Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ubuntu is a "real" Linux, no matter what anyone says

Recently I have heard several people remark that Ubuntu is not a "real" Linux distribution. It's not surprising that they got that idea, given the amount of criticism that Ubuntu gets in a typical week. They think that being beginner oriented means that it has to be dumbed down.  

Ubuntu was my introduction to Linux. I used it as my primary OS for eight months. During that time I dual-booted it with a dozen other distros and used countless others in virtualbox and my junk computers. Then my filesystem got corrupted and I decided not to reinstall it. Now I am happily using Arch and Debian testing while still keeping Ubuntu up to date in virtualbox.

Anyway, I can tell you that Ubuntu is very much a traditional Linux distribution. You can get to the command line with a simple ctrl+alt+f1-f6, updating is a simple sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade, and you can use any window manager you please with the xinit command or from your display manager. You also benefit greatly from the Debian repository.

So what are the differences? It is easier to install drivers and proprietary plugins and codecs, there are lots of visual enhancements like putting the music player controls in the volume menu and it uses newer software that in some cases is not fully tested.

There are also a lot of changes in store. Unity will replace Gnome in 11.04 and Wayland will replace Xorg sometime in the future. There's no point in worrying about Unity since it's just a window manager, but Wayland will require applications to be rewritten and needs a faster video card. However, I suspect that X will be still provided as an optional package and it may be possible to have both installed at once and start whichever one you want.

My feeling is this: every distro has the right to do things their way. That's what Linux is all about. Proprietary codecs are a must for non-technical users. As for the software, you always have to balance being stable with being up to date. You can't have both and where the happy medium is depends upon the usage. There are things I don't like about Ubuntu. And as it is often seen as the face of Linux, and problem with it reflects upon Linux as a whole. So if you don't think it is suitable, don't recommend it. If someone complains about an Ubuntu-only issue, refer them to a different distro. But if someone uses it and is happy with it, don't try to tell them that they shouldn't be or that it is in some way inadequate. Ubuntu is happy to give it's users complete control over their environment and they can learn quite a bit if they are so inclined.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Fragmentation on Linux is not as bad as it seems

Over two thousand distributions of Linux and BSD. Sound overwhelming? Take a look at the Linux distribution timeline. It can take quite a while to find a distribution there, even a more popular one. It certainly seems complicated, but it isn't nearly as bad as you would think.

First, many are specialized for a certain task, like Clonezilla and Backtrack and are not designed for general desktop use, and of those that are, some are geared toward power users. There are still a lot aimed at beginners, but not nearly as many.

Next, notice that the vast majority of the distributions are based on either Debian, Red Hat or Slackware. If you learn to use those three, (For Red Hat you would learn Fedora or Centos), You will be able to use many features that their children have inherited. Like say, the package manager and the configuration files. But it gets easier than that.

There may be a lot of distros, but the number of Window managers is much less. The two most popular are Gnome and KDE. Learn those and you will be able to use a substantial percentage of distributions. Besides, most major distros give you a choice of Window manager, and nearly all of them let you install new ones from the package manager, so once you find one you like you can use it all the time.

In the same way, applications like Firefox, Rhythmbox, VLC, Gedit and so on are standard throughout most of the Linux world, and can be built manually if necessary.

Although it is easy to use Linux without it, to get the maximum benefit from Linux you need to learn the command line, and the Bash shell is the default, along with a set of standard utilities.

In conclusion, don't be daunted by the amount of Linux distributions. Pick one you like and stick with it, or experiment as much as you like. It isn't nearly as hard as it seems.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Yes, Linux will become a dominant OS, but will it matter?

Android is taking off and Meego is on it's way, The Kno tablet runs Ubuntu and Google has released it's Chrome OS. All four of the operating systems listed above are Linux distributions. I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg. It is obvious that operating systems today are far more complex and capable than they were in the eighties or nineties. As consumers expect more and more from their phones and tablets, the OS those devices run must be able to handle that demand.

Say company X wants to start selling tablets but they don't have an OS:

Option 1: They hire some developers and start making one. After years of expensive development, they have one that can do what other OS's could do ten years ago and no applications.

Option 2: They buy and OEM license for a proprietary OS. Now the device works, but looks and acts exactly how it was made to look by the third party company. Company X cannot change anything about the OS. Which limits them significantly, plus they have to pay the third party company a large chunk of their profit and raise their prices to compensate.

Option 3: They use Linux. Either an existing distribution or their own fork. They have absolute control over everything, (as long as they release the source code), keep 100% of the profits and don't have to do much or any development.

Put that way, the correct choice is clear. That makes many of use Linux fans very happy. But should it? Here's the bad news: the freedom that Linux provides is limited. The absolute control that we have over our Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, and Fedora systems, (to name a few), will not necessarily be duplicated in Company X's tablet.

As many Android devices have proven, whoever installs the Linux system can easily set the root password and lock down whatever features they don't want their customers to access. And when the device is embedded, it is really hard to get around such things. It can be rooted, of course, but an iphone can be jailbroke.

The bottom line is this: get used to Linux, it's going to be around much, much longer than any of us, but don't settle for the kind of crap companies have been selling. Buy products that give you control.