Consumer hardware shipping too many Linuxes by default

At the top of my head now, Linux is hitting the mainstream desktop market, in many variants:

  1. Xandros, on the ever popular Asus EeePC’s
  2. Foresight Linux, on the new Shuttle KPC’s (USD$199), which are basically small form-factor desktops
  3. Fedora, a modified variant anyway, running on the OLPC’s
  4. gOS, a variant of Ubuntu, running on the gPC’s
  5. Maemo, via scratchbox, on the Nokia n-series handhelds (n770, n800, n810, and presumably more in the future)
  6. Ubuntu shipping on some Dell laptops, in select regions

I’m sure I’ve missed out some really amazing devices. But that’s not the point. Do you see a problem with the above?

Xandros, gOS, Ubuntu and Maemo run DPKG, using APT/DEB’s for package management. Fedora, uses RPM. Foresight uses their own Conary based system. OK, lets scratch the package manager woes, now noting that they’re all different. Let’s focus on the desktop environment.

Xandros is some form of KDE, locked down on the Asus. Foresight presumably ships with GNOME by default, as do the Ubuntu on Dell machines. The OLPC ships with Sugar (granted, its market is specific). gOS ships with XFce. Maemo uses GTK, but is remarkably different from a regular GNOME desktop. So now we’ve got different desktop environments too.

Should I then go into package managers? Or down to the nitty gritty, where the init scripts are in a different location? Or that they all use a different method to connect to a wireless network?

So what am I getting at? Complexity.

Not only from a users perspective (say, I go out and buy an Asus Eee PC because its so cheap, and I find Linux sufficient for my needs. Then I need a desktop, so I find the Shuttle KPC which is cheap. However, at this point, the interfaces are completely different, and I’m lost.) but also from a support perspective (Windows XP, Vista is down? I’ll just call my pimply 14 year old niece/nephew to fix it. Linux is down? Problematic? What do I do?).

Some of you are saying, they should be turning to their LUGs if they needed help. Sure, but LUG mailing lists aren’t the most friendly. Newbies can be blatantly told to RTFM.

Let’s then visit their local LPI certified candidate, who’s running a support business. Oh wait, he’s only certified against RPM’s and is clueless with DEBs or Conary. You get the drift…

My beef with all of this, is that there is no standard. There is the GNOME Mobile & Embedded initiative – good. There is the Ubuntu Mobile team – great. What are their aims? To standardise on something for the mobile platform (presumably, like the Eee PCs, the Nokia n-series tablet devices, etc.). Will they achieve it, without hardware vendor buy-in? Probably not.

There lies a problem with mainstream consumer hardware running Linux. Linux is getting friendlier, but all the distribution variants only serve to complicate things, for the end user.

What do you think, the free and open source community can do, to address these issues?

(remember, I didn’t even get into varying versions of shipped software and the problems that can face… or how some devices will come without basic MP3 or DivX decoding support (Fedora has vaguely fixed this with codeina/CodecBuddy, but the others haven’t caught on)… the list can go on)

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  • I think this is one of the dangers of Linux as a whole for newbies.

    Look at Ubuntu, you have a range of choices for which type of Ubuntu you want. But Canonical has done a good job in explaining/describing its differences. It helps.

    There will never be any standards for DEs, I doubt in the next 10 years, you will only see ONE DE, simply because it doesn’t flow with the philosophy of Linux and OSS. Besides, the whole purpose of having different DEs is to suit the taste of each individuals. Not to even mention about WMs.

    I think there are various points to tackle. And so far, Canonical has been doing quite a good job to introduce the power of Linux compared to others.

  • What do you think, the free and open source community can do, to address these issues?

    I don’t mind what they do, as long as they settle on FVWM under a Debian environment :)

    But seriously, what’s the problem? No one has identical tastes to anyone else, so no one will ever be able to settle on the one distribution and desktop. Go to the shop, look around, buy the thing that seems to work the way you want it. Perhaps that will be Windows (for $300 more), perhaps OSX (for $3000 more), Gnome, Xandros’s kde thingy, or FVWM.

  • @TimC: The Windows advantage is that it just looks like one, and it just works as one. There is nothing confusing about it.

    OS X prides itself as being dead easy to use. It probably is. And you tend to not get stuck if you’re a first time buyer – Apple has all these smart introductory classes to get you started (buy a mac, its free).

    Its not about identical tastes. Even in Windows land, there are “tweakers” and tinkerers, wanting to have more power to do other things…

    The many Linuxes out there are just simply confusing to the end user, IMHO. And the support curve goes up even higher, when there are so many different Linuxes out in the market

  • @KwangErn: Agreed, wholeheartedly.

    Taste is nice, and choice is nice, but it adds complexity. In OS X, there’s just Aqua. On Windows there’s Aero (or Classic). On Linux, wow, the list just goes on ;)

  • James

    “(Fedora has vaguely fixed this with codeina/CodecBuddy, but the others haven’t caught on)” Bollocks, Ubuntu has had easy codec installation since 7.04.

