Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

Summary: I have been quiet about Linux this week because I have been busy trying several new versions. In the process, I have learned quite a bit more, and started to think about the philosophy behind Linux, operating system choices, and Free / Open Source software in general.


I have been quiet about Linux this week because I have been busy trying several new versions. In the process, I have learned quite a bit more, and started to think about the philosophy behind Linux, operating system choices, and Free / Open Source software in general.

The first thing that became clear to me this week, although I already knew it on a more superficial level, was that Linux distributions run across a sort of a scale from easy to install and use to complex to install and requiring a lot of manual setup and configuration. What I have tried, and written about, so far were at the "easy" end of the scale - Ubuntu, openSuSE and Mandriva. What I have been trying this week are at the other end of the scale - Fedora, Slackware and Debian Linux. In very general terms, what they all have in common is that the "easy" ones are usually based on one of the "complex" distributions, and then the authors of the distribution have done a lot of the hard work of setup and configuration, put a lot of effort into simplifying and automating the installation procedure, and added some/many/most of the most common packages. The goal of it all being that an "ordinary" user can install one of the "easy" distributions, and end up with a computer that is ready to use when the installation is done.

The things that I ran into when installing these latest three Linux variants are illustrative of what a good job the "easy" distributions are doing. All three of these asked me questions during the installation that I seriously doubt I could have answered (or even understood in some cases) if I didn't have a lot of years of Unix experience. All of them were "missing" one or more packages that I had taken for granted previously, such as Firefox or OpenOffice, and were missing drivers for one or more of the devices integrated in my laptop.

That's all well and good, and in general it's healthy for the Linux world, both because it gives the users a choice (if you don't want to know about or deal with operating systems, just install one of the easy ones and forget about it; if you are or want to be a Linux expert, install one of the base distributions and fiddle with it all you like), and also because they all tend to keep each other on their toes, there is a spreading of good ideas through the community, and such.

However, I just ran into something with Debian that really made me stop and think, and which fits nicely with something else I had been thinking about with Linux distributions in general. After I finished the installation, I was surprised to see that Firefox wasn't installed. No sweat, I thought, I found it in the Synaptic package manager and installed it. Except, what it turned out to have done was created a link from "firefox" to something called "iceweasel". Hmmmm....

It turns out that at some point there was a disagreement between those behind the Debian distribution, and those behind Firefox (Mozilla). They were unable to work out their differences, so the Debian distributors took the open source code for Firefox, made some (presumably small) changes, and produced what they call "iceweasel", and included that in the Debian Linux distritution. Not only that, but rather than just leaving Firefox out of Synaptic, they included a dummy object with lets you call firefox, but get iceweasel.

Now, one could argue that this kind of thing is perfectly in line with the letter, and perhaps even the spirit, of Open Source Software. But the problem is, this potentially splits the Firefox user base (which I suppose makes Microsoft happy), and it confuses the end users. I suppose the firefox/iceweasel name was supposed to be cute and indicate what was going on, or where iceweasel had come from, but perhaps it was a bit too cute, or a bit too obscure for me, because the connection completely escaped me until I researched it on the web a bit. Worst of all, though, is the question of what happens to iceweasel now? I can guarantee you that having two versions of something, no matter how (supposedly) identical or equivalent they are, is certain to diverge over time. The release of Firefox 3.0 is a perfect example - will there be an iceweasel equivalent, or a new iceweasel derived from Firefox 3.0? What about changes, bug fixes and such that are made to iceweasel, will they be fed back into Firefox? I don't want to be too negative, but it looks to me like the potential for the whole thing to go pear-shaped is very high.

Thinking and writing about firefox/iceweasel made me realize that to some degree, similar things are happening with Linux in general. It is undoubtedly a good thing to have groups like Ubuntu and Mandriva putting a lot of hard work into making "easy" Linux distributions out of "hard" ones. But my interest in this from the beginning has been to see if the "average Windows user" could install and use Linux. How should such a user determine what version to use? How many versions will the market support? This is where you get into the really messy end of proprietary software, where the "proprietor" controls all or most of what you get, and thus can guarantee a consistent experience, as opposed to Open Source Software, where most anyone can do what they want, but what you get in one place might look, feel and work totally differently than what you get in another, even though they are both called "Linux". That, of course, leads to people who try one version, have a bad experience, and write it off completely. Certainly, there are not many people who have the resources and patience to try installing a number of versions, to see which ones work best (or worst) in a specific situation.

Perhaps this is much ado about nothing, my concerns are misplaced and the way this is going is really the best thing for Linux right now. I certainly don't have a better idea. But I would love to hear some explanations and opinions, either way.

jw 10/7/2008

Topic: Linux

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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  • Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

    iceweasel is just a re-branding of Firefox. No actual functional code changes are made; just what's needed to change the name from Firefox to Iceweasel.

