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Linux and open-source
Article published on:5 February 2006, 17:47
This post is about what I think in general about Linux (not strictly about Ubuntu) and open-source.
When you are a Windows user you are bothered by friends who use Linux, each of them suggesting you to switch to Linux: "stop being a Microsoft slave" or whatever.
Picking a distro is a "daunting" task for a Linux newbie, even if he's an expert or "expert" in the Windows world.
When you finally decide upon which distro to install, and you install it, the funny part comes: your friends who are using a different distro mock you for picking another one, no matter how experienced you are. If you need help when you run into a problem, answers can be along the line "ha, that doesn't happen in my distribution!".
After I got Ubuntu, one Gentoo guy said to me "ah, Ubuntu, uhm that's almost Linux, nonetheless good you made the switch". That's encouraging! Some guy from Fedora Core 4 simply said: "Ubuntu works too good, it's too graphical". Interesting, since he seems to dislike the fact some Linux distros are reaching a level which allows the user to simply just use Linux, without the problems most Windows fear of: going to CLI, and manually editing configuration files. He said that because he was a bit amazed by the fact I got Samba perfectly working very easily and v4l was already working (he had these two specific problems with FC 4). That's probably because FC is a more of a "cutting-edge" distro than a working/stable distro. :)
Worth noting Ubuntu isn't a perfect distro either. I did have some problems with it too. However, many of the solutions were very easy.
Contrary to what some might think... I haven't switched to Linux just to be hip & cool (I could've done so long time ago). I switched because there's a real need ... me being a web developer, also requires experimenting and developing with a lot of technologies - most of all being available only for Linux (or working better and faster on Linux).
The failure of Linux still being a niche desktop OS is caused by the simple fact that the entire community doesn't agree on the purposes, being too diverse. Gladly (from my perspective), groups of users and developers who want an easy-to-use Linux desktop are mobilizing to build very good distros.
Once you get used to Linux, you really like the power of scripts, the power of CLI and whatever. These really give you the kind of freedom you need after spending all day using the WIMP approach for computer interaction. The CLI stuff would be quite a big improvement to Windows, if they'll ever decide to actually make it useful. The graphical Linux distros don't "disable" access to the CLI, they just make it unnecessary for general configuration purposes. That's very good.
There shouldn't be this "distro war". Each distro is good in it's own way. Use the one that suits your taste. If you haven't yet found one, keep on trying. When you find a distro you like, don't change it just for the sake of change.
Regarding the differences between distros: Claudio Santambrogio made a very good point saying Ubuntu is yet another distro and offered me a link to one of his blog posts about the $100 laptop.
It is one of the more confusing points for a Linux beginner to have to learn that there are several applications for one and the same job, and answering the most obvious question ("so - which one should I use?") is often more an issue of, shall I dare saying, quasi-religious belief than anything the new user could grasp rationally.
It's exactly the same problem as picking a distro.
I found myself installing KDE on my Ubuntu just to give it a try. Now I have a gazillion of packages that I never use, nor I know what they do :). I have about 10 image viewers, several web browsers, file managers, package managers, video/audio players, TV applications and what-not.
In general the most popular Linux distributions (Ubuntu, Fedora Core, SUSE, Debian, etc.) are very good, even better than Windows. This is because they are stable, fast, and provide good packages. A big "downer" for a new Linux user are missing hardware support (drivers), missing capabilities for audio/video playback (patents...) and missing Windows-only software (like Photoshop, Flash, etc.). These are problems which are not caused directly by any distro, yet they make new comers forget about the good things in the Linux world.
In some way KDE and Gnome are better desktoper environments than Windows is. The organization of the menus, of the GUI in each package from KDE is problematic. The reason I am using Gnome is it's better organized, following stricter guidelines.
Open source projects are both an amazing example of volunteer work and organization, products built by begginers with passion and experts working for big companies, and an example of diversity.
Three of the best open-source projects (OpenOffice, Firefox and Wikipedia) have varying levels of "problems". Wikipedia is having quite a big share of articles dedicated to show readers the bad quality of some articles from Wikipedia (bad/vandalised articles full of lies). While the examples provided by these well-intended writers from very well-intended news agencies are right, it's still not entirely true. Wikipedia is quite a very good source information. It's affected by the "too open-source" factor. I am not saying Wikipedia is perfect and everything you read there shall be trusted. Yet, the same fact applies to any other site. The good thing on Wikipedia is you know before there might be trouble ahead. Anybody who's serious about documenting him/herself about something won't base all his/her opinions and knowledge on just one site or two. He/she must do some research and make-up his/her own impressions and opinions on the matter.
OpenOffice is a huge package which probably has the purpose of becoming as bloated as Microsoft Office 11. It's currently in a good state, I use it myself, but it should be better.
Firefox is intelligently made. Mozilla Corporation heads seem to be better organized and focused on what they want. It's not good they add proprietary extensions (no, not those extensions). I mean DOM extensions that have no vendor specific prefix like non-standard CSS properties have. There are some DOM stuff in Gecko which are available only on Gecko, yet there's no indication they are proprietary. That's the same problem IE has. Maybe Mozilla Corp. wants Firefox to be the next IE (in every aspect, not just market share domination). Or shall I say the next Netscape 4? From one perspective, this might be very unlikely, because (I hope) Gecko won't fall behind on implementing cutting-edge web standards.
Linux packages shouldn't try to just copy Windows counter-parts. This goes specially to KDE, Gnome and OpenOffice. Microsoft Office 12 might be quite good because it changed the user interface quite a lot (or so they say, we'll have to see when it's released). There's the need of new and better approaches. If desktop environments on Linux would really bring users something amazingly good with a great usability factor, ease-of-use, ease-of-learning, I am sure many users would try Linux and make the switch. Why? Because currently they see on Linux only the same old stuff they got used to on Windows, but worse in some ways (not professional, a bit bloated, lost compatibility with Windows executables, etc). Why really switch to Linux? Just to be hip? What do Linux distros provide users truely amazing the instant they boot the CD? Yes, I know there are many cool stuff (package management, stability, speed, better control over the system, etc), but nothing truely amazing.
I am not talking about something revolutionary, because that's not what users want, even if it might be better. They won't want to learn anything too different. I am only talking about evolution.
I am interested if there will ever be a distro that actually tries to be the "mother" of all of them. One that any Linux user can suggest to any Windows user (be it an expert or a newbie). A single distro supported by all distros, where the repository is always up-to-date, where you can find almost all packages you'll ever need. A distro that offers the almost perfect balance between cutting-edge and stability (this is what Ubuntu comes close to, IMHO).
One such distro, with a very good interoperability between KDE applications and Gnome applications (yes, they should unite their forces), with a very well configured WINE could be a big booster to Linux. WINE is quite good if you have the knowledge of properly configuring it. It can also be seamlessly integrated into the desktop environment. Any Windows user wants to be able to run its own Windows applications for which s/he doesn't have counter-parts (like Adobe Photoshop, Macromedia Flash, etc). Sometimes users want to run their Windows applications (like Microsoft Office) just because they like them more or they got used to them, or simply put they paid a truck-load of money for them and ... switching to Linux would make those payments worthless :). WINE is the package for this (quite a good one too).
General talk about Linux should actually be about the distro.
Article updated on 2006-06-22, making it similar to the newly published Romanian translation.