Monday, August 15, 2011

For all you fellow techies and geeks out there

I wanted to write a long article for a while already, but I just don't have the time.  So I will pass on a few things I want to share with you, in no particular order, bullet-style presentation.

Ubuntu is undergoing a serious crisis from which it is unlikely to recover.  Without going into many details, let's just say that Mark Shuttleworth has openly stated that the Unity, the default desktop manager for Ubuntu, is inspired by - I am not kidding you! - "smartphones, Windows and Mac OSX".  The result from that kind of "inspiration" is the worst piece of over-designed bloatware I have ever come across: Unity.  To say that the latter is horrible is an understatement.

Even more depressing is Shuttleworth's openly stated belief that Canonical's "desktop experts" are the best qualified to know what we, the community, want/need on our computers.  He also wants contributors to Ubuntu to hand over their copyrights to Ubuntu, he attempted to pressure Banshee not to contribute directly to GNOME, and he is pushing various proprietary solutions like the Ubuntu One store.  Basically, Mark Shuttleworth is gradually turning into a wannabe Steve Jobs and Ubuntu is going down the "corporate Linux for the masses" road.  I don't want to go into all the details here, but let's just say that many people, including myself, are running away from Ubuntu.  The question is, where can we go?

After doing some research, I have identified the following excellent options:

1) Linux Mint.  This distribution is either Debian based or Ubuntu based (depending on its variant) and it has a rather immodest (unofficial) motto: "Ubuntu done right".  However, it also happens to be true.  Linux Mint is an extremely stable and user-friendly GNU/Linux distribution, but it is not dumbed down, it avoids the pitfall which I call "Linux for idiots" - which is exactly what Ubuntu is doing now.  I cannot write a full review of Linux Mint here, but I will say that its "main" edition is absolutely beautiful, very elegant, stable and well configured.  Linux Mint also has an extremely interesting update system which provides another layer of testing before software is updated.  Most importantly, Linux Mint is 100% community run and one of its main developers has already stated in a forum in reply to a question about the adoption or not of Unity that:
No, not Unity. We’re going for Gnome 3 using a traditional desktop layout (no Gnome Shell). Of course you’ll be able to add Unity or Gnome Shell yourself, but by default the desktop will look similar to the one we’re using at the moment.
This is wonderful news indeed.  It means that "Ubuntu done right" will continue in Linux Mint even if Ubuntu itself will from now become "Ubuntu done totally wrong".

2) Xubuntu.  Many people now that Xubuntu is a variant of Ubuntu which uses the XFCE desktop, which is true, but it is more than that.  Xubuntu is a 100% community run Ubuntu variant which does not depend on the whims of Mr. Shuttleworth or Canonical.  Furthermore, a great deal of effort has been put by the developers of Xubuntu to make it into a full-fledged, well integrated, distro, not just Ubuntu with XFCE instead of GNOME or Unity (which, technically, is a GNOME plugin).  I would say that Xubuntu is a tad more oriented to the non-newbie than Mint, and, in my experience, its also somehow more buggy. Still, it is extremely fast, very elegant, and XFCE is really turning into a powerful desktop, comparable to GNOME.

3) Debian.  Debian is the "Mother of all distros".  No distro comes even close to being in the same league as Debian.  Here are a few numbers just to illustrate this point:
  • 1000+ volunteer developers
  • 30'000+ applications (5 DVDs or 30 CDs)
  • security and stability matched only by BSD
  • runs on 9+2 (BSD) different architectures
  • translated into 65 languages
  • The cost of developing all the packages included in Debian 5.0 Lenny (323 million lines of code), using the COCOMO model, has been estimated to be about US$ 8 billion
  • Unique bug-tracking system
But this is not the full story yet.  Debian is also a Social Contract, Free Software Guidelines, a even Debian Constitution.  Debian really is the "Universal Operating System", the GNU/Linux distribution "par excellence".  It does, however, have one feature which is an issue for many users: its "stable" branch tends to have software versions which are somewhat older than other distros.  This is due to the extremely high quality control Debian imposes on its "stable" release.  The other particularity of Debian is that while you do not need a Ph.D in computer sciences to run it, it is designed by folks who love computers for folks who love computers.  If you want to know as little as possible about how computer work and if all you need is a machine to run office software and browse the net, then Debian is probably not the best choice for you.  But if you love computers, then Debian is really a dream come true.

There is also a "bleeding edge" version of Debian called "Debian testing".  I personally love it, but it is really for hardcore techies who actually enjoy "hunting" and "squashing" "bugs" and who want to contribute to the development of Debian.  "Testing" is my personal favorite, but you need to be ready to do a lot of reading to enjoy using it.

One more thing about Debian.  There is a huge list of Debian-derivatives, beginning by Ubuntu itself and, therefore, all Ubuntu derivatives.  Some of these Debian derivatives are excellent distros in their own right, like for example Crunchbang or the excellent Debian-based live-CDs like Knoppix and Damn Small Linux.

So the disaster of Ubuntu is not the end of the world, far from it.  The current exodus of users from Ubuntu (not to mention all the distros currently moving away from Ubuntu repos to Debian repos!) is actually a good thing for the free software community because it re-centers our community around corporate-free GNU/Linux distributions, and that is most definitely a good thing.

One more item I wanted to share with you the very interesting interview with Dan and Fab recently did with Christian Heilmann, Mozilla's "Principal Evangelist" which you can download here (in mp3 and ogg formats).  Browsers are extraordinarily important applications and Mozilla's FireFox is arguably the flagship of all free and open source browsers, so listening to a Mozilla representative is always very interesting.

Okay, that's it for now.  

The Saker