Ubuntu 7.10: Inflection Point or Tipping Point?

I have just upgraded two of my Ubuntu boxes from 7.04, “Feisty Fawn,” to 7.10, “Gutsy Gibbon.”

The first notable event was that both upgrades were successful, though one led me down a wrong alley that had a happy outcome, as I will describe below.

In the past I have almost always done major upgrades in Linux by doing a full reinstall, though I once did an update of SuSE incrementally.

For the last few months, I have made a point of keeping my long-term files in a separate logical disk partition, “/share,” so I could do a full upgrade, including upgrading “/home,” without having to back anything up first.

A couple of days ago I saw the “updates available” icon that is one of the most pleasant features of Ubuntu. When I opened it I saw there was an option to update to a new version, “7.10.” Since my shared files were backed up on multiple boxes I said to myself, “What the hell. Let’s give it a go.” So I selected the update button.

Lo and behold, within a half hour or so the update was complete, and I booted into 7.10 for the first time.

It took only a few minutes for me to realize that … Something Had Changed. Though it was impressive that Ubuntu was able to upgrade a major level, I was even more impressed that what I found on my box was qualitatively different.

Ubuntu just looked better, more professional and more polished than Windows XP.

I have tended to favor Windows XP over Linux in part because Microsoft’s True Type fonts were more pleasing to the eye that the available Linux fonts.

But when I first used 7.10 I found it more pleasing to the eye. I don’t know if the fonts had changed, or if the accumulated minor changes did the trick, but for the first time I found that when I booted up Windows XP it didn’t seem as spiffy as it once did.

I also got the impression that I would find 7.10 was even better in other ways I hadn’t yet come to appreciate, and only a few minutes ago I got my first confirmation, even though I have just started using 7.10 in a serious way.

I went to copy a CD into digital format. I found the newer version of Amarok looked even spiffier than the previous one, and Amarok passed the likes of Real’s Player some time ago.

Though I now record in the lossless “flac” format since disks have gotten so cheap, I do have a number of files in mp3 format around. I have been unable to play them. Though I know the process to install what are called “codec’s” is not that hard, I haven’t bothered to dig up the details and do it.

However, when I went to test the latest CD I had digitized, I made a mistake and selected a file in MP3 format.

You know what? Ubuntu 7.10 noticed that MP3 support wasn’t available … and then offered to install it! I said, “Go ahead,” and it did.

Yikes, these Ubuntu/Linux folks are getting better and better.

Though this is just a personal impression, I do think the computing landscape has changed in the last few months, in ways we will only come to fully appreciate some time down the road, and when we do I guess we will look back at 2007 as a year of change, meaningful change.

There are least two kinds of change I can think of, and both may be at work here.

First, is the notion of “critical point” or “tipping point,” especially as put forth in Malcolm Gladwell’s insightful book Tipping Point.

Here is an example of a tipping point.

I go back to the days when there were no CRT displays except on operator’s consoles, so that lowly users such as myself had to rely on punched cards and printouts.

I recall well the time when I first saw a CRT terminal in the mid 1970’s. It was two doors down the hall from my office, in a “common” room. I soon realized that it was so much more productive than cards/printouts that I effectively moved my office into that room, at times arriving early so I could guarantee I would have a seat at the terminal. This went on for at least a year or so.

A “tipping point” to me is a real change in technology. Another one I experienced was in the late 70’s when NYU acquired its first DEC VAX. Within a year or so, first with DEC’s VMS operating system, and then with BSD Unix, the days of the CDC mainframe were over, at least for me. I never looked back.

On the other hand, by “critical point” I mean a change in the performance level of a technology that has a real impact. For example, not only am I old enough to remember punch cards, sorters, and line printers, I also go back to the days of a mysterious device called a modem. It connected to a phone line using an “acoustic coupler.” I could use a phone line to communicate from my apartment on West 93rd with the CIMS CDC mainframe computer in Greenwich Village. The bandwidth was measured in “baud’s,” a unit so obscure I can’t recall the definition, though I do recall it stands for “baudot.” Wikipedia has an entry for this relic of the past, baud.

I can remember using 120 baud terminals. They were really painful to use. About all you could do was login, print “hello world,” and do a few other things, the most important of which was you could impress your friends and family that you knew all there was to know about computers. Just as Bonnie and Clyde carried machine guns in their baggage, you lugged around a modem to prove you were an expert in your field:

The next step was 300 baud. With that you could almost do work, but you had to be patient — or desperate — and it was equally painful.

The step after that, from 300 baud to 1200 baud, was an “inflection point.” I first experienced this on Unix 4.2 BSD, working from home. The main gain was not just the hardware improvement, but the combined effects of two related software innovations, most of them I believe the work of Bill Joy, the “vi” editor and the underlying “curses” driver that minimized the traffic over the line needed to keep the display up to date.

