Editorial: Experiences with the Linux Desktop

What is a distribution and how does it differ from the distribution next door? Do they provide a different-enough experience to the user who is in search of a capable desktop?Note: The author is Norwegian, please excuse any grammar/syntax errors.

What is a distribution? A distribution is the thing that makes Linux an operating system – in addition to the kernel it includes basic tools to put together an operating system. As my technical reference puts it, “software designed to control the hardware of a specific data-processing system in order to allow users and application programs to make use of it.”

Each distribution has its own goals. While a commercial product might want to hit a more mainstream group of users, a distribution can be targeted against anything from a huge data server to a client system on a USB hard drive. Commercial companies like Microsoft and Apple tries to encapsulate the main hop, and has succeeded, dare I say.

For a desktop user, there are many dependencies, that is, the user expects that the system is equipped with all the tools required to use, maintain and upgrade the system – programs for doing the main tasks and the managing of software and hardware. The programs should be strong and flexible, and the settings connected all-together in an easy-to-use panel. No distribution reassembles these factors today.

Why do they not? The open source applications are reaching a very high-quality level – I would say that the most recent version of the K Desktop Environment (KDE) is in itself easier to manage than the Windows environment. The problem many new users experience is the huge leap in software architecture – libraries, source code, the quite complex way of installing programs and the managing of the kernel. The Linux kernel is high-quality work – the problem of it lies in the complicated way to upgrade and maintain it.

But this architectural leap as mentioned, first of all the organization of files, folders, settings and the understanding of environment variables, is the base of Linux. It cannot be changed, but it can be made more understandable to the user. Mac OS X managed it, although it is fairly different (based on another branch of UNIX), the system, software and hardware management in this system is ideal for the desktop.

Many of the commercial distributions, of Xandros and SuSE tries to reassemble this – and has come significantly closer in simplifying the architectural leap, but not as good as the complete novice would be comfortable. For the Linux to rival Microsoft and Apple on the desktop, standards must be developed. The programs that are included in most modern distributions are superb, but when the user wants to add more possibilities to the system – for example by increasing his hardware, or by applying for more recent versions of software, he gets stuck – either in missing libraries, or a dependency problem. And the usual question after a somewhat succeeded installation, “Where’s my program, I can’t see it?”

Experiences from modern distributions
The management of software was made very easy for me as a desktop user when Xandros released its second version around Christmas last year. The process of installing had now been simplified significantly. Although I of course am aware of, that this way of management is not unique for this distribution, and that the methods have existed for many years, this was the first distribution that made it easy for me, a quite experienced user to seamlessly manage my system.

My experiences from Red Hat and Fedora was of professional and mature ones, but not ideal for desktop use. At first, nothing comes out-of-the-box. The immediate support of multimedia – is very important. I shall also mention that I have tried Lindows, and that my experiences from this one were rather bad. I felt that the track was laid for me, that I was not in charge of the system, and that the possibilities were rarely beyond those defined by the distribution manufacturer.

Click-And-Run is indeed a very nice system, but too commercialized for me to use– then I would rather stick to Mac OS X or Windows. Although Xandros also is a commercial distribution, I felt that Xandros Desktop was more of an all-rounder than Lindows, and much easier to use and with much more potential and possibilities. In an operating system I want to do whatever I want – I felt claustrophobia in Lindows, and liberated in Xandros.

However, the biggest and most serious problem in all distributions is, that when one is released, the kernel has either moved to the next stage, included important hardware support, or the software that’s bundled is out of date. The very first version of Fedora, dated November last year, is now old, providing the kernel three from 2001 (2.4) and the older version of KDE which through the last months has gone through a complete refreshment. A novice would be completely helpless in upgrading this system to a more recent state, without installing a more recent binary version from a CD, or through a network.

The Challenges
The challenge is to emerge all this fantastic software, into a superb distribution, where one can combine strong elements from each product. Last week Novell, the owner of Ximian and SuSE, announced a merge between GNOME and KDE. While I think both sides have strong points, I think a merge between those two would be great to less experienced users. The freedom of choice is the main aim in Linux, but making the choice easier for a novice is a requirement if Linux shall succeed on the desktop.

The challenge of a desktop operating system is to make the core of it very easy to manage and seamlessly to use – and then use the potential of this environment to extend the possibilities by adding more software. I think that is where Linux is lacking from the desktop users today, and where Microsoft and Apple have succeeded. Although Linux is a very good alternative for experienced users, the desktop distribution maker’s challenge is not only to do deploy easy-to-use applications, they have to clarify the architecture of Linux, and put together the different pieces of it. This is not the software developer’s job. While the developers should be coordinating their products in accordance with for example FreeDesktop.org – it is the distribution manufacturer’s job to shape the work offered by the developers.

As you can see, I do not think that there are too many Linux projects, but that there is too many distributions trying to assemble these projects.

About the author:
I have been using Linux regularly since 1998. Missing a fast internet connection, I was during the first years of my career stuck with a retail version of Red Hat. Over the past two years, I have been trying most of distributions.


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