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?

3 Replies to “Reliability, Trust, and User Experience”

  1. kekek says:

    >I some­times wake to find that my desk­top has rebooted overnight

    How is that possible? That shouldn’t happen.

    1. Jay says:

      You’re telling me.

  2. Matt says:

    But…everyone knows Apple is the best at making things “just work,” so to have become interested in Linux in the first place there must be things about Linux that make you happier, or other things about Apple that vex you. I see this is an old post and hope your systems are less psychologically taxing now.

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