The net effect was that I could finally do real work over the phone line. More precisely, I could read my email and send random messages much more speedily, so much so that I came became hooked, though I don’t know how much work I actually got done.

But the difference was real. Things Had Changed. The effect when 9600 baud arrived on the scene was nice, but not a game-changer in the way the arrival of 1200 baud was.

And, though I can’t yet fully explain it, I think that Things Have Changed with the release of Ubuntu 7.10.

I do venture that within a year or so we will appreciate that:

  • OLPC is not just a passing fad, but will prove the base for a tremendous amount of innovation that will use open-source technologies to improve education. My guess is that many people will come to see open-source in a new light as a result of this innovation, and many will first learn about open-source via OLPC;
  • Eben Moglen believes that, for the first time ever, Microsoft has released a new version of Windows — in this case Vista — that will not be a great success. If he is right — and reports to date suggest that he is — then Microsoft will be competing with itself going forward, and will have to maintain two different versions of Windows as it struggles to defeat itself.
  • Whether Eben is right or wrong, the pace of Microsoft innovation will go down, perhaps so much so that it becomes another inflection point, allowing Ubuntu more time to mature and become an ever fiercer competitor.

I made mention of going down a wrong alley yet having a happy outcome. Here is what happened.

I did the first 7.10 upgrade on my dual-boot laptop, with Windows XP and Ubuntu 7.04. When it was done and Ubuntu 7.10 booted up, I noticed that the “Other Operating Systems” option was blank, and suspected that something had gone wrong. Immediately fearing the worst, all to soon I started mucking about with grub and updating the MBR (Master Boot Record), so that within minutes Idiot Dave managed to mangle the NTFS partition containing so that it was no longer seen as a Windows partition, either by Windows or Ubuntu.

Looking back, I should have investigated a bit more, and just made the appropriate addition to “/boot/grub/menu.lst.” That was my fault, and it might even be a bug in 7.10.

But I don’t blame Ubuntu. It was pilot error on my part, as is usually the case when Things Head South.

However, I’m damn glad that, at least in this case, I did mess up. For it pushed me over my own tipping point, as I have decided to go all-Ubuntu, in both work and play, as soon as possible.

Though I lost my entire Windows disk, when the tech folks asked if they should attempt to recover any data from the old machine, I said, “No. I have backed up all the critical stuff in Notes,and if I haven’t, then shame on me. Just wipe the disk and do a fresh install.”

So whatever happens going forward, I know I’ll be reading Slashdot, lwn.net, and lxer.com using Ubuntu, not Windows.

A few years back, when daughter Jen was taking a math course in high school, I noticed she had a graphing calculator. I asked her how she got it and she said that the school provided one to all the students in the class, in part because the calculators didn’t cost that much.

I then launched into yet another of my “as a child I walked up the hill to school in the morning and then up the hill again going home in the afternoon” speeches about days gone by, relating how I had spent close to a hundred dollars in the early 70’s (and I didn’t even attempt adjusting for inflation) to buy one of the first TI calculators. I said that while it could only add, subtract, multiply and divide, it was much better than an adding machine.

Jen then asked me, “What’s an adding machine?”

Then I realized just how fast technology can change, that today’s given can become tomorrow’s forgotten relic.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if the following conversation occurs not too many years from now:

Oldster: Ah, I remember the days when men were men. There were close to a hundred Linux distros in those days, and we had to battle daily with Microsoft Windows.

Newbie: What’s a Windows?

Notes:

One Comment

  1. manny
    Posted November 14, 2007 at 02:15 | Permalink

    very nice, liked your story, even made it in then newsletter

    https://wiki.ubuntu.com/UbuntuWeeklyNewsletter/Issue65/

    Newbie: microwhat?


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. [...] Ubuntu 7.10 : Point d’inflexion ou de passage ?- Dave Shields a mis à jour deux de ses machines Ubuntu de la 7.04, « Feisty Fawn » , à la 7.10, « Gutsy Gibbon. » Dans le passé, il a presque toujours fait les mises à jour de Linux par des réinstallations propres. Mais cette fois-ci, il a décidé de tenter l’option de mise à jour automatique, et en une demi-heure ou à peu près, la mise à jour était faite. Il ne lui a fallu que quelques minutes pour se rende compte que… quelque chose avait changé. C’était déjà impressionnant qu’Ubuntu soit en mesure de réaliser une mise à jour majeure, mais il a été encore plus impressionné de constater que sa machine était qualitativement différente. Ubuntu est plus agréable à regarder, avec une apparence plus professionnelle et plus fignolée que Windows XP. Les deux choses qu’il a remarquées dès le début sont la nouvelle version d’Amarok et le fait qu’Ubuntu 7.10 lui fasse remarquer l’absence de support MP3 … et lui propose ensuite de l’installer! « Ces personnes chez Ubuntu / Linux deviennent à chaque fois meilleurs. » [...]

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