Ubuntu Made Easy: Interview With The Authors
by José Antonio Rey
A couple weeks ago, I reviewed the book Ubuntu Made Easy, and a few days after that, I thought “why not do an interview to the authors”? So, here it is. Rickford Grant and Phil Bull both agreed on making it. I also got a few questions from you on Reddit, which got asked here.
1.- Why have you chosen Ubuntu for this book?
Rickford Grant: The goal of the books I started was to make Linux as easy as possible for the absolute newcomer. The very first incarnation was based on Fedora Core I, which was, for its time, pretty easy to deal with, albeit with some tweaking. I later did a book based Xandros, and then when Ubuntu came out and took on, it seemed to the best distro to go with given the target audience and objectives.
Phil Bull: I started working on this book in its 4th edition, when it was called “Ubuntu for Non-Geeks”, so the decision to go with Ubuntu had already been made a few editions previously. I’ve been an Ubuntu user almost since the beginning (my first install was just after the Hoary release), and a contributor for almost as long, so that decision was fine by me! Ubuntu was always going to be the natural choice for a book like this, though. It’s one of the most user-friendly distributions out there, has a strong community, and has the benefit of being very well-known. These factors are important if you’re trying to convince people to try it out!
2.- Why did you choose the title ‘Ubuntu Made Easy’?
RG: Again this was chosen to attract the attention of the target audience – newbies who had the notion that Linux was too hard to deal with. Originally the Ubuntu series was title Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks, and that was later shortened to Ubuntu for Non-Geeks. Of course, Non-Geeks title was used for four editions of Ubuntu and one edition of Fedora Core, so this time out we decided to go for something new, especially since we were expanding the book a bit more and giving it a pretty throrough update.
PB: As I’ve already mentioned, we started out with the title “Ubuntu for Non-Geeks” in previous editions. This title was getting a little old, though, and didn’t quite capture everything that we were trying to do with the book. (It’s for geeks too!) We discussed a few options with our publisher, No Starch Press, and initially ended up going for a title that at least sounded fresher, but wasn’t great for other reasons (it was gendered, and people weren’t taking it the way we intended). So, we went back to the drawing board and finally settled on “Ubuntu Made Easy”, which I think really hits the nail on the head. Everything we’ve covered in the book has the ultimate aim of making it easy for someone to use Ubuntu, for them to feel comfortable in a new environment.
3.- Do you think of making newer versions for this book? If yes, how often do you think you will release them?
PB: Absolutely – although what would go into an updated version remains to be seen! The last few editions have seen some pretty major changes; adding substantial new chapters on interacting with Windows computers and troubleshooting techniques, for example, and switching to the Unity interface from GNOME 2. We’ve been tending to write a new edition with every LTS release, and this seems to me like a sensible way of proceeding in future.
RG: I also certainly hope so. Up until now, as Phil said, we have, with one exception, done a new version for each LTS release. It would be great if we can keep that up. Of course, that is all decided by marketing, sales, our own availability and, of course, No Starch, our publisher. The way things have gone thus far, however, an update coinciding with each LTS release, every other at the most, seems to be the way it is going.
4.- Did you wait for the LTS version to come out so you can publish the book or it was just a coincidence?
RG: Yes, it was deliberate. With a new Ubuntu release coming out every six months, we really had to time the release of the book to coincide with the release of one version or the another of Ubuntu, and since the LTS is the long-support version, it made more sense to tie the book release to the LTS version. After all, we want the person buying the book to have something that would last him/her longer than 6 months.
PB: It was very much a conscious decision – it’s nice to be able to tell users that they have the most stable type of release in their hands, and will be able to rely on it for a couple of years without being forced through any major upheavals. While many in the Ubuntu community get excited about the new features and improvements that come with each release (and rightly so), that’s not necessarily what the majority of computer users care about, especially if they’re already in “unfamiliar territory” after having recently switched from Windows or Mac OS. Stability counts for a lot for most people, especially the less tech-savvy.
5.- Also, if yes, have you thought about doing something like “buy the book for the current LTS and all releases until the next LTS are free”?
PB: Not really – we’ve only been updating the book every LTS release, and I feel that we don’t have much to add in between those releases. Of course, when big changes happen – like the switch to Unity – then everything has to be overhauled. My feeling in those situations is that it’s better for readers if we wait for the dust to settle, and release a new edition when the new stuff is a bit more mature.
RG: Especially, for the reasons mentioned, we haven’t been releasing a new version in-between LTS releases. If there were a dramatic change, as Phil mentiones with the Unity example, then we would probably focus on covering the change with the next LTS release.
6.- In future versions of Ubuntu, would you support the creation of an interactive guide (an app for example) that would be used to teach users how to perform various actions and tasks in Ubuntu (but not as annoying as the Paperclip)? Why or why not?
