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June 13th, 2008:

Ubuntu and the 20/80 Application Rule

As time has allowed, I've been downstairs getting a sense for the new Ubuntu 8.04 release (Hardy Heron) in both its Ubuntu and Kubuntu (KDE 4 UI) distributions. My experience with Kubuntu was cut short when the new and rather bleeding-edge KDE 4 system malfunctioned in a weird way just a few days after I installed it. I will reinstall it when they get a bug-fix release of KDE 4 out there; in the meantime, it's been worthwhile playing with Gnome-based Ubuntu.

As I said in my May 28 entry, desktop Linux has arrived. People still quibble about whether or not Grandma can install Linux, but think for a second: Does Grandma have to install Windows? Hardly. If we can persuade hardware vendors to offer Linux preinstalls, Grandma will have no more trouble with Linux than she would with Windows, especially if this is Grandma's first PC and she isn't constrained by old Windows habits.

I've been testing four free software packages in some depth: Abiword, OpenOffice, Gnumeric, and Kompozer. I tested Abiword and OpenOffice some years back and again last year when I installed Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon. Both worked fine. OpenOffice seemed slow to me last year, but then it was running on a 2002-era 1.7 GHz machine, not the loaded P4 3.2 GHz box I'm using downstairs these days. OpenOffice now seems more than responsive enough. Abiword, by contrast, has always seemed pretty brisk, and it has evolved to the point where it can do just about anything I need a word processor to do. It loads and saves Word 2000 files—with a couple of minor gotchas—and had no trouble with the documents I edited. The Gnumeric spreadsheet works extremely well for me and handled every Excel 2000 spreadsheet I threw it at, keeping in mind that I'm not much of a spreadsheet guy and none of my spreadsheets ever gave Excel stretchmarks to begin with.

Kompozer was a bit of a surprise: It's a fork of Linspire's now-abandoned NVu WYSIWYG Web editor, and as close to Dreamweaver 3 as anything I've tried. It's available for Windows, and if it doesn't fail me in any significant way, I'm moving all my HTML development over to it, because it outputs cleaner HTML than the 1999-era Dreamweaver 3.

I've done less testing of OpenOffice, but will continue testing and report more here. If I have to move to a non-Microsoft office suite in the future, this will probably be it, and what testing I've done so far tells me that file compatibility is probably the only serious problem I'll have.

What my recent testing of Ubuntu and these several apps suggests to me is that only a lack of big box store preinstalls keeps desktop Ubuntu from becoming a very big hit—and the biggest challenge to Microsoft since OS X. What has always been true but rarely mentioned in the computer press is that 20% of app features satisfy the needs of 80% of app users. That 20/80 rule goes further: Email, Web, word processing, and spreadsheets together represent probably 80% or more of what home users do with computers. (I suspect that the rest is a combination of media players, IM, photo managers, and games.) And within those apps, 20% of the features do 80%—or more—of the work. I know a lot of people who still use Office 97 every day, and have no intention of upgrading. It works like lightning on modern PCs—and it's paid for, heh. It's harder for me to tell with Gnumeric, but I'm quite sure at this point that Abiword is on par with Word 97 and very close to par with Word 2000, certainly close enough to satisfy the 80% rule.

The recent (and completely unexpected) explosion of interest in cheap “netbook” subnotebook PCs comes into play here. The Atom-based netbooks I've researched will not run Vista and probably never will. Caught again with its pants around its ankles, MS is trying to popularize a streamlined version of XP for netbooks, but Linux was there first and seems to be making headway. A netbook does not have to be a completely general-purpose PC. If it can execute that 20% of app features supporting 80% of user work, it will sell—especially at the $500 price point. A distro that preinstalls Firefox, Thunderbird/Lightning, Abiword, and Gnumeric would be one hell of a road warrior machine, especially if the hardware has a fast SSD and comes in under two pounds. Canonical is working on what sure looks like such a distro, its recently announced Ubuntu Netbook Remix. Ars has a nice preview. No crisp word yet on what apps it preinstalls, but we'll find out before OEMs begin preinstalling Ubuntu Remix on their hardware later this year. In the meantime, I'm very encouraged on all fronts. Finally, there is a non-Microsoft, command-line free path to 80% of what PCs do. As far as I'm concerned, that's plenty.