Fedora, Slackware, Debian... and Philosophy

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.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

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

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