How to Choose a Canine Companion, or Finding the Right Distro
The author of a new book for Linux users explains how and why he chose to use the Linspire distribution.
by Peter van der Linden
Do you have any pets? A few years ago, I decided there was a void in my life that could be filled only by a dog. I had whole rooms full of wooden furniture that was not yet chewed and, being single, I hardly ever woke up at 5am because a furry creature stuck its cold wet nose in my ear. A dog definitely would fill both these aching voids.
But what kind of dog? Dogs come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. How do you choose among them? There's only one way for software enthusiasts to tackle a question such as these: create a weighted multi-variate spreadsheet of conditions and values!
So I got an encyclopedia of dogs and--I'm not making this up--wrote down a list of all the qualities I wanted in a dog: good around kids, intelligent, easily trained, happy living indoors, moderate exercise needs, non-allergenic fur, medium size, calm disposition and so on.
Then I went through the dog encyclopedia, making a list of breeds that closely matched the criteria. At this point, half the people reading these words are thinking "of course, how else could you do it?", while the other half are thinking "this guy has cabbage for brains." That may be true, but it turns out that the perfect dog for me is a Dalmatian, and we're on our third one with no complaints. Well, apart from the "5am cold nose in ear" thing.
The point of this anecdote is, when you're writing a book to help Windows users get started with Linux, you shouldn't confuse people by trying to cover all possible variations of Linux. You should pick one example distribution by following a process similar to my "dog choosing" process.
The fact that we have multiple distributions at all is an accident of history. Early on, Linus licensed his work under the GPL, which meant that anyone could copy and distribute it. He also limited his efforts to creating only a kernel, the most central part of the operating system, to control and run the applications. To get something actually usable, however, you had to combine the kernel with user-level commands, libraries, installers, applications and so on. Most of this non-kernel software already had been created by the GNU organization led by Richard Stallman. The resulting combination of kernel and supporting software is what we today call a "distro", short for distribution. About ten times as much GNU code as Linux kernel code is contained in any given distro. To give credit where it's due, what we call "Linux" rightfully should be called GNU/Linux.
A handful of "master" distros set different overall directions and standards. Slackware, Red Hat and Debian are among the master distros, with the latter two in particular spawning scores of sub-distros. The Web site distrowatch.org tracks more than 300 active distros, so there are many choices in the Linux world.
For Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux, I wanted a distro that was customized exclusively for desktop users. So, out went Red Hat and other server distros. The distro had to be suitable for home as well as office desktop use and play essentially all of the media content (music, DVDs and so on) that Windows does. Two major distros, Fedora and SUSE, do not ship with the ability to play MP3s files, due to license concerns about the patents that encumber them. Goodbye to them.
Many excellent distros focus exclusively on the desktop user: Knoppix, Mepis, Xandros, Ubuntu, among others. The chosen distro has to be up-to-date with the current revision of the Linux kernel and the KDE desktop library. Of the two mainstream desktops for Linux, KDE and GNOME, KDE is the more widely used. The up-to-date criteria is not overwhelming; these releases all leapfrog one another over the course of several months. But sayonara to Xandros.
Much more important is that the distro has some formal means of professional support for individuals, not just customer forums. Thus, out go Ubuntu, Fedora and Knoppix. I also thought the distro should be based on Debian Linux, because Debian is arguably the best overall distro and certainly one of the most established. Debian emphasizes the best of the open-source culture and mature software discipline. Debian also uses the best packaging technology available for any operating system, supporting on-line distribution of applications and software updates. Other distros have on-line software distribution, such as Red Hat's RPM format, but Debian packages set the gold standard for completeness.
Several distros still are in the running at this point, all of them very good, but the Linspire distro stands head and shoulders above the others. Linspire is a commercial sub-distribution of Debian Linux. It doesn't rely on hobby or volunteer effort; the Linspire company has over 100 employees dedicated to the company mission. And Linspire's mission is clear and simple: to produce the world's easiest-to-use Linux desktop.
Linspire and the Linux Community
Linspire works hard to welcome Windows users to the Linux experience. For example, as in Windows, CDs appear as a Linspire desktop icon simply by inserting them. In some other distros, users need to run a command to make the CD contents accessible.
Some hard-bitten Linux old-timers disparage changes that make Linux easier for non-technical people; as in any club, there's a few elitists. A few even resent the commercial nature of Linspire, building on GNU-licensed software acquired for free. The majority of Linux supporters, however, recognize that Linspire represents the best shot Linux has of restoring competition to the computer industry and bringing Linux quality to ordinary users. Elitists sneering at commercial desktop distros need to ask themselves how else Linux will take business away from Microsoft. Of the top dozen distros available, the majority are distributed commercially.
Linspire is the Linux leader in pre-installed machines. That's an important enabler for mainstream use. For many, their first experiences of Linux is a frustrating struggle to install on balky hardware. If you don't enjoy that kind of thing, you should get Linux the same way you got Windows--preinstalled on a new PC. And that means a distro that actively seeks that business.
Linspire, the company, is a model citizen in the Linux world. Linspire funded several key Linux projects, such as Reiser 4 filesystem debugging and the NVu Web editor. The company also made important improvements to the Mozilla browser. Linspire created and gave to the community the Lphoto and Lmusic open-source applications that now are bundled with other distros. Linspire does a great job of investing in the Linux community in a way that some other bigger and richer Linux companies conspicuously have not yet.
There are three more Linspire advantages:
- Right out of the box, Linspire supports more media filetypes than any other distro. If you browse a Web page with Flash content, it plays perfectly. Linspire supports all the non-encrypted Windows Media Audio formats and is the only distro that has licensed the source code from Microsoft to achieve this. This was one of the settlement terms that Linspire exacted from Microsoft to settle Microsoft's ill-advised trademark infringement lawsuit against Linspire, then called Lindows.
- The Linspire customer forums are the best and most active Linux forums that you'll find anywhere on the Web. The forums are a terrific source of support and encouragement for new users. The president and the CEO of Lispire post to the forums regularly. You certainly don't see that with other distros. The forums are reached from the support tab on www.linspire.com, and you should check them for yourself.
- Linspire provides "one click installation" of Linux applications, downloaded and installed automatically from a Linspire server. Microsoft has promised this kind of feature for the Vista release after XP; Linspire Linux has it working for users today under the name Click-N-Run (CNR). Some other distros offer something similar, but the Linspire implementation is the biggest.
Linspire Linux tries to avoid unnecessary differences from Microsoft Windows, so you should find Linspire quite familiar. All these factors together make Linspire the best distro for Windows users who want to try Linux. Now, if only I could do something about the "5am cold nose in ear", I'd have the perfect desktop distro and the perfect dog.
About the Author
Peter van der Linden lives in Silicon Valley, California, and is the author of Peter van der Linden's Guide to Linux available on-line and in bookstores everywhere.