Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: The Official Ubuntu Book, 4th Edition

Authors: Benjamin Mako Hill, Matthew Helmke, and Corey Burger Paperback: 512 pages Publisher: Prentice Hall PTR; 4th edition (July 9, 2009) ISBN-10: 0137021208 ISBN-13: 978-0137021208 Reviewing a book in its Fourth Edition is both easy and hard. It's easy in the sense that, unless the book has completely changed, it is still essentially the same as prior editions. If it has done well up until now, chances are it will still do well. Of course the idea for the publisher (assuming the book has done well) is to at least make sure that the book maintains its reputation and hopefully get even better. For me, that translates into, once a good review, always a good review...maybe. The hard part is to pick out the bits that may have changed and evaluate them as part of the current mix. If the book hasn't changed at all and assuming Ubuntu has, then my review changes and not for the better. If the book has changed, how does it stack up to Ubuntu's changes? Does the book still meet the needs of the audience? The Official Ubuntu Book has done well since it was first published. I've reviewed each edition since the first one back in 2006, including my 3rd edition review, written for the site just last year. As I recall for that edition, while the book was well written for the newbie Ubuntu user, it didn't really address those of us who are veteran Ubuntu users who just want to get up to speed on the changes. Let's see how the 4th edition fares. I suppose I should mention that there have been some author changes between the 3rd and 4th editions. Jonathan Jesse and Jono Bacon have apparently dropped off the radar, while Matthew Helmke has joined the team. At least that's what's reflected on the book's cover. On the inside cover page, the book states it was written "with" Ivan Krstic, Jonathan Jesse, Richard A. Johnson, and Jono Bacon, which probably means some of the material they contributed to prior editions is in the current one, but they didn't actively write for the 4th edition (yes, crediting authors in downstream editions can get complicated). I almost wonder why the Foreword to the 1st edition was included, except that it was written by Mark Shuttleworth. The Preface promises that the book has matured as Ubuntu has, so maybe some of my past concerns have been addressed. Keep in mind that at some point, if a book publishes sufficient number of subsequent editions, it begins to look like a patchwork quilt. Eventually, the oldest patches need to be removed completely to keep the book from becoming archaic. As the Preface also says, the book is supposed to represent the maturing state of the Ubuntu community, so hopefully, we seasoned users will be represented along with newer adopters. At 512 pages, you can't call this book a tome (some Ubuntu books are so large that you almost need help just to lift them) so as the authors state, a "pick-and-choose" process was used to select which topics "made the cut" and which did not. That automatically limits the scope of the audience. I've been critical of how that scope has been selected in the past. In the current book, the scope includes topics such as the installation, a desktop tour, and advanced management, but also includes different aspects of the "Ubuntu community". This is a good reflection of the ideals behind FOSS and, like it or not, chooses the audience this book best serves, which seems to be an interesting but not all-inclusive combination of readers. The first chapter is a snooze if you know what Ubuntu is, what Canonical is, and what Linux is, or you're not particularly interested in a history lesson. These topics will be more interesting for the newer user who wants to absorb as much about the idea of Ubuntu as possible (as well as how to use it, of course). The book comes with an installation DVD for Ubuntu 9.04, nevertheless Chapter 2 covers how to get different versions of Ubuntu, downloading and burning an ISO, and so on. The installation instructions are again more useful for the less experienced user, particularly since Ubuntu is pretty much a snap to install, at least using the default options. Nice touch adding how to install from a USB Key, though. Chapter 3 is a tour of the desktop and the commonly used applications available. This section could almost be a book unto itself (and in some cases, entire books do exist for individual apps such as GIMP and OpenOffice), but most users don't go that much into how each application works. If you didn't know, and wanted to understand what app to use for which task, this chapter will tell you. I don't consider setting up a printer as an "advanced" task (since everyone needs to print), but it's included in Chapter 4, Advanced Usage and Managing Ubuntu. Curiously, the chapter includes a brief task about using floppy disks, and floppy drives are all but gone from the modern computing landscape. It was interesting that the backup options mentioned only include burning files to a CD/DVD or backing up to an external USB drive, since applications like Zmanda support 9.04, at least according to Joe Panettieri's article. Some command-line goodness is also provided for good measure since, for my money, the real power of Linux still exists in the shell. A single chapter in the book is dedicated to the Ubuntu Server. This chapter was introduced in the last edition and, depending on your philosophy for an "official" Ubuntu book, is a good thing to keep around. Of course, it's a departure from "lets-tell-the-newbie-how-to-use-Ubuntu", but it's as much an introduction to advanced computing and beginning server management, as it is the Ubuntu server. If you want to go beyond the desktop user experience, it's a good chapter to read. If not, you can skip it (though I'd recommend it just for the introduction to apt-get and apt-cache). If things go wrong (and they invariably do), you'll likely spend some time in Chapter 6, which is all about troubleshooting. I'd like to think that with each new version of Ubuntu, errors will become less and functionality of applications will become smoother. I'm sure that's true, but nothing will ever be perfect. It's good to have a chapter that recognizes this reality. I was however, a tad disappointed to see that the My Wireless Card Is Not Working section of Networking was only about a page or so long. While I've never had a problem with wireless networking on my Ubuntu computers, not everyone can make that claim. If you end up with a wireless problem and need additional "magic", you'll have to look elseware. For many of the troubleshooting and repair tasks, keep in mind that they involve using the sudo and other commands in a bash shell. This means it's helpful to know a little about how the command-line works. To learn these skills, it's a good idea to not gloss over the Advanced and Server chapters presented earlier in the book. Chapter 7 introduces the Ubuntu community. If all you want is a desktop that lets you work and play the way you want, this chapter won't mean anything to you. However, since the book also includes a chapter on the Ubuntu server, some of this text's readers are assumed to want to go "the extra mile". Chapters 10 and 11 also discuss how to become involved in Ubuntu projects and connecting to, respectively. While you may never participate in the development of an Ubuntu-related project, sooner or later, most Ubuntu users will have a question that's best answered in a discussion forum venue. If you think you do want to become involved in a project, you can see how to accomplish this. Chapters 8 and 9 discuss the Kubuntu and Edbuntu derivatives, if you either prefer the KDE desktop or are interested in Ubuntu optimized for the educational setting. Since you will probably need to access the shell at some point, Appendix A takes a little of the anxiety out of this, by giving the reader the command-line basics. If you are used to using Windows (and the vast majority of the PC-using world is), Appendix B provides a list of mappings from Windows to Ubuntu (Linux/Open Source) applications (Microsoft Word to Writer, for example). All-in-all, the Fourth Edition is a worthy update to the The Official Ubuntu Book. Still no information on version update options (alas), but I suppose that's what is for. As I mentioned previously, 512 pages won't tell you everything there is to know about Ubuntu. It is enough to get you started though, and to take you into some interesting areas other books might not touch on.