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November 5th, 2014

Linux Distros & the ‘Except When We Don’t’ Syndrome

When my colleague Ken Starks wrote on FOSS Force the other day about his gripe with Linux Mint’s handling of updates, I was a little amused because I had just dealt with this issue during the recent Bash crisis. I run Mint Maya with Xfce and I expected to find the Bash fix in Synaptic, but it wasn’t there. When I eventually found the update manager, I actually quite liked the set up. Having system updates easily available seemed to make sense and I liked the design. Like many things in tech, it turns out that the design was a little accidental, the result of a conflict necessitating the removal of the system update functions from Synaptic. But it works. I kind of like it.

Linux Mint logoIt also seems to fit with one of the underlying philosophies of the distro. Mint is famous for being a desktop that anybody can use. Updates on the dash is a concept which a new-to-Linux Windows’ user can understand, maybe even without having to go to the forums for help — and a piece of cake for experienced free software users. In my case, the only problem I had is that I misunderstood the severity numbering scheme, figuring one to be most severe instead of the least, but I easily managed to patch and update my system.

I was impressed — which is why I was amused by Ken’s consternation.

Amused because I can see his point. This set-up means more work for him when building his special Reglue edition for his kids. Indeed, that presents a problem for him. I’m also amused because this clearly illustrates how a host of cliches can be applied to the Linux world, like “you can’t please everybody,” “one person’s meat is another person’s poison,” or perhaps more apt, “you say tomato, I say tomahto.” Oh yeah, this also speaks to another cliche: we want our cake and eat it too.

It turns out that we like cookie cutter distros, except when we don’t. We like a newly adopted distro to work exactly the way the one we were using before worked, except when we don’t. We want to be able to move back and forth between Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Debian with ease, without having to learn slightly new ways of doing things on each distro, except when we don’t.

This thinking seems to be a little fuzzy to me.

Each distro is, in fact, a separate Linux based operating system. Usually, a distro is designed to meet specific needs of a particular set of users. RHEL, SUSE and CentOS are designed primarily for use by businesses on servers. Mint, Ubuntu, Mageia and the like are designed for those who need productivity on the desktop and who would rather the operating system just take care of itself — probably the biggest set of users of desktop Linux. The class of distro that includes Slackware and Gentoo are for those who need to customize their systems to exactly fit their needs.

Some distros feed on change, even if that change is a back-to-the-future sort of thing — Mint, for example, developing Cinnamon to suit long time GNOME users who were unhappy with GNOME 3. Or Bodhi building on Ubuntu to showcase the Enlightenment desktop. Or, going back to the turn of the century, Mandrake designing a graphical installer and graphical configuration tools with the goal of making Linux as easy to use for the non-geek as Windows.

The later was a change which more than a few Linux geeks of the era found to be appalling. Where’s the glory in learning how to do obscure things like edit configuration files when they can be easily done by those uninitiated into the tech mysteries with a simple click of a mouse?

So we want our distros be different, to suit our individual needs, except when we don’t. That’s gotta be a tough one for developers.

As for me, I don’t care. I have no skin in this game. If I like a distro that does things a little differently, I’ll figure out how to get ‘er done with the new-to-me configuration. If it’s too much trouble, I’ll decide that this distro isn’t for me and move on.

As for the system update issue with Linux Mint — that’s a non-issue as far as I’m concerned. I like it the way it is now, but I’m not married to it. If the folks at Mint decide to change it back to the more traditional set-up, where updates are done exclusively through Synaptic, I’ll be fine with that too.

Of course, it’s easy for me to be flexible. I’m not needing to respin a distro for the very important task of enhancing the education of school children.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

2 comments to Linux Distros & the ‘Except When We Don’t’ Syndrome

  • Howard

    I think it comes down to convience in some cases and “I’ve been use to..” I don’t mind learning how to do something differently if the foundation is still the same, IE CLI and system components. I’m not a fan of systemd due to it’s binary nature and charge to pull multiple functions in. This is a M$ way of doing things. Stick to the fundamentals do one thing and do it well at least if something gets broken it does not affect the rest.
    Back to distros and different ways to do things. Again, if you do not like how the current distro is you can modify it and yes sometimes that means learning something different. I had to repair my ubuntu unity after an update as there was no longer any way to manage the machine because the dock wasn’t present. Alt+F2 to the rescue and I installed MATE and later Cinnamon. (I liked the CLI color in Cinnamon so that at a glance I know what’s what.) I too had ot learn what the update system in Mint was refering to, but once I read about it, that made it all clear. The diff between Nix and Doze is that you have more freedom M$ just screws with things and you have no recourse, that’s BS. A SERVER IS NOT A TABLET! Just Sayin’!.. This is why I do not like the systemd movement it starts to limit your choices and you have to do a great deal more if you want to rip it out and use something else.

  • Dan Saint-Andre

    Perhaps it is time that we consider refactoring of the traditional Linux™ distribution paradigm.

    What we call a distribution (distro) is a collection of software components where many parts stack like the layers of an onion. I know few people who tinker and customize close to the hardware in the kernel, driver, and loadable-module space. In contrast, almost everyone I know tinkers with the end-user experience, look and feel. They are also aggressive about customization of the set of applications chosen for routine use. Everyone I know lets libraries and such to follow either the kernel level or end-user level dependencies.

    At the kernel, driver, and loadable-module levels, the distro teams are chasing the evolution of hardware. This chase must do whatever is needed so that new hardware works. In addition, the libraries, utilities and services must adapt to make use of the features of evolving hardware.

    At the end-user levels — the user experience and applications — these teams are chasing the whim and whimsey of personal preferences where they intersect with accomplishing various tasks or delivering operational benefits to the end user.