posted by Matt Cahill on Wed 27th Oct 2004 18:14 UTC
IconDear Mandrake,
I used to be both a user of Mandrake (from v7.2 -> v10) as well as a renewing member of their Club. For various reasons, both personal and not, I decided to switch distros in August of this year. I wanted to try a Debian distro and experience that side of Linux [this would be the proverbial "grass is greener" scenario].

Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

I'd toyed with Slackware (7.1) a couple of years ago, after a serious Mandrake crash [to which I place no blame on Mandrake necessarily]. However, there were two things that bothered me about Slack: one which I couldn't reconcile, and one which I was to stubbornly delay appreciating until now. Firstly, package selection with Slackware. The selection of packages on the CD is apt (in the barren, Scandinavian-designed sense of the word: functional, practical, scalable), but it scarcely measured up to the difficulty I had finding the packages I wanted, in TGZ format for smooth installation, a la Mandrake's "urpmi" utility [this was, of course, several versions ago]. More often than not, I'd need to compile packages from scratch on Slack. For me, this is the technological equivalent of doing my laundry in the sink: effective, yes...but is it the best use of time for my needs? Lord, no. Secondly, I didn't want to tinker with config files. It's one of the most common reasons people have for using a Linux distribution like Mandrake, Linspire, or any other "beginner's Linux" distro ["beginner's Linux": this is not meant as a condescending term - you are what you market yourself as]. I just didn't want to bother. I suppose, in retrospect, I didn't want to learn Slackware, so much as use Slackware. In retrospect, a somewhat wilful misunderstanding.

We - those of us who use or have used "beginner's Linux" - don't want to be bothered tethering every rope and swabbing the deck on the ship: we'd rather steer the boat and polish the brass so that it's nice and shiny. It's nice to have someone else do the manual labour. Thus, when a distro offers a vague sense of self-configuration, it's the easiest decision a newcomer to Linux can make.

I wasn't displeased with Mandrake when I left. Not entirely. Well, okay, I was, but it wasn't all Mandrake's fault. Firstly, the finger of blame. Although I understand that Mandrake has experienced it's ups and downs, it's growing pains, and it's financial hurdles as of late, I could not understand it's concurrent yet divergent obsessions with delivering a point-release every six months while also totally neglecting such mandatory investments as a semi-robust message-board for it's users, namely those who are MandrakeClub members. There was a forum [your customary PHP-based message board], but when it wasn't being moved from site to site [and thus losing months of A-class valuable posts/suggestions - this happened when they moved the original forum from to it's current address], it's search-functionality was broken, and the organization of it all seemed amateurish. For a $100/year, I got tired of feeling like I was wasting my time in someone's poorly thought-out Yahoo Group.

But, as you say to someone you've split-up with, it's not "you" which is the problem, it's "me". You see, in the beginning, it was really cool to have a distro that was bleeding-edge. There was quick access to new releases, and Mandrake rpms were readily authored and available. This was living in Windows-world: "What's that? A new release? Here, let me download it immediately and run 'install.exe'!". Mandrake at least offered a taste of this (complex, politically-charged) simplicity. Unfortunately, I couldn't kid myself any longer when - just at the point when I was tweak-happy with Mandrake 10 - they were already prepping the beta of 10.1. After four years of semi-monogamy and increasingly begrudging respect, I just decided that I didn't want to upgrade...again. I got tired of the MandrakeHydra: one serpent to spit out an endless stream of betas, community editions, and release-candidates, and another to stand in the way of the proper administration of a more-than-merely functional user-forum.

So, I switched to Libranet. It was a Debian-based distro that seemed to command gracious respect from both reviewers and users alike. An opportunity presented itself in the free trial-version Libranet had recently offered: their latest version, albeit almost a year old, free to download and try. I realised that this was an opportunity that I couldn't resist, and thus downloaded the ISO and eventually came to be where I am now: a content Libranet user.

Switching to a Debian-based Linux distro was a challenge. I had to undo the "urpmi" and try to understand "apt-get". And yes, I had to swallow my previous disdain over Slackware and tinker with config files again. Many of them. It wasn't that I had to, but rather that, for once, I wanted to learn. I didn't want to give up. And now, nearly three months after the fact, I understand more of my apps' behaviour because I set them up myself. Conflicts, crashes, and freezes are rare. It's the hallowed zen of: it just works. Is this a bleeding edge system I'm running? No. But, then again, if everything worked as it was supposed to, you'd be willing to suspend your anticipation for the latest and greatest.

In the end, Mandrake, I've learnt that I'd rather have stable eye-candy than unstable menu editing. I'd rather use Icewm than KDE. I'd rather have a good environment with a healthy [if proportionately smaller] user-forum over a ham-handed, brand-laden MandrakeUniverse where some things work great while many others disappoint consistently. In some ways, I still miss you. I miss the KDE-tastic environment, the clumsily-designed-yet-charmingly-personal penguin mascot icons, and the wicked partition tool. To be honest, before I really started to understand "apt", I could've killed for "urpmi" [which I still think is cool].

I never said farewell, though. I just wanted to know what I was missing, and in the course of this, I discovered that I prefer the other side. For now.

Epilogue: Mandrake, I've noticed that you've changed your user-forums. They seem better thought-out and more professional-looking: it seems you've finally responded to months of user-requests. Better late than never. I hope for the best in your progress. Things here are fine.

About the Author:
Matt Cahill lives in Toronto, works in film, but writes to stay sane. He has been a contributing fiction/op-ed writer to various publications, and is currently looking for a publisher for his debut novel, "The Flying Dutchman".

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