posted by Jesse Smith on Mon 15th Mar 2010 15:21 UTC
IconAll Linux users have their own vision of the ideal distribution. Some people crave stability, others want new and exciting features, some people are very security focused and others are concerned about licensing. Warren Woodford has his own vision and he's made it accessible to the world via MEPIS. This week he was willing to take a few minutes to talk about his creation.

OSNews: MEPIS has previously used Debian as its base. But, as I recall, a while back you decided to switch to Ubuntu and then switched back. Could you please tell us what platform MEPIS uses now and why?

WW: MEPIS is mostly based on Debian Stable. We believe the Debian team produces the most thoroughly tested and reliable Linux source code on the planet. At Mark Shuttleworth's urging I tried to base MEPIS on Ubuntu a few years ago and it resulted in a big mess. So I returned to Debian and have been happy with my decision ever since.

MEPIS has a unique build strategy. We try to accommodate the desire of users for the latest versions of applications while maintaining the most stable foundation possible.

Our most stable build, in a release cycle, has a foundation based on the latest Debian Stable. This release comes out about the same time as Debian but may have newer versions of some user apps like OpenOffice or Firefox. Version 8.0 was this kind of release.

Several months later, we begin to build a "plus dot five" release, that has some updated core packages and perhaps a newer kernel. These carefully chosen updated core packages give us the ability to pull in more, newer user apps. This release is also very stable but not built 100% on a Debian Stable core. The 8.5 release is in this category.

OSNews: What new features are we going to see in version 8.5? What has been the primary focus going into this release?

WW: For the first time we are putting KDE 4 in a release. To ease the transition from KDE 3, we have defaulted to a KDE 3 style desktop, but with just a few clicks a user can switch to the KDE 4 style.

Otherwise, we're improving our ability to work with newer hardware, especially netbooks. I am running 8.5 on an eeepc 1000HE and it impresses everyone who sees it. Some of my friends who had purchased netbooks with Windows switched to MEPIS because it's faster and more reliable than the Windows they were using.

OSNews: What sets MEPIS apart from other distributions which aim to be user-friendly?

WW: Certainly there are a lot more user friendly distros now, compared to when, one might say, MEPIS started a trend in 2002-3. I think people tend to forget that we coined the concept and term: easy to try, easy to install, easy to use. The original 3 "eees". Long before Mandriva and Asus conceived of their respective 3 eees.

I think some of our commitment to user friendliness is demonstrated in the 8.5 release. We didn't ship KDE 4 until we believed it was good enough. At first we got flak for that. Now I think it's more obvious that we made a wise decision. And now, instead of throwing users into a whole new desktop environment, we are allowing the users to start, as much as possible, with the familiar KDE3 desktop.

OSNews: Your documentation talks about the laws governing software in the USA. Could you tell us what you need to do to keep within the law and how that affects the final product?

WW: We have to abide by US Export Law, even when this conflicts with the claims of an Open Source license. In fact, some Open Source licenses seem to deliberately encourage such illegal acts. Like any other US based Linux, we can NOT distribute code to countries that are excluded by the US Dept of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security.

We comply with BIS by redistributing any and all restricted software as a redistributor of the Debian packages, which are as a matter of course, cleared for export with BIS by Debian. The Debian compliance process was negotiated with BIS by Software in the Public Interest and we heartily thank Bdale Garbee and the whole SPI team for setting this up.

We also have to respect the limitations set by software algorithms patented in the US. In particular, we can't bundle some audio and video codecs. This has become less of an issue with Flash becoming so widely used. However now we may start swinging in the other direction if Microsoft restricts the use of Silverlight or if the MP4 patent is enforced.

OSNews: After version 8.5 hits the download mirrors, what will you be focusing on next? Where is MEPIS going?

WW: Very soon we plan to start on "10.0" which will be based on Debian Squeeze. I'm very anxious to work with Qt 4.6 and KDE 4.4.

We are building OEM versions of MEPIS. For example, a VM appliance startup will be using MEPIS as their preferred host OS. Also we are optimizing MEPIS to be used as the primary OS for some specific netbooks and tablets. Much of this work can be rolled back into the community release, SimplyMEPIS.

OSNews: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?

WW: Thanks for asking. Just this: we're back. And we're committed to having MEPIS be the most desirable and useful OS on the planet. If you want to join the MEPIS community team and help us realize this vision, please contact us at dev@mepis.com and we'll pass you on to the appropriate community project.

OSNews would like to thank Warren for taking the time to share his thoughts on Linux, the law and MEPIS.

MEPIS has a clean, professional-looking website (http://www.mepis.org), where a user can get information on the distribution and explore the project's Wiki. The site mentions that MEPIS is focused on ease of use and properly detecting hardware. The MEPIS community has created a website (http://www.mepislovers.org) to help each other and gather knowledge via a forum. The site also contains an excellent user's manual which is written with new comers in mind.

