posted by Eugenia Loli on Mon 28th Apr 2003 15:48 UTC

"Linux, the desktop market"
3. FreeBSD's ever present "competitor," GNU/Linux, started winning the crowds with a first wave of hype around 1999, while now many try to convince us that Linux can perform well in the desktop space as well as in the server space. How does the FreeBSD project see the whole situation and how do you feel about a sub-project of "FreeBSD on the desktop?"

Scott Long: GNU/Linux actually got its first PR win with the USL lawsuit in the mid-1990's. That drove an unbelievable amount of momentum away from BSD and towards Linux. In light of that I think that it's a testement to the quality of BSD in general that FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD have remained viable and interesting.

I think that Max OS X has really set the bar for what Unix can do on the desktop. FreeBSD is just as capable as Linux as a desktop OS, but I think that OS X has reminded us that making a desktop OS with mass appeal is a huge task and that FreeBSD should still concentrate on its other strengths as a server OS.

Wes Peters: Most FreeBSD users use FreeBSD on their desktops daily; I have for just about ten years now. I don't know that we have the same drive our friends over in the Linux camp have to rule the world, we just want to make a system that works well for our needs.

To some extent the BSD world in general has already conquered the desktop in the form of Mac OS X. It's a very good product; it has all of the wonderful strengths of BSD and UNIX underneath, and has an unaparalleled user interface and world class applications on top. To many in the BSD world, OS X freed us from any need to become the desktop to the masses; we can concentrate on making a really good technical workstation for users that are comfortable with the X Window System, window managers, and such, and let Apple pick up those who specialize in something other than computers for a living.

I've been a part of the FreeBSD Community right from the start; I downloaded the 1.0 distribution onto floppies the night it was released. In the ensuing ten years the issue of making FreeBSD the operating system of choice for everyone has rarely come up, and when it has it's been mostly ignored.

This doesn't mean I don't think it's suitable to be a commercial operating system. Whatever pretty face your Linux distributor throws on top of Linux will run just as well on FreeBSD. The graphical installer might make a bit of difference, but the key to becoming a commercial operating system is not to have a nice graphical installer but rather to get IBM, Dell, HP, and Gateway to pre-install your OS on their hardware. Without the kind of financial backing that RedHat provides for Linux, that's not likely to happen to FreeBSD anytime soon. It's only just barely happened with Linux, in terms of shipping volume. Better operating systems than Linux or Windows have died on the cross of getting support from just one vendor, BeOS being the most recent visible victim.

Greg 'groggy' Lehey: There are a couple of issues here:

1. Linux and FreeBSD both separate the operating system from applications software, including the concept of a "desktop". The applications layer on Linux is usually identical to that on FreeBSD, so from that aspect you should expect to see no difference.

2. What is a "desktop"? There has been a lot of effort in the Linux space to duplicating Microsoft functionality; see OpenOffice for a good example. FreeBSD also supports OpenOffice. The real question, though, is whether we're doing anybody a favour by copying Microsoft. Like Wes Peters, I have been using BSD on the desktop for well over ten years. I find the current crop of "desktop" software incredibly difficult and frustrating to use. I am forced to do it from time to time, but it's both limited and limiting in its approach. The BSD community should be working towards a better alternative, not playing copycat.

As regards ease of use on the desktop, consider: recently, the Australian UNIX User Group (AUUG), of which I am currently president, participated in a seminar by the Australian Government. We supplied all delegates with a CD-ROM of OpenOffice for a number of platforms, including FreeBSD, Linux and Microsoft. It proved to be easiest to install the FreeBSD version of OpenOffice. Linux required significantly more work.

[quote]Geeks and developers don't mind extra complexity or unpolished desktops or different toolkits that all look different and inconsistent. [/quote]

I contend that geeks and developers would also prefer a consistent and tidy approach. The question is, why do so many choose not to use the current "desktop" software?

I most certainly see KDE and Gnome as issues. On the face of it they should make life easier. On several occasions I have attempted to adopt one or the other. The real issue is this term "desktop". Both KDE and Gnome give you a set of tools, some of them good, which fit together. They don't make it particularly easy to do things that the developers didn't think of.

I recently investigated desktops in some detail for my book "The Complete FreeBSD"), which will be on the bookshelves in the next few weeks. I had intended to describe only one desktop, and spent some time trying to decide whether it should be KDE or Gnome. For whatever reason--exhaustion may be part of it--I chose KDE.

At the same time I rebuilt an old machine and installed KDE and OpenOffice on it. I had two intentions here: first, a neighbour needed a newer computer, and secondly I wanted to be able to describe first-hand how to use the software. The machine wasn't very fast (233 MHz AMD K6, 96 MB RAM), and the results were painful: KDE needs more memory, and preferably a faster CPU.

Just to get the thing to run at any speed, I installed fvwm2 and discovered that, apart from flashy graphics, it wasn't missing too much. My neighbour is completely non-technical, and I gave her the choice of which to use. She chose fvmw2. As a result, I added a section on fvwm2 to the book, as an alternative to KDE.

I could go on on this topic for hours, but that's probably enough.

Table of contents
  1. "Intro, Java, Corporate Support"
  2. "Linux, the desktop market"
  3. "Maturity of 5.x branch, speed of development compared to Linux"
  4. "How FreeBSD compares to other Unices"
  5. "Bug resolution, team work, graphical installer"
  6. "Optimizations, SPARC/PPC/Itanium/Opteron ports, third party tools"
  7. "XFree86 issue, re-unification of the BSDs, UFS2"
  8. "The SCO questionmark"
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