By Jemma Batt, February 2010
When I began my research assistant position in November I was issued with a laptop to load with Ubuntu 9.10 using the default desktop environment, GNOME. Like anything new and different, it took a few days to get a feel for this open source desktop especially after having only had experience on Windows based computers since a very young age. After getting used to navigating around I have found it a very simple and user friendly system.
I mostly used the Office applications for my work; OpenOffice Writer for my word processor and OpenOffice Calc for spreadsheets. Both were easy to work with, offering almost all of the same functions as Microsoft Word. Any missing functions that I noticed were trivial things, like not being able to change the format of a single page within a multi page document to landscape [editor's note - this is a training issue, the OpenOffice uses a page style for portrait/landscape switches]. Nothing ever inhibited me from completing a project. One thing I particularly liked about Writer was the Table function; it was something I needed to use a lot and I found it extremely user friendly with lots of formatting buttons and no issues. I had a quick tinker with OpenOffice Impress, the Presentation application, and again, it appears to meet all user needs.
When I first began using Writer there was no dictionary installed, however this was easily solved by accessing the OpenOffice Extensions website via the tools menu, and downloading the English (New Zealand) dictionary which was among a huge selection of spell checkers including Te Papakupu Maori.
Compatibility with other programs was something I worried about unnecessarily. I use a Windows computer for printing purposes and to open ODF files on that system was as simple as typing a “how to” into Google and downloading a plugin. Another option was saving the documents in .doc format in OpenOffice.
A really fantastic feature is the Ubuntu Software Center where there is access to an abundance of free software available to download. That’s “free as in freedom” and “free as in beer”. I used this to download Transcriber, a transcribing application, and Audacity, a Digital Audio Editor, to transcribe several interviews. Both were extremely helpful, however I had a few problems with Audacity freezing on several occasions, one which led to the loss of a whole interview and several hours work, which I thankfully had a backup of. I was told, though, that Audacity is known for having problems on all operating systems. Another issue with these programs, and the most significant I’ve had in the entire time of using this desktop, was not being able to open the recorded interviews which were WMA files. They opened without a problem in the default Audio/Movie player but not in the other applications. This meant a search for an open source file converter which took a lot more effort than I had anticipated thanks to WMA having copy protection. I couldn’t find an open source converter that both ran on Ubuntu, and converted WMA, so I had to resort to downloading one on a Windows PC and converting the files before transferring them onto my Ubuntu laptop.
The most impressive thing, and something I am not looking forward to returning to once I give this laptop back, is the lack of non responsive programs and required rebooting. I never (apart from with Audacity) had issues with programs freezing or crashing and I never had to restart the computer after downloading updates or new software. This is something that I constantly face with my Windows laptop and is the bane of it’s existence.
One thing I did not have any experience with is Evolution, the email client, only because it was not really necessary for what I was doing.
Overall the experience has been a good one, certainly not challenging, and has been a manageable solution for me as a general end-user. John Rankin says on the NZOSS website that a modern free software desktop will meet the needs of 90% of the people, 90% of the time which, after three months, is something that I definitely agree with.