Reliability, Trust, and User Experience

Late­ly, my Dell Vostro V13 has been act­ing up. Or, rather, Ubun­tu has been act­ing up on it. At first I thought it was lim­it­ed to hiber­na­tion: wak­ing from hiber­nate often (and I mean often) failed, shut­ting pow­er off to the machine some­time dur­ing boot. Then I began notic­ing that it had also been hap­pen­ing while boot­ing back up from an ordi­nary shut down. Some­times it took three or more tries to get back to the desk­top in these cir­cum­stances.

I’ve explored what feel like count­less pos­si­ble expla­na­tions — shut­ting the screen before shut down/hibernate had com­plet­ed, the wire­less dri­ver, the wire­less being on dur­ing shut down/hibernate, the “splash,” “qui­et,” and “no_console_suspend” flags in GRUB (and their 8 per­mu­ta­tions), two shut downs/hibernates in a row (rather than alter­nat­ing), the par­tic­u­lar ver­sion of the ker­nel, and, final­ly, some uniden­ti­fi­able kink in my instal­la­tion that result­ed in me rein­stalling Mav­er­ick entire­ly.

Noth­ing seemed to alle­vi­ate the prob­lem. Even the third or fourth boot after rein­stall (the first one after updat­ing to the newest ker­nel, in fact) failed in the same man­ner.

But the cause for the prob­lem isn’t the issue. The issue is that, even though I’ve (just now) gone through near­ly a dozen suc­cess­ful shut down/hibernate and boot/wake cycles, the one time that it failed since the rein­stall has left a tiny barb in my head, such that no mat­ter how many times I may suc­cess­ful­ly boot or wake in the future, I will nev­er, ever feel con­fi­dent that the next cycle is going to work. The result of these fail­ures is greater than their sum. You don’t eas­i­ly for­get when some­thing goes hor­ri­bly wrong, and you’re not sup­posed to notice when they go right.

Grant­ed, this is only because I haven’t suc­cess­ful­ly iden­ti­fied the prob­lem. I sup­pose if I were to read a blog or forum post detail­ing exact­ly the symp­toms that I’m expe­ri­enc­ing, includ­ing a solu­tion that (a) makes sense and that (b) also erad­i­cates the prob­lem on my machine, I’d feel a lit­tle safer hiber­nat­ing with a bunch of brows­er tabs and text files open. But that has­n’t hap­pened yet, and I sus­pect that even then I would­n’t feel entire­ly safe.

Instead, I’ve per­formed hours of tri­al-and-error prob­lem solv­ing, and filed a new bug (after spend­ing a lot of time search­ing for dupli­cates) with descrip­tions and sys­tem logs. It’s been exhaust­ing.

Don’t get me wrong; I under­stand that this is how it’s sup­posed to work. Sup­pos­ing this is a legit­i­mate bug, and not some­thing I’ve man­aged to screw up myself, it’s up to some­one to report and test on it, and for every new bug I’ve filed, I’ve ben­e­fit­ed from the work of thou­sands if not mil­lions of peo­ple doing just what I’m doing. But.

This isn’t alpha soft­ware. We should be able to expect — in fact, are told — that cru­cial sys­tem func­tion­al­i­ty (as opposed to, say, web­cam or tablet com­pat­i­bil­i­ty) will work in Ubun­tu, peri­od. To say that it’s imprac­ti­cal to test every new point release on every con­ceiv­able piece of hard­ware is an under­state­ment, to be sure. But I feel pret­ty con­fi­dent that my bug report will sit qui­et­ly, unat­tend­ed, until well after the prob­lem has solved itself. And then I’ll car­ry on with anx­i­ety, wait­ing for the next inevitable sys­tem-crit­i­cal bug.

The “com­mu­ni­ty” is often tout­ed as one of the best “fea­tures” of Ubun­tu. For every prob­lem you might encounter, it’s like­ly that some­body else has encoun­tered it before you, and that you can find a forum thread rel­e­vant to your issue, in many cas­es pro­vid­ing a solu­tion. But psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, this has the reverse effect that it’s meant to. An active sup­port com­mu­ni­ty is only nec­es­sary when some­thing does­n’t work. A per­son con­sid­er­ing Ubun­tu as their pri­ma­ry OS could very well be scared away by vis­it­ing those very forums, which fre­quent­ly have two pages’ worth of active threads in a 24-hour peri­od, punc­tu­at­ed by strings of ques­tion marks, vague word­ing such as “not work­ing!!!!!”, and the very com­mon pref­ace “Help!”

The result­ing feel­ing — com­ing from some­one who’s been a part of this “com­mu­ni­ty” for three or so years — is that it’s all we can do just to keep tread­ing water. You’re suf­fer­ing, but it’s alright because every­body is suf­fer­ing just like you. And this sense of hope­less­ness is not in all cas­es the result of igno­rance or impa­tience, though the prose of its suf­fer­ers may some­times give that appear­ance. Those who con­sid­er Lin­ux-based OSes to pro­vide any­thing resem­bling a “prob­lem-free expe­ri­ence” just have dif­fer­ent val­ues than the rest of us. They are hard­ened, cyn­i­cal hack­er-types for whom recom­pil­ing pack­ages to bet­ter suit their hard­ware isn’t a “prob­lem,” just a chal­lenge.

All of this is to say that life as an Ubun­tu user is psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly tax­ing. I some­times wake to find that my desk­top has reboot­ed overnight; my lap­top prob­lems per­sist; and I can’t get my blue­tooth key­board or my old wire­less adapter work­ing on the Box­ee box I’m start­ing to build. When no one’s around, I secret­ly fan­ta­size about sell­ing all my hard­ware and using the mon­ey for a Mac­Book and a Revo. Isn’t life too short?