    This isn't without precedent - it's been done in the past (by various distributions) when trademark issues come up (which is what this is). For instance, we (Mandriva) ship Truecrypt under the name 'realcrypt' for similar reasons. And, of course, there are distributions that are just rebrands of others - the most famous being CentOS, which is a rebrand of RHEL (because Red Hat can stop you giving away Red Hat Enterprise Linux for free as the name is trademarked, but they can't stop you giving away something that is exactly the same product under a different name for free, because it's open source).

    It's likely this won't really cause any problems, because it's not tough for Debian to just keep updating their package just as they would if it were called Firefox. All they have to do is keep patching it to change the name. This isn't really any different from what distros do all the time with all their packages, almost all of which have *some* kind of difference from the upstream build. There are likely far more significant patches in Debian's package than the one that does the name change, just as there are in all other distributors' Firefox packages.
  • Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

    Thanks for the comment and explanation, Adam. As I said, perhaps it is much ado about nothing, and I certainly understand what you are saying. But it still makes me a bit uncomfortable. Maybe I will get used to it, or maybe I won't have to if I don't make much use of the Debian distribution.

    By the way, I've been working with Mandriva a lot more this evening, and the more I use it, the more I like it. Watch for more positive details tomorrow.

    Thanks again for reading and for commenting.

    jw 10/7/2008
  • Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

    Hi adamw :) To address the comments about easy to use distros regarding more advanced distros, when I see someone who wants to get started with linux I point them towards Mandriva. I tried Ubuntu but it only gave me two choices during the install and that was which partition to use and whether or not to use a bootloader (I didn't). Mandriva offers a lot more choices.

    But I now use Gentoo and Debian. While there is something to be said for the ease of use for new linux users and the abundance of gui tools I'm not particularly fond of gui tools. When I change something via cli it stays changed. With gui tools that is not always so.

    When I bought a laptop I decided to put Mandriva on it because I just wanted something easy to install and use. But I couldn't get my unsupported wireless card to work using ndiswrapper. And as adamw told me himself the drivers built into the kernel weren't that stable. Someone with the same card told me to try Debian. ndiswrapper in Debian is all done via cli and is much more complicated. But I now have a rock steady wireless connection and I have really been impressed with Debian.

    I started with Mandrake 7.something and if it weren't for Mandrake I don't know if I would have kept using linux. But now I prefer the more advanced distros. I like the flexibility and custom ability I have with them. I like the total control I have over my system. And while I will still continue to point new users to Mandriva I think all the linux options is a great thing. They each have their niche and I believe this is one reason that makes linux so attractive. Beginner distros are great for just that. Beginners. But once a user becomes more advanced they often move on. So while I applaud distros like Mandriva I am happy I had the options available to me. Only in the open source world will that happen.

    As far as the rebranding of Firefox I see that as a non issue. I have programs in Gentoo that have different names from programs in Mandriva and Debian. But that is what the search functions are for. If you had done apt-cache search browser in Debian you would have found Iceweasel which it states is a light weight web browser based on Mozilla. It's not hard to figure out that this is Firefox. And I don't see this as a splitting of Firefox users because while it may have a different name it's still the same program.

    Just my 2 cents.
  • Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

    Mr. Watson, this *is* much ado about nothing, indeed. Iceweasel is, as adanw has pointed out, a rebranding of Firefox because (and look at this) Debian's support policy collides with Mozilla's trademark policy.

    Mozilla approves the use of the "Firefox" names almost only for their own pre-packaged binaries. Now, they cease to provide updates, support and patches to many of their products, that thus get "end-of-lifed".

    Now, Debian has a support period that is *way much longer* than Mozilla's support time. Therefore, they had to provide security patches and support for versions of Firefox that were long since abandoned by Mozilla. However, by tampering the source in order to do this, Debian would be in trademark infringement as per Mozilla's trademark policy. Therefore, Debian did the only sensible thing to do: change the name and all branding from Firefox.

    Please understand that this is not whimsical or arbitrary; it was a very conscious decision to choose the best course of action in compliance with Mozilla's trademark policy.

    See: "Mozilla Corporation enforces trademarks and claims the right to deny the use of the name "Firefox" and other trademarks to unofficial builds. Unless distributions use the binaries supplied by Mozilla or else have special permission, they must compile the Firefox source with an option enabled which gives Firefox the codename of the release version of Firefox on which it is based, and which does not use the official logo or other artwork."

    from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IceDove

    Now, I really would have liked better discussion of "hardcore" distros' philosophical differences. I am a longtime user of Slackware Linux, and I have used both Mandriva and Fedora too. By the way, I consider Fedora one of the "easy" distros.
  • Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

    Thanks for the clear explanation. There are obviously good arguments on both sides of the Firefox/Iceweasel situation. I certainly have no qualms with something that is done for purposes of ongoing support. But I still think it is unfortunate that it was necessary.

    You are not likely to find a discussion of philosophical differences in Linux distributions in my blog anytime soon, as it is not what I am pursuing at this time.