While reading my email and catching up with Google+ posts this morning, I happened upon an article by Jim Lynch. I enjoy Jim’s writing and this morning’s offering didn’t disappoint. The opening of the article announced the contents succinctly:
“In today’s open source roundup: Is the systemd controversy a battle of the old versus the young? Plus: Which Linux distros do you consider innovative? And a journalist spends a week using Ubuntu’s Unity desktop.”
Which Linux distros do you consider innovative?
A lot of them actually.
I can easily name five distros that have brought some massive changes to the way we interact with our computers…and not all of them on the good side of my list. A more pertinent question might be, which Linux distros are in it for the long haul?
One of the biggest advantages, and an often-perceived disadvantage, is the overwhelming number of choices in the Linuxsphere. I could give a good argument either way if I were pushed into it, but what it comes down to is stability.
I don’t mean system stability, that is a given with Linux, but developer stability. Can I depend on this distro to be around in two years…in five years? How is the project funded? Does this innovative project have a large development community that can step in should the lead developer become ill or takes a lengthy sabbatical?
Yeah, the latter has already happened. The community stepped in and kept the distro alive. That transition was turbulent at times, but the point remains, that distro is still available today.
Reglue deployed two different distros on many of our kid’s machines during a two year period. Both of these “one man show” distros went the way of pay phones and VHS tapes. These were both distros ranking in the top fifteen on DistroWatch. Both of them had a large user base. The surprising thing is that both collapsed with little or no forewarning, leaving many who use Linux to look for a backup solution.
Fortunately, we have other distros that we can respin to meet our needs. But to the point, scrambling to get these systems in the field updated with a supported distribution was a huge tax on resources and workloads. It wasn’t anyone’s “fault.” Life happens; distros die.
I did find amusement in the mention that NixOS should be considered as “innovative.” No, I’m not poking fun at it. NixOS has a lot of new things worthy of using, but my laugh-out-loud moment came when I clicked to read the distro’s “about” page:
Declarative system configuration model
In NixOS, the entire operating system — the kernel, applications, system packages, configuration files, and so on — is built by the Nix package manager from a description in a purely functional build language. The fact that it’s purely functional essentially means that building a new configuration cannot overwrite previous configurations. Most of the other features follow from this.
You configure a NixOS system by writing a specification of the functionality that you want on your machine in /etc/nixos/configuration.nix. For instance, here is a minimal configuration of a machine running an SSH daemon:
boot.loader.grub.device = “/dev/sda”;
fileSystems.”/”.device = “/dev/sda1”;
services.sshd.enable = true;
After changing /etc/nixos/configuration.nix, you realise the configuration by running this command:
$ nixos-rebuild switch
This command does everything necessary to make the configuration happen, including downloading and compiling OpenSSH, generating the configuration files for the SSH server, and so on.
Now I can’t think of anything more enticing to a new Linux user than the above instructions. That will drive new users to NixOS in droves. They will be racing to argue the merits of emac or vim. They will enter the fray to push forward support for their preferred Python IDE.
OK, so sometimes I take my satire a bit too far…
My sincere wishes are for NixOS to be on the survivor list a year from now. Fact is, I am downloading it now to try out this evening. The biggest problem NixOS faces is the limited audience it attracts. I’ve not found even one new Linux user since 2005 that asked me, “Yeah, but can I compile my own apps?”
Many new Linux users are still struggling with the concept of the pager in the bottom panel, mirroring the number of virtual desktops they can use. They still think that the live DVD or flash drive is black magic. You can “innovate” all you want, just don’t drop the velvet rope when new users try to get in.
Innovation without a focus on attracting new users is a project just waiting for the chance to die.
Ken Starks is the founder of the Helios Project and Reglue, which for 20 years provided refurbished older computers running Linux to disadvantaged school kids, as well as providing digital help for senior citizens, in the Austin, Texas area. He was a columnist for FOSS Force from 2013-2016, and remains part of our family. Follow him on Twitter: @Reglue