The next version of the world’s most popular desktop Linux operating system (that’s Ubuntu, for those of you playing dumb) will come with less software available out-of-the-box.

Current daily builds of Ubuntu 23.10 only includes a handful of apps by default. These cover only the most basic of basic computing needs. This is the same install everyone gets.

For anything else the idea is that we, the user, fire up the Software Store (though the new one isn’t included yet) and install what we want ourselves.

As an idea, it’s not without merit.

But in practice, I think it’s a potential misstep.

Basic as a Feature

I Think Ubuntu 23.10 is Making a Mistake…
Ubuntu 23.10 desktop (daily build)

For those new to the distro the stock Ubuntu 23.10 experience is… Interesting.

You can’t open office files, you can’t scan documents, you can’t even crop a photo…

New user downloads Ubuntu 23.10 (possibly trying Linux for the first time) after hearing about how much better it is than Windows or macOS.

After installing it they boot up and login in and…

Soon discover it can’t do much – certainly not as much “out-of-the-box” as the closed-source system they just switched from.

They can’t create, edit or open any office files; they can’t scan documents; they can’t check their webcam works; they can’t analyse disk space; they have to listen MP3s in a video player (whose developer says shouldn’t be used for music); heck, they can’t even crop a photo.

As first impressions go, it’s not an awfully good one!

“C’mon Joey, it’s 2023 – most of us only need a web browser anyway”, some of you will say.

And you have a point (which I’ll talk more about a little later).

But as a sheer value proposition, does this minimal Mantic install provide a better end-user experience (or give the impression of a being modern, capable OS) than the one it replaces?

I don’t think it does.

Pick Your Own Apps, You Lazy Animal

For as long as I’ve been using Linux I’ve seen people say: “Instead of distros shipping with a bunch of software I don’t use, it should let me pick the software I want”. 

Superficially, this approach sounds reasonable. My favourite music player probably isn’t your favourite, and your favourite isn’t Alan’s (he is reading, I promise). Ergo, why should a distro make a choice on our behalf when it could leave the decision to us, from the get-go?

Putting aside the fact that we’ve always been able to install the software we want, of course.

Offering a complete end-user experience in a single download is, I’ve no doubt, what helped make Ubuntu the juggernaut it is today.

Opinionated software choices have always been opinionated. Nothing shipped on Ubuntu’s ISO has ever been everyone’s favourite app (sorry, Ekiga). This is not a new problem.

To me, a considered and comprehensive set of software is part of what makes a desktop Linux distro a desktop Linux distro.

So unless people are returning Dell Ubuntu laptops or re-installing Windows because they can’t cope with Thunderbird or Simple Scan being on their systems — which we all know is unlikely — the decision to remove so many useful apps for everyone seems reactionary.

Will new users know what apps they need?

It’s easy to install apps on Ubuntu, of course.

And although the new Flutter-based Software Store targeted to land in 23.10 lacks Flathub support (and thus access to huge number of useful apps) it does, in testing builds, greatly improve app discovery.

But do average users — the kind who make up a fair chunk of Ubuntu desktop’s 6-million strong user base — want to go through the hassle of hunting down apps?

Won’t they find it a bit of a chore? Windows doesn’t ask them to, nor does macOS, or even Chrome OS. Why should Ubuntu?

Plus, the “choose your own apps” adventure not only assumes everyone’s game to play, but that everyone knows what apps they need, and can overcome choice paralysis when searching for, say, “office” and seeing this:

I Think Ubuntu 23.10 is Making a Mistake…
A search for “office” in Ubuntu 23.10

Installing 12 different office suites to find out which one you like is a fun way to spend an afternoon. But if all you need to do is open a DOCX your boss e-mailed you… Less fun.

This was a distro famed for being “new user friendly”, remember.

“I need an office suite… but which one? And a music player… but which one? And a document scanner… but which one? Oh, why doesn’t this file open when I click on it… What app do I need for that?!”

Canonical for their part say these changes will, amongst other aims, “reduc[e] the time it takes for users to go from installation to productivity”. I’d argue the old ISO achieves that much better than the new one does.

Not least because it lets you work offline.

“Internet is Everywhere”

“I never use LibreOffice, Thunderbird, Rhythmbox, or Shotwell so they shouldn’t be included” is a common refrain among existing users.

When people download Ubuntu 23.04 they get an OS that can do everything Windows 95 did – with 23.10 they don’t

And it’s true: a lot of us use web-mail, use Google Docs etc, stream music, and share photos direct from our phones rather than our desktops.

But crafting a desktop experience that assumes we all do those things — and to a degree, assumes we should all be doing those things — overlooks those who don’t want to or can’t.

