In a bug-fix update to the distributions xserver-xorg-core component—the system application responsible for serving Ubuntus graphical environment—the Ubuntu project team disabled the GUIs of many users upon their next reboot.
The Ubuntu project handled itself fairly well in the wake of this mishap: It promptly replaced the offending package in Ubuntus network software repositories, posted notices about the bug and the fix prominently on its Web site and forums, and promised its community a full explanation pending further investigation.
Now, any bug-fix-borne bug is tough to swallow, but this GUI killer was particularly rough on the Ubuntu users who were bitten—particularly for those accustomed to either Microsofts Windows or Apple Computers Macintosh operating systems, where losing your GUI means losing everything.
Keeping in mind its target audience, the Ubuntu project and its sponsor company, Canonical, should have been better prepared for this update snag. As I pointed out in my reviews of Ubuntu 5.10 and 6.06 LTS (Long Term Support), the distributions display configuration tools lag behind those of other Linux flavors, most notably those produced by Red Hat. For instance, Red Hats distributions include a fail-safe X server configuration to head off problems like the one that the bad Ubuntu update introduced.
Of course, all Red Hats code is open-source, so the Ubuntu project or any other Linux distributor is now and always has been free to make these system improvements its own.
It seems to me that one reason why X server complications tend to haunt Linux distributions is that, for Linux, the graphical interface is simply another application. And the fact that GUI-free Linux not only remains functional but is often preferable has led many to underestimate the impact of a Linux system becoming severed from its GUI.
Another reason why X server remains the site of ongoing trickiness on Linux desktops is the prevalence of proprietary graphics drivers. These drivers are more feature-rich than the open-source drivers that ship with the Linux kernel, but they are not as well-integrated or widely tested. This is why I was pleased to see Intel opt to release its three-dimensional drivers under a free license and why I hope to see ATI and Nvidia do the same, but I wont begin holding my breath just yet.
Advanced Technologies Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at email@example.com.