As a regular participant in support threads on ubuntuforums.org, I'm exposed frequently to people who might be fairly characterized as 'dissatisfied customers' of the Ubuntu experience. Something doesn't work as well as it's supposed to—no out-of-the-box wireless or dual-monitor support are two of the most popular complaints—and these new users condemn Ubuntu and Linux in their entirety as a result. But are these charges justified, and how should Ubuntu respond?

Technical users, at least those experienced with Linux, know that in many cases, there's little that Ubuntu or anyone else in the free-software community can do about certain problems. Bugs in closed-source applications like Skype or Google's Picasa are beyond Ubuntu's sphere of influence, and many hardware-compatibility problems are due to a large extent to lack of vendor cooperation with Linux developers.

To be fair, some Linux advocates can be a bit overzealous in their attempts to reappropriate blame for problems to parties outside the free-software community. There are plenty of things that Ubuntu could do better—becoming less Jacobin about its refusal to include non-free but pragmatically essential software (like proprietary graphics drivers and multimedia codecs) by default is one example. Microsoft or uncooperative hardware vendors can't always be justly scapegoated for free software's shortcomings.

But in the vast majority of cases, the Ubuntu developers themselves bear little if any responsibility for bugs or shortcomings in the everyday experience of users. 95% of the packages that ship with Ubuntu come from upstream, meaning that no one involved with the Ubuntu project is able to do much to improve them directly. This reality is inherent in the decentralized hierarchy upon which open-source development thrives.

Most ordinary users, however, don't understand any of this—and they shouldn't be expected to. If OpenOffice does something wacky, they blame Ubuntu—after all, OO did come bundled with the operating system. When flash videos don't work properly in Firefox, it also becomes, in the eyes of non-geeks, a failure on the part of Ubuntu and/or Linux as a whole.

Who Made This?

This lack of certainty about where the source of problems lies is not helped by the fact that most Linux distributions, unlike Windows or OS X, are not infested with corporate branding designed to remind users constantly where their software came from. I'm forced by the OpenOffice splash screen to recall that my word processor comes courtesy of Sun Microsystems, and Firefox is verbose in proclaiming its ties to Mozilla. But beyond that, it's rarely clear while using applications who developed them.

Moreover, since Ubuntu includes so many productivity applications by default—programs that users would have to find and install on their own under proprietary platforms—it's hard for non-geeks to understand the differences between Linux, Ubuntu and the third-party components that make them useful.

In the end, however, Canonical has effectively to assume responsibility for shortcomings in software beyond its control. Microsoft and Apple may not have to answer for the problems of third-party applications, but if Ubuntu really aspires to become a Linux for the masses, its developers and community members need to understand the point-of-view of ordinary users and stop placing blame elsewhere, even when it does rightly lie elsewhere.

This isn't to say that the Ubuntu community needs to resolve every problem on its own.  It should--and does--work effectively with upstream parties to get bugs fixed, and Canonical has made quite substantial inroads with hardware vendors towards achieving better Linux support.  But Ubuntu and its community still need to treat user complaints with respect.

Accepting blame for someone else's faults is neither pleasant nor fair.  But it's a reality that Ubuntu has to accept if it truly aspires to bring desktop Linux to the masses.


WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Christopher Tozzi is a PhD student at a major U.S. university. Tozzi has extensive hands-on experience with Ubuntu Server Edition and Ubuntu Desktop Edition. WorksWithU is updated multiple times per week. Don’t miss a single post. Sign up for our RSS and Twitter feeds (available now) and newsletter (launching January 2009).