A new distribution, eh?

The Ottawa area of Canada seems almost perfect for penguins in the wintertime. I can just see the little things knocking down skaters on the frozen-over Rideau River.

The Ottawa area of Canada seems almost perfect for penguins in the wintertime. I can just see the little things knocking down skaters on the frozen-over Rideau River.

Within Canada, the Ottawa region is often known not just as the national capital, but is also referred to as Silicon Valley North because of its high concentration of high-tech firms. It's only natural that in an area so friendly to penguins and computers, we find the newest major player in the Linux distribution game. Furthermore, it's the first one with a name familiar to those outside the Linux universe: Corel.

Of all the commercial software vendors taking a stab at the Linux market, Corel wants to be seen as the one with the sharpest sword. The company's WordPerfect word processor has been available for Linux since the 1996 release of the Caldera Internet Office Suite, and is now downloadable from the Internet for use with any Linux distribution.

Linux game plan
At the recent LinuxWorld conference, company president Michael Cowpland used the soapbox of his keynote to announce the latest of a number of initiatives Corel has made in the past year:

  • After inventing the NetWinder and giving it some momentum, Corel wisely gave control of the project to a hardware company, Rebel.com (formerly known as Hardware Canada Computing).
  • Cowpland committed resources to the Wine project. Wine serves the dual purpose of running Microsoft Windows binaries under Linux, as well as making Windows code easier to port to Linux.
  • Based on the Wine work, Corel has committed to porting all of its major desktop software to Linux, including the flagship CorelDRAW.
  • Corel has hired what seems to be all the Linux talent in Ottawa, including the president of the area's staggeringly successful Ottawa Carleton Linux Users Group.
  • The most recent initiative is Corel's announcement to produce its own Linux distribution.
The company is one of the first to have really got the concept of free software. And, much to the chagrin of the everything-should-be-free advocates, Corel has discovered how commercial software and the free stuff can complement each other.

Of all the above Linux work Corel has done, the prospect of a new distribution appears to have generated the most buzz, especially now that Corel has announced that the product will be based on the Debian distribution and KDE desktop.

"Debian stood out to us in terms of its reputation for stability and security," said Erich Forler, project manager for Corel's coming distribution. "I consider it the front-runner from a quality perspective," he said, "even though once you have them installed and configured, Linux distributions are pretty well the same."

The desktop
The choice of starting with Debian's distribution, in some ways, makes a lot of sense. It's certainly easier than starting from scratch, and the Debian development group is a large and widespread committee that poses no commercial threat to Corel. For some users, in fact, Corel could be the corporate face that Debian has always lacked.

Corel's choice will certainly give Debian a bigger audience by dispensing with some of Debian's political agenda. Corel is making an ideological break with the Debian group's near allergic attitude towards non-free software by integrating commercial software with free Linux code. On top of that, Corel is sidestepping the politics that keep Debian from including KDE at all.

Corel's choice of KDE is also significant in that it joins Caldera and SuSE in making KDE its default (if not its only) desktop. Even Red Hat, while still using GNOME as its default, also ships with KDE. While the nature of free software precludes the necessity for a VHS-Betamax-style war of attrition, Corel's choice cements KDE's status as the front-runner for those who need to make a choice.

Potential potholes
The one nagging doubt about Corel's direction has to do with how its packages will be installed. Debian is alone among distributions in supporting the dpkg system, when most of the other commercial Linux system and software vendors support the Red Hat-developed RPM format. Until now, commercial developers were generally ignoring the dpkg system, but the Corel entry is likely to at least disturb this peaceful balance.

Corel's Forler said he considered dpkg to be technically superior to RPM, but said he's hoping that the Linux Standard Base (LSB) committee will help resolve the differences between the two and develop a single standardized packaging format. "From our perspective, we'd like to see just one format," Forler said. But, he added, Corel's Linux applications will still be delivered in RPM format because that's where the current market lies.

The goal of a common packaging format may be easier said than done. During my own stint as an original member of the LSB committee, packaging discussions were the most heated and the least likely to be easily resolved. Perhaps Forler should point some Corel resources to help address this problem, since Corel's use of dpkg will most certainly help stir up some of the old flame wars again.

Corel, with its global brand-awareness and distribution channels, will make an immediate impact on the Linux industry when its product hits the market later this year. Several Linux vendors I've spoken with about Corel's distribution said that the Linux marketplace was more than big enough to handle another vendor, especially if Corel's presence gives Linux an entrance into markets that hadn't considered it before.

It's quite fitting that the most interesting piece of software to come out of Ottawa this year will happen in the winter. Rideau skaters, watch out for the penguins.

Do you welcome this new Linux distribution? Let us know in the ZDNet Linux Forum. Or write to Evan directly at evan@starnix.com.

Evan Leibovitch has been working with Unix and Linux on PC systems for more than a dozen years. He's a partner in Starnix Inc., a Linux-centric integrator based in Brampton, Ontario. He has been heavily involved in user groups, both as a former director of UniForum Canada and as a current director of the Canadian Linux Users' Exchange. When not around computers, Evan enjoys cooking, writing, and annoying his children.


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