Making Ubuntu even simpler for newbies

By   |  October 31, 2006

After looking at most GNU/Linux distributions, author Rickford Grant finally settled on Ubuntu. Grant is the authour of Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks (No Starch Press, ISBN 1-59327-118-2). It’s subtitled “a pain-free, project-based, get-things-done guidebook”.

Grant is also the author of two other Linux books, Linux for Non-Geeks and Linux Made Easy (both from No Starch Press).

Based in Raritan, New Jersey, Grant tells Frederick Noronha why he chose Ubuntu, what the book holds, and what the challenges were in writing it.

His publishers describe him as a “computer operating system maniac for more than 20 years … from the Atari XL600 to today’s [GNU]Linux machines”. Grant prefers to call himself a “computer enthusiast, definitely not a geek”.

FN: Why Ubuntu?
I love trying out new distros, and Ubuntu was simply too hot to pass up. Once I tried it, I found it to be pretty much to my liking, especially since it utilises the Gnome desktop, which is still my favourite (and the one I still find to be easiest for newbies to ease into). It is also Debian based, which, after my experience with Xandros, I have come to appreciate more than the alternatives (RPM for example).

Considering Ubuntu is supposed to be simple to use, why such a thick book?
Well, Mac OS is supposed to be the easiest system to use, and yet there are lots of thick books on it too. The fact is that some folks like to click around and discover things on their own, while others feel a bit more comfortable working through things, easy or not, with some sort of guide.

The thickness of the book is not a measure of the system’s level of difficulty, because it is not a difficult distro to get a grip on. Still, any [GNU]Linux distro is different enough from Windows or Mac OS to scare some folks off at first.

This book simply contains a lot of hand holding and a lot of information on things that might not be readily apparent to a newbie (or a non-Ubuntu Linux user for that matter).

How would you compare Ubuntu with the other distros?
I think the main strengths of Ubuntu as opposed to other distros is that it is so easy to install and work with. Part of this is because of the wonderful combo of the GNOME Desktop and the Deb package system, as I mentioned before.

The installer is also really simple to deal with, as is the implementation of the package installation system.

The main weak points are those that are true for any by-the-book open source Linux distro – MP3 playback and encoding and encrypted DVD playback are a slight bit of a pain for anyone used to out-of-the-box.

Who would you see as a typical reader of your book?
[GNU] Linux newbies, though based on the experience of my first book, I would gather that there will also be quite a few regular Ubuntu users and even a few aspiring [GNU] Linux geeks.

What were the main challenges in writing the book?
Keeping up with the changes as the system was making its way to the final release version, and dealing with last-minute glitches and switches that appeared along the line.

Then there was the whole process of installing and testing what I had written on different machines with different capabilities — and realising, at times, that I had inadvertently wiped out various screenshots and files during one installation or another, thinking that they were on the other machines. Gets confusing sometimes.

Where do you see a newbie facing challenges or difficulties with Ubuntu?
In addition to the MP3/DVD points I mentioned earlier, I think most of the difficulties would mainly be centered around the differences between using Linux/Gnome in general in comparison to the user’s previous operating system.

Also, although the package installation system implemented in Ubuntu is really handy, it is conceptually different enough from what is at play in Windows and Mac OS to give newbies pause at first. It is smooth sailing after that though.

Can books help GNU/Linux users, really?
Of course.

There are geeks who do not feel this to be the case, but then most books aren’t written for them. Just look at the various forums out there for the various GNU/Linux users, and what do you find? Lots and lots and lots of people trying to find out how to do this or that … and not all of those folks are newbies; some are geekier types trying to do rather unusual stuff.

After all there are some things you can find out on your own by just clicking around or asking your compu-pals. The problem is that not everyone’s mind works the same way, and thus the clicking-around approach isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Then there are lots of people who don’t have any [GNU]Linux-using compu-pals around with whom to figure things out. And then there is the fact that either of those approaches, when applied, merely provide answers or solutions to questions a user already has. Books, for any system or
software, provide bits and pieces that a user may never have thought about, but later find exceedingly useful.

My wife, for example, is a long-time Mac user. One day quite recently, I was looking for a file on her machine, when I was quite surprised to see icons for a couple of her folders and apps on the Finder’s toolbar. It never occured to me that it was possible to do that, but she found out about it in a copy of MacAddict magazine. So, you see, you just never know all that you might want to know because you simply don’t always know what is possible.

What are your next plans?
Well, I’m always interested in doing another distro book, but having just finished this one, I think I’ll hold off on that for a bit. Having just finished installing Windows and all sorts of Unix stuff on my wife’s new Mac has also brought the idea of doing a sort of Un-Mac book as well.

And then there is always the idea floating around in my head of doing a book based on my Japan experiences (I was there for 17 years, and have lots of stuff to write about), or something on my return to the US, which was (and continues to be) a rather surreal and bizarre experience.

A little about yourself …
Well, as I just mentioned, I lived in Japan for 17 years, which is partially responsible for my getting into the [GNU]Linux world in the first place. While I am a computer enthusiast, I am definitely not a geek.

In fact, in many ways, my books are the result of my own discovery experiences, which I document for my own future benefit because of the fact that I have an absolutely dreadfully pitiful memory. The image of a sieve comes to mind in that regard.

In terms of work, I am a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, and although I do like teaching such students, I have been doing it for so long that I am eager to get into a new line of work, though, interestingly enough, I have no idea what I could do.

My interests are not restricted to computers.

I am also a fan of bicycling (though I have little regard for road bikers), I love films (My Life as a Dog, Picnic, and About a Boy are among my faves), and I love trying to play the Nyckelharpa (a Swedish keyed fiddle), though I admit I am a pitiful player with a knack for making every song I play sound like a waltz of some peculiar sort.

Finally, I like travel, though I like my travels to be thematic. For example, my present goal is to ride every dressin (trail bike) trail in Sweden at some point in the relatively near future.

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