Thursday, December 13, 2007

The lay of the Linux Landscape

If I am not mistaken, it was Henry Ford who not only established the production line as a fixture in American industry but also set in the American mind what constitutes product development. The rather linear approach to design and development ultimately concluded with one product, done well, no choice.
The publics answer to this was to develop an after-market industry to provide options that met all the varied taste and desires. Applied to the hardware side of computers, we have a few standards that regulate what a PC is to provide because companies have the ability to introduce new stuff with the intention to capture more of the market. PC hardware is not the "Wild West" it once was. Software on the other hand is a little more fluid than hardware. Just when Apple and Microsoft, which are firmly rooted in the American way of doing things, have established what constitutes an Operating System, someone from the outside invents an Operating System by a different means. This is Linux. With Apple or Microsoft, they provide a product, like it or not, and the after-market provides the options. With Linux it seems the production people and the after-market people are the same people. What brought all this up was that I was browsing the Internet after asking a question. What was the best low resource Linux. I uncovered many, many opinions, probably the result of having too much choice. What stood out was that many people like choice but not the choices. People like that Linux can provide so many solutions yet aren't satisfied because it is not "exactly" what they want. With Apple or Microsoft you buy a product which in reality only gets you permission to use it, and then get after-market add-ons to make up for lacking variety or you acquire Linux. With Linux you yourself have the right to configure it to your hearts content, even to the point of rewriting the code. But there is a point at which choice becomes a headache. Take Ubuntu Linux as an example. Ubuntu is a very good Linux but doesn't quite allow you to seamlessly install any desktop or window manager you want. So folks have developed GUI specific Ubuntu's to provide solutions. There is Xubuntu, Kubuntu, Edubuntu, and a couple more. Of course some people are not happy with this and demand a unified approach to Ubuntu while still having a choice of GUI's. You have to see that because Ubuntu is so popular folks want to have it yet they want it according to what they think is cool. Other Linux distributions suffer a little less from this malady because they are known to support only a particular GUI. This is a curious thing, if you offer a vast assortment of choices, people complain they can't find what they want. If you offer one thing they put up and shut up.

What my original question points out is that the majority of people interested in Linux want a simple solution like what Apple or Microsoft provides yet still have it tailored to their particular wants. So I would say to the Linux community that Linux needs to allow for a more seamless integration of user choices. Parts or modules that fit well and don't break the system when added or removed.

In Linux user choices have grown so they don't fit on a single CD any more. This is why on-line repositories are so important. Why force users to download a DVD's worth of software only to have it obsoleted by upgrades anyway? Red Hat are you listening? So what that you can't provide every choice on one CD. You can provide a basic working system on one CD and supply options on another or in a repository. I really admire the Linux distributions that are smallish like Wolvix and Puppy Linux. They prove that small can be better and still allow you to add all the bloat you want. Let's see, a basic working system to which you could seamlessly add or delete the stuff you want. That is the best you could get with any product. The smallish Linux distributions do other things that the big, full featured, all inclusive ones don't. Like run great on older and low resource hardware or fit on a jump drive. And it is so much easier to add things than delete them. There is a tendency for software makers to add more functionality and features to programs as they age. This results in your favorite zippy application becoming a resource hog eventually. I heard this was the case with Xfce desktop which is still, in my opinion, pretty lean compared to KDE. It is a tough job to design software to fit such a diverse group as Linux users.

I hope Linux doesn't loose its' "Lego" nature or the "kit" mentality needed by users. I hope Linux doesn't evolve into a product of limited scope and usefulness. I also hope the trend to always put a name on various new configurations (distributions) of Linux doesn't distract from the fact that it's still Linux. User opinion is fuel for the media. Users argue over which GUI is better or leaner. They vie over the package formats and the installation tools and of course drivers and codecs. The result of all this is 400+ different and named distributions of Linux. Is this dissatisfaction with or innovation in Linux? What you can say is that users are a huge part of the dialog that causes Linux to evolve. Even though the business model that produced Apple and Microsoft products is considered the way things are done the world over, it is refreshing to see that things done differently can also produce a viable solution to computing needs. Perhaps the real solution is somewhere between one size fits all and custom made.

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