    Ignoring the embedded devices (maemo and OLPC) which will always have custom GUIs (iPhone anyone?), there’s just GNOME and KDE. PackageKit will paper over packaging differences. These things are being worked on. Sure, there will always be vendors that do their own thing, but I suspect once Linux desktops become mainstream enough there will be pressure to ship with a fairly standard environment.

  • Hi James.

    The pressure to standardise has always been around. Even in filesystem hierarchy, there’s been the Linux Standards Base. I dare say, the LSB has largely still been not as successful as it had set out to be.

    Things are being worked on, but might it be too late? Linux is hitting *mainstream* consumer hardware. People buying EeePC’s aren’t just Linux fans and bigots any longer. They’re regular consumers.

    They don’t want to futz with things. They want it to just work. And if they go on to buying a Shuttle KPC, they want it to work similarly (“Huh? Doesn’t all Linux just work the same?”). You get the drift…

    Red Hat tried shipping with a “standard” themed desktop environment. BlueCurve, back in the RHL8 days. Remember that? However, the desktop itself wasn’t standard…

  • Caes

    Reference your “My beef with all of this, is that there is no standard.”, I strongly disagree.

    There are standards, e.g.

    when there is KDE which they think is not free enough, someone create GNOME, a new “standard”

    when there is Debian which they think is not hip enough, someone create Ubuntu, another “standard”

    then we have xfce, fluxbox, or deb, rpm or LOL, LOLROTF

  • Anonymous

    BTW, gOS uses Ubuntu as its base but Enlightenment (E17) as its DE, not XFCE.

  • Yeah, why can’t I just get wiper blades and airfilters that fit my car and my neighbour’s SUV and my friend’s motorcycle? You mean they work DIFFERENTLY? Someone thought an idea could be improved upon? How dare they!

    I do understand the issue and the headache that comes with it, and its unfortunate. But I don’t *want* the world to settle on Ubuntu (with GNOME! ), or OpenSuse (with RPMs). But if that works for someone, so be it.

    I want the world to understand that computers are complex, and either you get something that has support options (purchased or community), or you get something obscure and learn to do it yourself. Any mechanic would tell you the same.

    AutoPackage has tried to address the installation issues with limited support from application people; has attempted to address the DE/WM integration issue. There are attempts out there, but as long as the software is Free Software, there will be tweekers who look to improve it all — not always successfully, but so it goes.

  • ArtInvent

    This article is spot on, but it needs to be emphasized and detailed more exactly how and why this lack of a clear front is a problem.

    It’s a problem because it’s an *extreme* deterrent to mass adoption. When people realized that the shiny cheap little computers they’ve bought are all different and don’t interact well together and everything is in a different place and the concepts are different and the menu is beyond unfamiliar . . . they all say they run Linux but why are they so utterly different? Many if not most of them are going to get their pimply nephew to slap Windows XP on the machine and be done with the whole shebang. Linux will prove itself capable, and yet will still manage to continue and confirm its reputation as an impenetrable and chaotic mystery that only geeks can love.

    So no mass adoption, and without that we will continue to struggle for the hearts and minds of hardware makers, driver developers, media access, compatible apps, etc etc etc.

    I have no problem with the existence of a plethora of different Linuxes, and I don’t think you could kill all the distros even if you wanted to. I do think that it would be far better for the manufacturers to settle on a single common distribution in order to have a prayer at reassuring people that buying a linux machine is not going to be a dead end for them. And I think that distro probably ought to be Ubuntu simply because it’s got a heck of a lot of momentum and buzz, the most active development machine, and the biggest and friendliest community to noobs.

  • Chris Lees

    The Eee uses an “embedded device”-type interface. Sugar is barely going to be seen outside the developing world. The Nokia devices are treated by consumers as embedded devices anyway.

    So then there’s Gnome, Gnome, and a basic E17. Differing interfaces has never been a problem in consumer electronics, as every brand of TV / DVD recorder / cable box / satellite box has its own type of interface. Even within the same brand, the menus and remote controls can vary widely.

    Does it really matter that the different distributions in use on these computers use different package formats? All the distros have repositories (official and 3rd-party) which contain lots of software, and I notice that binary installers aren’t exactly dead on Linux.

  • l3v1

    I have to say, if you’d lose the diversity in Linux, you’d also lose many of the followers too. Many so easily dismiss preferrers of a certain Linux tech as zealots that don’t count, but don’t forget, until Ubuntu’s recent actions, KDE preference was constantly overwhelmingly higher than any other Linux DE. Before Fedora’s relative success and rpm’s [tad late] improvements most sane users wouldn’t touch rpm-based Linux even with a pole.

    Where I want to go to with this is, that I don’t have anything against standardization, but I _would have_ a lot against standardizing on an rpm- and Gnome-based Linux. I’d hate it and I’d simply stop using Linux. You could say I’m a zealot, but I’ve been using Linux and many DEs on it for more then a decade now, and I’d like to think I know what my preferences are and what my reasons for those preferences are.

    Companies choosing some distro with some techs and some DEs don’t necessarily choose the best one, they only choose one which they can work with. That also means, if someone were to standardize a vendor-specific distro, there most likely would be war instead of cooperation. In the corporate world noone is putting common interest ahead of company decisions.

  • James

    Also: Android is based on Linux (and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Java(tm)).