Debunking Some Myths About Graphical Installers

I can’t take anymore comments like “Debian/Gentoo/OpenBSD/etc. are not good/user-friendly because they lack a graphical installer.” Searching the web, I couldn’t find a comprehensive site describing the good and the bad about graphical installers for various OSes throughout the years, so in this article I hope to debunk a few of the myths on the basis of my own personal and professional experience.Editorial Notice: All opinions are those of the author and not necessarily those of

Browsing the OSNews forums, you can find many comparisons of the form “OS A has an excellent text installer, but OS B has a mediocre GUI installer, therefore OS B is better, simpler, and easier to use.”
Granted, I’m oversimplifying somewhat. And of course, in general they leave out the adjectives “excellent” and “mediocre,” so the comparison reduces to “having a GUI installer means the OS is better and easier
to install.” But there’s the rub! Without describing the
quality of the installer, you’re only seeing half the picture: the point should be the excellence of OS A’s install process, not the fact that OS B’s install is graphical! That quality and functionality are more important than icons and eye candy should be the title of the first chapter of every introductory text on software design, which leads us to our first myth.

Myth: A GUI install process implies a simple install
This is at best an oversimplification, and at worst completely wrong. Simplicity is multi-faceted, and it means more than merely having a GUI to guide the user through the process. If there is going
to be a GUI, it had better be intuitive and well-designed. I would far rather have a well-documented, simple text install than a bad graphical install any day!

As an example, consider Tsu Dho Nimh’s excellent article
Migrating to Linux
not easy for Windows users
. Here’s a guy who says right on page 1
in bold face “It must have a GUI interface for installing … the
system.” I can respect that (to each his own, right?), but he
certainly doesn’t make the mistake of equating “pretty GUI” with
quality, and his article has several good examples of bad graphical OS
installers. To take just one example, he says of the “Linux for
Windows” install (when trying to install a dual-boot system with

If you follow the installation steps as prompted, you end up
with a full installation of Linux and a partitioned, formatted hard
drive, just as if you had bought the standard version. You would lose
your Windows system and all your data.

That doesn’t sound particularly simple to me: an installer
that doesn’t do what the prompts say it’s going to do?
Let’s contrast that with the OpenBSD installer, which
is completely text-based. It fits on a single floppy disk! Surely
this must count for a few simplicity points! Also, it is very well
documented: my first install of OpenBSD, with the help of the
excellent docs, took about half an hour, and I had no previous BSD
experience! Granted, you end up with a very minimal install, but
that’s fine, because I personally like the idea of conceptually
separating the installation of the system from the installation
and configuration of programs. I find this very
flexible, which brings us to myth #2.

Myth: A GUI installer implies a flexible install

Nothing debunks this myth better than one look at the Windows
installer. The install guide for the Windows 9x/ME series could have
fit on a single page: give in your license code, select your time
zone, and watch the countdown for an hour. For all intents and
purposes, the Windows installation process is a huge glorified
hourglass icon! To this very day, when a sysadmin or a power user
needs to do a more complex install of Windows 2000 or XP, what do you
do? Admit it: you pop in the four diskettes and use the text
installer! The mere fact that you have a graphical install process
doesn’t mean that process is flexible.

Compare this with FreeBSD’s sysinstall. It is extremely powerful
and flexible: you can configure X, set up network services, do user
management, software installation, and tons more stuff. Not to
mention the fact that (excluding the critical install-time tasks), you
can do it all when you want to! At install time, later, it
doesn’t matter. So much flexibility from a text based installer
… who’d have thunk it?

Myth: All OSes/Distributions are vying for desktop supremacy

I apologize: to all the sysadmins and seasoned OS veterans, the
fact that this statement is mere myth may seem completely self-evident,
but the fact of the matter is that apparently many people don’t realize
this. The fact is that niche markets are just as common in the OS
world as they are anywhere else, and it is not the case that
the Holy Grail of all operating system development is the coveted
desktop market. An operating system can be specially designed for
real-time considerations, for security, or maybe it’s just
somebody’s hobby. Let’s take just two examples, though there
are dozens more.

OpenBSD is very popular in security-sensitive settings, and its
minimal install process is an excellent example of the principle
of least privilege. Gentoo’s flexible install appeals to the hacker,
the power user, and anyone eager to learn about what’s under
the hood of a Linux system. Granted, there may be
desktop potential in each of those niche markets, but their
install processes are tailored to their respective target

A comprehensive install process
is a massive plus
for any OS. After all, in operating systems,
much like in … ummm … dandruff management, “You never get a
second chance to make a first impression.”
(For the benefit of any foreign readers, that was the slogan of an
anti-dandruff shampoo in Canada.) And if that install process is
graphical, so much the better. A GUI enhances the user experience
and is generally more newbie-friendly.

That being said, I’m seeing comments like “that OS has no
future … it doesn’t even have a graphical install!” far too
often. I think such comments often result from the myths
we’ve discussed here, and also from people forgetting two
important points.

Firstly, installation is supposed to be a one-time
thing (for the user, not the hacker/power-user/sysadmin): surely
the quality of the system you end up with at the end should be
more important than what you’re looking at during the one-time
install process! Have we gotten so caught up in eye candy
that we can’t stand to look at a text console for an hour?

Finally, it should be the quality that counts. In the
spirit of using the best tool for the job, I’ll always choose a
good, well-documented text install process over a
“GUI-for-the-sake-of-GUI” install.

About the Author:
Paul Hankes Drielsma currently works as a researcher in the area of information security at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He previously worked as a system administrator and has been an OS hobbyist for several years. He can be reached at [email protected].


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