TUX Issue Preview: April 2006
TUX's Editor in Chief offers a peek at what you can expect in the next issue.
by Kevin Shockey
A distribution smackdown is going on, and it looks to be a no-rules brawl. That's right, TUX is cooking up something special for its first anniversary issue.
In Issue 12, available April 1, 2006, TUX features its first Linux distribution review and comparison. We feature seven reviews of some of the most popular Linux distributions. As explained in our review introduction, we wanted to capture these reviews from the freshest "out-of-the-box" perspective possible. For me, this was important because once you've used Linux as a desktop for a few years, you tend to forget what it feels like to be new to Linux--especially if the new user happens to be an ordinary user and not an engineer.
One of the most frequent questions new Linux users have is, "Why are there so many different distributions?" Without a doubt, this can be a confusing situation. Which one is better? Which one does what you want and need? Ultimately, our Smackdown issue is meant to help reduce this confusion. Nevertheless, our approach to the reviews might be fallible, and we're certain someone has had a negative experience with our Editor's Choice selection. What we've done, though, is give new Linux users a realistic look at many popular distributions. In addition, we explain why we believe mobility and multimedia, among other categories, are important issues for the new user. We also tell you what to expect from distributions regarding those areas.
One question we don't answer in the upcoming issue, however, is why so many different distributions are available. So let me take the opportunity here to address why hundreds of options exist. In general, I believe there are two main reasons for the plethora of Linux distributions. First, if you have the necessary skills and patience, it is relatively easy to create a new distribution. So for many people, creating a distribution is a hobby. That hobby may have been born of fascination, curiosity or the desire to learn, but it usually ends with a new distribution and another big Linux fan. Ultimately, I believe this accounts for the bulk of the distributions available. Second, some people build a distribution that meets a particular need. In these cases, people have a unique problem that cannot be solved by existing distributions. Necessity pushes them into action, and the fruits of their efforts are new distributions.
For most, these explanations are obvious and completely understandable. But why do the creators of these distributions then make them available for others to use? It's a matter of Licensing. GNU/Linux is available for use under the terms of the General Public License. As with all software, when we obtain Linux, we do not "own" the software. Instead, we own a license to use the software. The license is that long, dense text document often displayed before we download free and open-source software. You know, the one we never read. Typically, that document is the General Public License (GPL). When we download and use Linux, we agree to the terms of that license. Several clauses within the GPL dictate that people who make changes to the software must make their changes available to others under the terms of the very same GPL. Therefore, they make the new distribution and the underlying source code available to the public. This is one of the many freedoms that GPLed software guarantees.
Besides the license-related reasons, most people make their distributions available for pragmatic reasons. First, they understand that if they encountered an unmet need, many other people most likely are suffering from the same unsatisfied need. Second, they understand that they cannot test the entire distribution themselves, so they offer the Linux distribution available to the public to enlist the community's help in finding errors. Further, as I state in my editorial column in the coming issue, they want their solution to be useful enough that it actually is used. The biggest compliment you can give to creators of free and open-source software is to use their software.
For me, I don't enjoy the potential confusion of the many distributions, but I believe it solves an important problem in the Microsoft one-size-fits-all approach to operating systems. In my opinion, the strategy of using one operating system to meet all demands is incorrect. When someone builds software that meets all needs, the resulting program includes a potentially large chunk of functionality that many do not use. Unfortunately, whether or not you use that functionality, it still is packaged up and delivered to you. The industry affectionately labels this bloatware; software that includes many features that are useless to a majority of users. The Linux community's response to bloatware is hundreds of Linux distributions and hundreds of thousands of open-source projects that are pared down in scope.
Of course, as in life, the trick is understanding exactly what you need or want. Choosing the right distribution requires some thought about what you intend to do with your computer. If you're unsure exactly what those needs might be, then any one of the options we review this month may be right for you. However, if you are able to pinpoint the type of work you expect to do, you might be able to find a distribution that better meets your needs. And, if you can't find one now that exactly meets your needs, someone probably is working on creating it. Through the power of the GPL license and the vast Linux community, we can count on a constant stream of innovation and selection.
The new issue of TUX will be available on April 1, 2006, on the TUX Web site. A subscription is required if you're not already subscribed. Hopefully, if this review is as successful as we think it might be--which depends on our readers--we'll repeat our distribution review annually. No other magazine focuses on the new Linux user's experience, so where else are going to find distribution recommendations written with you in mind?