Linux Is Hard, Except When It Isn’t

Online tech news site Ars Technica (which I recommend, by the way) recently reviewed the Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition.  Its unique feature: it ships with Ubuntu Linux as the default operating system.  This preload deal had a few unique properties:

  • It’s from a major system vendor, not a no-name or third-party integrator.
  • It’s a desktop-oriented product, not a server.
  • Most notably, the vendor actually put effort into making it work well.

That last point deserves some explanation.  A few vendors have grabbed a Windows computer they sell and allowed the option to preload Linux on it, but without support; you’re on your own if it doesn’t work in some way, which is likely.  Essentially, they save you the time of wiping Windows off the box and doing a fresh install, but not much more.  But this laptop comes out of Dell’s Project Sputnik, a project to put out Linux machines for developers with a “DevOps” flavor, and they felt the machine had to work as well as their regular products.  So they actually put effort and testing into getting the laptop to run Ubuntu well, with all the drivers configured properly and tweaked to support the machine’s quirks, just like they do for Windows.

And so, the review is surprised to learn that Ubuntu on the XPS 13, well, just works!  It’s even in the title of the review.  Here’s reviewer Lee Hutchinson’s observations:

I’ve struggled before with using Linux as my full-time operating environment both at work and at home. I did it for years at work, but it was never quite as easy as I wanted it to be—on an older Dell laptop, keeping dual monitor support working correctly across updates required endless fiddling with xorg.conf, and whether or not it was Nvidia’s fault was totally irrelevant to swearing, cursing Past Lee, trying desperately to get his monitors to display images so he could make his 10am conference call without having to resort to running the meeting on the small laptop screen.

And thence comes the astonishment: on this Linux laptop, everything just works.  Most of the review is spent on the kinds of hardware features that distinguish this from other laptops: the keyboard is like this, the screen is that resolution, it has this CPU and this much RAM and so on.  Some space is devoted to impressions of the default Ubuntu 12.04 install, and some space is given to the special “DevOps” software, which helps the developer reproduce the software environment on the laptop when deploying apps.

But before all that, Hutchinson has to put in a dig:

It’s an impressive achievement, and it’s also a sad comment on the overall viability of Linux as a consumer-facing operating system for normal people. I don’t think anyone is arguing that Linux hasn’t earned its place in the data center—it most certainly has—but there’s no way I’d feel comfy installing even newbie-friendly Ubuntu or Mint on my parents’ computers. The XPS 13 DE shows the level of functionality and polish possible with extra effort, and that effort and polish together means this kind of Linux integration is something we won’t see very often outside of boutique OEMs.

Of course, Windows is actually worse than Linux on the hardware front–when you don’t get it pre-installed.  Imagine if more vendors put as much effort into preinstalled Linux as they did into preinstalled Windows.  In that alternate reality, I imagine people would react more like this:

“Isn’t that what you’re looking for in a mainstream product?” Rick chided. “In 1996 it was: ‘Wow look at this, I got Linux running on xxxxxxxx.’ Even in 2006 that was at times an accomplishment… When was the last time you turned on an Apple or Windows machine and marveled that it ‘just worked?’ It should be boring.”

Which was, of course, the reaction Hutchinson got when discussing the review with a Linux-using friend.

With Microsoft being less of a friend to the hardware vendors every day, here’s a case study more of them should be paying attention to.