The MEPIS Manual

For my experiment with MEPIS, I grabbed the SimplyMEPIS live CD, which weighs in at about 730MB. Booting off the CD brings up a elegant boot menu which gives the user a number of options for starting the system. Most of these are methods for dealing with (and working around) various hardware quirks. Best of all, each option comes with a brief explanation, which is a nice touch. There are also options for getting help, setting the system's video resolution and selecting a preferred language. Getting past the boot menu takes us to a graphical login screen. The live CD is configured with two accounts, root and demo, and the credentials for both appear at the top of the screen. The demo account is a regular, unprivileged account and I used it for the duration of my time with the live disc. SimplyMEPIS comes equipped with a KDE4 desktop sporting a dark blue theme. There are a few icons on the desktop directing users to the project's website, the previously mentioned manual, the user's home folder and the installer. The KDE menu is displayed in the classic mode, making the transition from older versions of MEPIS smoother.

I found the installer an interesting approach to setting up a Linux system. It collects the usual information from the user, but does so in a curious mix of beginner-friendly and with some assumptions about what the user should know. On the one hand, there is a steady supply of help and tips provided to the left side of the window. However, some steps in the process ask questions which require the user to be familiar with how Linux uses and names hard drives and partitions. The MEPIS installer also does things in its own order. For instance, after explaining the license and law to the user, we jump right into disk partitioning. After that, the installer asks which partitions should be used for /home, / (root) and swap. The required files are copied over to the disk and then we get back into further configuration. For the user, this puts a bit of a pause in the middle of the install process. Getting back into the swing of things, the user is asked to confirm the boot loader configuration, choose which services to run, set a hostname and select their locale. The final step is to create a regular user account and set a root password. One thing I really appreciated about the installer was the option to enable or disable various system services. This is something I usually do immediately post-install and it was nice to see the option available prior to booting.

The MEPIS Installer

I used SimplyMEPIS on a desktop PC (2.5GHz CPU, 2GB of RAM, nVidia graphics card), my HP laptop (dual-core 2GHz CPU, 3GB of RAM, Intel graphics card) and in a VirtualBox virtual environment. For the most part, MEPIS stood up to its goal of properly detecting and using hardware. This was most evident on my laptop where simply everything worked. My video, audio and wireless hardware were all set up properly. My touchpad worked as expected and my mobile modem was picked up, though it required some information before it agreed to connect. The audio on my desktop machine wasn't detected, though everything else worked as expected. One quirk I found when running MEPIS was when running in the virtual environment, MEPIS would take a few minutes to boot. Once I arrived at the login screen, performance would be excellent from there on. Desktop performance continued to be good when I dropped available memory down to 512MB, below that point, the system required swap space to perform some tasks. Performance on the physical machines was very good, both while booting and navigating the desktop.

The SimplyMEPIS distribution takes up about 2GB of hard drive space and manages to supply a good collection of software. The application menu is stocked with a disc burner, video player, video editor, OpenOffice, an archive manager, text editor and calculator. The KGpg tool is included to provide privacy, there's Java, Firefox, Kmail, an image viewer, document viewer and two small games. Google Gadgets is included to provide additional widgets on top of those supplied by KDE. Flash is pre-installed as are some video codecs. I also found my mp3 files played out of the box. The Settings menu comes equipped with the KDE System Settings controls and also with custom MEPIS configuration tools. These include an assistant for setting up and trouble-shooting network connections, a tool for repairing the boot loader and partitions, an account manager and an application which manages the X-Windows configuration. Each of these custom MEPIS programs has a clean, simple layout, similar in style to the system installer and I found them to be effective.

Configuration tool

The distribution uses .deb packages and Debian repositories, so it isn't any surprise package management is handled by Synaptic and the APT family of tools. During my time with MEPIS, I had no problems adding, removing or updating packages. One thing I did find unusual was that there didn't seem to be any method of update notification. The documentation mentions a notification applet, but I didn't see one during my week with MEPIS, though manually checking showed available software upgrades. Otherwise, I was happy with the way MEPIS handles security. The live CD does a fine job of separating the regular user (demo) account from privileged tasks and no network services are run by default. The installer enforces password protection of the administrator account and walks the user through creating a regular user account.

All of this tells us what the operating system is and what it is equipped to do, but doesn't really provide an accurate feel for the experience. I have to say using SimplyMEPIS felt clean and elegant. The system is well balanced between providing assistance to the user without being annoying. Documentation is always a click away without being in the way, and that's something some distributions have trouble getting right. There's a powerful collection of software here, backed by the massive Debian repository, all of which performs very well on my hardware. I think MEPIS is well worth a try, especially for people who want to get straight to work using their systems, rather than configuring them.

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