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Linux.SYS-CON.com Exclusive: What Would UserLinux Look Like?

Bruce Perens tells LinuxWorld's desktop editor what he has in mind with UserLinux

Last Monday at the Desktop Linux Consortium Conference at Boston University’s Tyngsboro, Massachusetts Campus there was a lot of talk about a “UserLinux” distribution. The topic was sparked by remarks by Bruce Perens who voiced a need for a distribution that was designed to meet community needs for a desktop operating system based on the Linux community favorite Debian distribution.

I contacted Bruce who has been kind enough to interject some comments to my own text. They are marked [thus].

The thought of UserLinux sparked my thinking. The thing I like about Linux is that it’s infinitely customizable to meet the needs of almost any situation. However, for it to be a viable desktop for the masses there seems to me that there has to be some common features that a large number of Linux desktop users would appreciate. I thought about this quite a bit and started my list of what it would take for Linux to be my “ideal” environment rather than my preferred environment. I’d be interested to see what the community considers the most important features.

[Bruce Perens writes: I should point out that UserLinux also has a server mission. Our first customer group has both server and desktop needs. But the server is a solved problem, at least mostly, so we know a lot of work needs to go into the desktop.

Also, the most important thing about UserLinux is that it is an attempt to change the economic paradigm of the Linux distribution. We feel that creating a Linux distribution doesn't work as a profit-center, and that it is better viewed as a cost-sharing exercise. So, the customers involved in UserLinux will be paying for the engineering of creating a Free Software system, rather than for boxes, "seats", or user licenses. The system will be certified to various standards and vendor requirements with their funding, and the result will be given away. The customers get all of the copies they need with no incremental cost per seat added. They will have to pay for service.]

My list has two overwhelming requirements for the Linux desktop. First it has to be easy to use. It should pass the “Grandma test” which is when placed in front of the average grandma she would find it intuitive and easy to use. Second it should include a set of tools that allow the user to accomplish their most important tasks. I generated my list of tools and what I feel are my most important for my needs. I would encourage you the prospective users of such a system to add your feedback.

 

Productivity Tools

Browser ­ I think Mozilla is a great option for browsers. I like the tab-based browsing and pop up blocker. If not Mozilla than maybe some of the projects spawned from Mozilla aimed at speedier performance without the frills like Firebird.

[Bruce Perens writes: I'd like to hear if Konqueror has something to offer that is not matched by these choices.]

Office Suite ­ I use Open Office and Star Office and I think they are good. For some of my more ambitious projects I do use Microsoft Word but I find myself using Microsoft less. I particularly like the ability to export files to PDF format preserving the look and feel of my files across platforms. If these suites could handle better more complex formatting I think they would easily displace their competitors that costs many hundreds of dollars.

[Bruce Perens writes: I like OpenOffice and hope that I can facilitate the creation of a broader development community outside of Sun.]

E-mail/PIM ­ Outlook made the integrated PIM and email client the vogue in business. I like the idea but I think that Microsoft’s implementation is lacking. So far the best Linux solution for me is Ximian Evolution but it lacks some features I like about Outlook. Particularly the ability to drag e-mail messages to a task list or calendar. In Ximian’s favor is the RSS integration into their Summary page to gather my news all in one place. Once again this is a case that I primarily use Outlook running on a virtual Windows environment Win4lin.

[Bruce Perens writes: Well, when there are features lacking in an Open Source program like Evolution, you know what to do, don't you? I think that a solution to the ones you complain about could come from the community.]

Financial Software ­ I use Quicken and TurboTax mainly because I have for years and I think they are both very good products. I know GNU Cash (www.gnucash.org) is an option and I am actually playing around with it right now but it will be a hard move for me. Not only because of differences in features but the learning curve.

[Bruce Perens writes: I haven't looked at these closely yet. I actually still have one Windows machine in my home, and need it for TurboTax. I still have Quicken on it, but think I could move off of Quicken if I had to.]

 

Utilities

Application Installation ­ This is probably my biggest complaint with most Linux distributions. RPM installation often results in dependency problems. Causing me to search for the recommended libraries to fulfill dependencies so that I can install my application. Debian’s apt tools and apt4rpm both work very well making things easier for most users. However, many of the most popular distributions still use plain old RPM warts and all. I think that a good one click install like available through Lindows Click N Run Warehouse would be ideal for ‘User Linux”.

[Bruce Perens writes: The solution here is obviously some front-end on top of apt, and Debian packages. It's really strange that people still

complain about RPM dependencies, I don't understand why Debian was able to solve this so many years ago and Red
Hat still has a problem.]

Docking and Power Management Tools ­ For laptop users like myself I find that most distributions don’t handle hot docking and undocking of laptops well. In my Utopian Linux distribution I would want to see the ability to “hot” dock and undock my laptop by clicking a button.

[Bruce Perens writes: You shouldn't have to push that button. You should just be able to dock and undock. But Linux ACPI is still immature,
and is not going to be in a good state for most laptops with the release of kernel 2.6 . I spoke with Dirk Holmdel of Intel about this, he feels that the present Linux ACPI drivers don't handle all of the start-up and shut-down tasks in the right order. Also, most kernel drivers have not been ported to the new driver model yet, and do not handle power management correctly.
I have a problem with various laptop graphics chips and wireless chips, because their manufacturers are unwilling to document them fully. We might have to start publicizing a "not ready for purchase" list for various hardware manufacturers that can't get with the program. I think that even Windows customers will be reluctant to purchase a laptop that could not ever be switched to Linux.]

Backup Utilities I have the expertise to set up cronjobs that rsynch my desktop to my file server but most people don’t. I would think client-side tools to synch files to file servers of all types would be a welcome inclusion. This tool would be make it easy to schedule backups and choose files for backing up from an intuitive interface.

[Bruce Perens writes: It would be interesting to see if some of the disconnected filesystems like Coda could help with this. Potentially they remove the need to consciously synchronize things. Just dock and it gets done.]

Windows Networking Client ­ The majority of businesses I go to today use Microsoft Windows Server for file and print sharing. Having the ability to browse these networks would make things more convenient for me. I often use LinNeighborhood, which is an easy to use Windows network browser. I think overall platform interoperability is the key to Linux adoption.

[Bruce Perens writes: Yes. Since this is a solved problem in the free software world, it should go into the system.]

I could go on for days about my ideal desktop but what I am curious to know is what’s your ideal incarnation of Linux desktop. Maybe we can point your feedback to Bruce as he works on his proposal to help shape his proposal for UserLinux.

[Bruce Perens writes: I am also interested in knowing what people feel is missing from the server.]

 

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

More Stories By Bruce Perens

Bruce Perens, a leader in the free software and open source community, is a member of the International Advisory Board of Linux.SYS-CON.com. He is the creator of the Open Source Definition, the manifesto of the open source movement. Bruce is founder or cofounder of the Open Source Initiative, the Linux Standard Base, Software in the Public Interest, and No-Code International. He is the creator of Busybox, which has spawned its own development community and is part of most commercial devices using embedded Linux.

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