Cliche reference though it is, there are parts of world where internet is patchy or data is expensive.

When people download Ubuntu 23.04 (or below) they get an OS that can do everything Windows 95 can, and do the majority of it offline.

With Ubuntu 23.10 they don’t.

They get an ISO marginally smaller in size (which is faster to download) but the OS itself is less useful. To make it useful they need to …download more stuff, which requires more internet (some Snaps aren’t exactly modest in size) which is yet more downside.

And then there are those who use Ubuntu as a “live OS” booted from a USB to rescue data from a broken laptop, fix a broken install, or work on a temporary machine. They also need to ensure they have internet access to install the tools they need to achieve their aims.

So rather than being a ‘more thoughtful default install’, I’m wondering if Mantic is actually more thoughtless. Prior, we could trust Ubuntu to provide good enough defaults. It did the hard work of finding the “good” software for us. Now we have to do it all ourselves.

Free Software is Important

I also have an existential (and somewhat ideological-based) anxiety linked to all of this.

If leading distros don’t feel obliged to put free software options front-and-centre, who will?

If leading Linux distros no longer feel obliged to put free software front-and-centre, who will?

Will new users ever hear, learn, or use them? Won’t they just flock to familiar brand names, or only discover Linux-supported software backed by large marketing budgets (and dubious EULAs)?

Providing privacy-respecting, functional (if not always flashy), and offline-capable alternatives to cloud-based, proprietary, and vendor lock-in tools feel more important today than it ever has.

Not just for those who don’t have 24/7 web access; not just for those who use older machines that can’t run (increasingly) bloated web-based tools well; not just for those wanting to escape to onslaught of online trackers, ads, AI, and manipulative “suggested content”…

But for all of us.

I concede that “most of us use web-based services now so legacy apps are pointless” is a compelling argument, and it’s made stronger still by “those who want legacy apps can install them if they want”.

But I think, as the world’s leading desktop Linux distro, Ubuntu should, more than most, continue to put some free-software salad on our plates even if most of us will continue to cover it with chips.

Ubuntu Already Has a Minimal Install, Btw

Finally, I feel a slimmed-down Ubuntu, contrary to the spin, gives us all less choice, not more.

After all, if you don’t want reams of pre-installed software on Ubuntu you (in 23.04 and below) have a choice not to: you tick the ‘minimal install’ option during installation and away it all goes. And for those super picky about preinstalled cruft there are net-install images.

Making “minimal” the default option provides no choice for those who WANT the same comprehensive, feature-complete OS they previously got.

There’s no “full-fat” Ubuntu ISO they can download; there’s no “complete install” check-box in the installer; no “select software” wizard that runs on first boot. Not even a Clippy-esque companion to pop up and say “it looks like you’re trying to open a DOCX file, install this app”…

If there’s a saving grace in all this is that most Ubuntu users stick to LTS versions. They’re unlikely to download 23.10. They won’t be affected by this “minimal experiment”.

But a new LTS is on the horizon – and I my hope is that the minimal install drawbacks Mantic makes evident fall squarely in to view during its development.

Can you tell I’m unconvinced?

There’s an elephant sat in the room as you read this.

If you’re reading a blog like mine you’ll find a minimal install a superb idea

If you’re “into” Ubuntu (or Linux) enough to read blogs like mine you’re already proficient.

To you, a stripped-back, slimmed-down Ubuntu that acts as a vanilla starting point on which you impose your preferences must sound like an utterly superb idea.

You know which apps you like, know how to install them, you know how to enable extra repos to get things Ubuntu doesn’t offer (the new app store doesn’t support Flathub which is where more “choice” exclusively resides), and so on.

But much of Ubuntu’s user base use Ubuntu as it comes. They don’t chase updates. They don’t constantly install new software. They don’t want to have to repeatedly Google “how do I…” every time they need to do something.

They want to be able to crop a flippin’ photo.

Without decent defaults, without providing an OOTB experience that’s halfway functional for the majority (not merely a people pleaser on the Ubuntu Discord channel) it’ll be a challenge for Ubuntu to remain the all-round, general purpose, go-to Linux distro recommendation it currently is.

Summary

I agree that Ubuntu’s pre-existing software choices are stale (I’ve bleated on about it for years), and I accept that we live in an era dominated by (largely proprietary, locked-in) web-based services. But I think the compromises to address these factors could be more “thoughtful”.

Sharing my thoughts will no-doubt see me (once again) labelled a “hater”, but so be it. I’ve been using Ubuntu for as long as I’ve been doing this blog. My concerns come from a well-intentioned place.

Ubuntu is special, and I want it to remain so.


News


Opinion


default apps


Mantic Minotaur


minimal


Ubuntu 23.10