since then, they've refined and improved the experience in their predictable and reliable six-monthly release cycle. You'll either love or hate GNOME 3. After my initial reaction of 'oh, this is slick', Ubuntu's GNOME shell just feels weird and under-utilised on my high-resolution monitor. I have mixed feelings about it, but on balance, I think this 36th release is an improvement.
Well, that's as far as I got before I tired of the Chromebook's awful performance. That's why I've tagged this as a journal piece, rather than a full review. I acknowledge there are more impressions and opinions here than object observations, so take that as it is.
I admit I was superficially impressed, yet the exercise served to remind me why I left Ubuntu in the first place. It's not that Ubuntu is terrible — far from it. Ultimately, it's because I've moved beyond the desktop-paradigm of computing and Ubuntu hasn't.
They'll be a lot of tongue-in-cheek commentary about the 'Year of the Linux desktop'. Still, in an age where most people do their computing on phones, and creatives flock to devices like iPad Pro and the Microsoft Surface, it's tough to get excited about Ubuntu.
So, should I bother with the full review? I doubt if more time with Ubuntu will soften my opinion, but I'd love to hear your thoughts, so hit me up in the comments below!