PB: I don’t think that I would support it, for the simple reason that I’ve tried something similar before and it didn’t work! I’ve been writing help for open source projects for a number of years now, and one of the side projects I tried a few years back, when I was very heavily involved in the Ubuntu Documentation Team, was a “welcome centre” app: http://philbull.livejournal.com/43421.html
The concept had been tried before, and it’s been tried again since, never with any success. The idea just doesn’t conform to how humans try to figure out new things. Although you’ll find the odd one or two people out there who will read the manual cover to cover or watch a training video before starting to use a new bit of technology, the vast majority just plug it in and start playing with it, and will eventually figure out enough to use it successfully. The less confident users will ask friends or relatives to show them how to do things, and learn that way instead; otherwise, they’re afraid to even touch it in case they break something. If you pop up an interactive guide, no matter how well-designed and useful it is, my prediction is that the majority of users will either ignore or dismiss it.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with creating an interactive guide app if you’re running an Ubuntu course in the classroom, for example. In that situation, the combination of an interactive guide and the availability of an instructor is more likely to work. But to have it popping up by default after installation – I just don’t think anyone would use it.
RG: Hmmm. It sounds good, and who am I to “oppose” such a thing, but I am not sure it is worth the effort because such guides do tend to become as annoying as the Paperclip. I mean people like the notion of such a thing, but often when they get to work using it, they soon abandon it. That all said, I am not sure that it is a sound investment in time and effort. I’d rather see the community get to work on making a killer video editing/movie making app. Of course, if the community came up with a killer interactive system that people would actually use, then sure I’d support it. I just think energies could be better used elsewhere.
7.- Have you thought about making a website with video tutorials for the users who own the book?
RG: Thought of it? Sure. And it sounds great. I certainly turn to YouTube to learn how to do any number of things from making crepes to figuring out how to swap pickups on a guitar. The only problem is that I doubt that either one of us has the time required to set up and maintain such a site. On my end, I’m not quite sure I have the talents for creating the video content. But it is a good idea, and if someday in the future with a future release we could come up with a way to do it, then it would be a nice complement to the book. As it stands now, however, we try to make the book as easy to follow along with as possible and to anticipate as many possible scenarios as we can when explaining things.
PB: This is an idea I’ve toyed with, both for the book and for the official GNOME and Ubuntu documentation. Some people respond well to watching videos and can learn from them quite effectively. (That doesn’t mean they should be the primary method of delivering instructional material, though!) The sticking points for the documentation were always maintainability (making good-quality instructional videos is time consuming!), internationalisation, and bandwidth (they’re too big to put on the install CD, for example). Shaun McCance of the GNOME Documentation Project may have solved the i18n issue with his subtitling extensions to the Mallard documentation format, though:
8.- At a first sight, what did you expect from the book? Do you think you have accomplished what expected?
RG: The goal of the series from the beginning, as I mentioned, was to make newbies feel comfortable making the switch to Linux. The book has been written to make that transition as smooth as possible, to give some hand holding when it might be necessary, and to give some help if things go wrong. All the while, making the user feel comfortable trying things out as s/he figures things out and gets a feel for the new world they have entered.
That all said, I think we have accomplished what we set out to do. From the comments people have made on the book, it seems we have accomplished the goal of easing in newbies in a more or less stress free way. What surprised me from the start, however, was how the series also attracted more hands-on semi-geekish users as well, which was great. So I think we actually accomplished more than expected.
PB: And I want the book to provide pretty much everything a newcomer needs to get started using Ubuntu *effectively*, and to present that information in a coherent, easy-to-follow, and interesting way. It would be great to make switching to Ubuntu a straightforward, pain-free process for everyone, regardless of their level of computing experience. In the early chapters at least, we’ve tried to do this by pointing out problems that new users might run into before they happen, so that they can learn how to deal with issues without the customary dose of stress and confusion that usually comes first. People can use a computer much more confidently if they feel like they’re in control, and I hope we’re helping people with that. I think we’re getting pretty close to my ideal, and the reviews of the book that I’ve seen so far certainly seem to support this! But there’s always more work to be done.
9.- Who do you think is the book aimed for?
RG: As I mentioned, it is geared for newbies to Linux (Ubuntu specifically) working in a home environment. We try to address those switching from other computing worlds (Mac/Windows) so that they can better relate, but we try not to make knowledge of either of those operating systems a prerequisite for working along with the book – no assumptions. Even when it comes to the command line, we don’t even assume the user has ever typed a command before. But we also attempt to make it a guide for any level of Ubuntu user who wants to get up and running in a new release and see how to get things done. We try to keep the book balanced so that everyone can find something of value and help in it.
PB: It’s also aimed at everyone who wants to use Ubuntu to do things with their computer, with a slant towards those using it at home or for work (we don’t really go into the server side of things). Those who are pretty familiar with Windows/Mac OS but haven’t used Ubuntu much (or at all) have the most to gain from the book – we hold your hand through all the difficult or unfamiliar bits, but give you the freedom to explore the stuff you’re comfortable with, without patronising you. Seasoned Linux users should find plenty of interesting bits scattered throughout too, even if they might want to skip over some of the more detailed guidance.
10.- Do you have any final words for those who own the book, and for those who don’t?
PB: Absolutely: If you own the book, welcome to the wonderful world of Ubuntu! I hope you’re enjoying it. And if you don’t have it yet: consider checking it out – it might be just what you need to really get to grips with Ubuntu.
RG: Well, for those who do, I first offer up my thanks for buying the book, welcome you aboard, and hope you are finding the Ubuntu experience a good one. For those who do not own the book, I hope you consider getting it because I think it would be a perfect way to get to know Ubuntu and to get yourself up and running smoothly and fully.
Thanks so much to the guys for your help and time. I hope they answered your questions, and wait for more reviews and interviews soon!