A CubicleNate Blathering
Part 2 Distribution Choice
Some have suggested that one of the weaknesses of Linux and all the distributions is the myriad of choice. Not only are there 300+ active Linux Distributions, arguably less if you take into account many of them that share the same base and you could say the variation disappears a bit more when you observe that there are a fewer number of Desktop Environments. I believe in this idea of freedom of choice and freedom to explore what works best for you. Do I think all this freedom can slow down the progress of Desktop Linux? Sure, maybe, but what I think is far more important is personal fulfillment while using your computer. This means different things for different people and that is a good thing.
Linux and the myriad of choice of open source projects on top of it is about freedom, freedom in the speech perspective, freedom to work on what you want and do whatever you want with it, to give you fulfillment and satisfaction. There is value, regardless of whether or not your methods are more difficult and perceptively lack in practical justification. I would put Gentoo and Arch in this category. Yes, Arch, as to keep both running and maintained does seem like more work than I think it is worth with arguably no gain in stability due to the lack of automated quality assurance being performed on the software. The value of arch is that you are on the leading edge of software availability but without the rigorous testing for quality assurance. I waiting a few days to a week on Tumbleweed would get you the same software and properly tested.
The Status Quo
My problem with Windows and Mac is the difficulty in customizing your desktop experience, to make it personal. It is as though you are served one style of egg and adding any spice to it is almost forbidden. Aside from throwing on a wallpaper, maybe changing between three milquetoast color theme variations, there really isn’t much you can do with the desktops. They are boring, dull, pedantic and quite impersonal.
As far as commercial desktop environments are concerned, the 1990s was the pinnacle of personalization. Windows 3.11, Windows 95 to a lesser extent, when Macintosh computers finally got color, that was pretty exciting. They were only behind the rest of the industry by about a decade. None the less, very exciting. All these computers form this time had a kind of unique identity. Something that gave each of them a personality. People developed preference between Commodore or Atari, Apple or IBM and so many others. People chose their computers not only on need but also on their personalities. This was a fun age of computers and having one was only gaining popularity.
The desktop that stands out to me from this time period is Commodore Amiga’s Workbench. It was almost as though it was build around the idea of making it your own between the granular control over colors, icons and themes could all be tweaked. I spent hours making my own icons for things. I even added the Windows 95 like taskbar widget to the bottom of my workbench main screen because of how incredibly useful that was. From time to time I get to hop back in and muck about and I still enjoy it today at the incredible resolution of 320 x 200.
As we left the 20th century and moved into the 2000s, the desktop changed, it became, impersonal, it started to “appeal” to the masses and went from being a fun and rewarding experience to being professional and impersonal. Gone were the jeans and flannels of Desktops and in were the fitted three-piece suits with muted-colored shirts and ties. The extent of your personalization was a Peanuts neck-tie hidden beneath that buttoned up vest and suit… as it were.
This can be related to going a military post dining facility or college campus cafeteria for breakfast and given one choice, a choice built on efficiency alone; something akin to dry, flavorless, uniformly overcooked scrambled egg-food. The kind of eggs that are only good when dowsed with gravy to get them to slide down the gullet. The choice is easy, or rather limited and you hope there is something with which you can wash it down. The choice is easy and also joyless.
Personal Choice, Individual, Unique Computer Identity.
What makes Linux a joy to use is that it puts the personal back into personal computing. Like the days of old, it gives you choice and gives you control over your preferences, your work flow, your personality, your desired portal into the digital work you have to accomplish. Linux is more like going to a small town, corner diner, there is often so much choice, one can get locked up by the excessive selection dishes with eggs. Ideas so clever you hadn’t dreamed or heard of before. So much choice exciting choice it can be difficult to even make a decision so you have to just pick something at random that looks good or ask the waiter, “what do you prefer?” Not everybody wants them the same way. Some want sunny-side up or over-easy, maybe scrambled or poached. You still getting eggs just served up in the way that suits you best. With Linux, there are many ways to have it, it’s still Linux, like eggs, some takes more effort than others but it really is all quite good, especially if you can find what works best for your use case.
If you are a new to Linux user, check out this article on many opinions of what is good for a new user. I won’t say any of them are wrong but some may be more right for specific people. The choices can almost be confusing so you have to start somewhere. I personally think all the choice is a great thing. The following are some choices and reasons for choosing that I think are great. Here are just a few of the options but keep in mind there are so many more flavors and personalities. This is my very minimal, somewhat suspect and certainly biased, short-list.
My number one will very likely always be openSUSE as it is a project that is backed with corporate interest so it is not likely to just disappear. The tools that make openSUSE unique: YaST, OBS, openQA. There is choice within that choice, a static release and a rolling release. The static is like a long term support release that will get “service update packs” as point releases. With roots in its commercial offering SUSE, it is built from the same hardened kernel with hardware enablement backports. The rolling release gets updates weekly or sometimes multiple updates in a week. It will run on multiple platforms from x86 to ARM, PowerPC and so forth. You also have quite a number of desktop options so more choice within each choice. Everything openSUSE kicks out is tested with their automated quality assurance system called openQA so there is a fairly high level of trust you can give to updates. I’m not saying it’s perfect, because nothing is perfect but updates rarely break anything. Should something break and the system is configured as per the recommendations. Rolling back a bum update is absolutely trivial. A bum update is more likely on a rolling distribution and should this happen, boot into the last known working snapshot. Open a terminal and as the root user: `snapper rollback` and you will roll back into the that very snapshot. I cherish the layers of security in using the system. It gives me the freedom to fiddle around with the system with the assurance I can easily undo my bad decisions. The downside I see with openSUSE is that I periodically pump into some hardware challenges and it isn’t really tailored to older systems. By that, I mean 13+ years old. I have other options for that.
My current number two choice of Linux is MX Linux, in many ways, quite opposite that of openSUSE. It is not corporate backed, it uses a different package managing system, has a different init system and is focused on a specific desktop but has the ability to work on lesser capable hardware quite efficiently. It truly breaths new life into old hardware and the default desktop (desktops a whole other baily wick) boarders on a modern, minimalist, sensible perfection; something of almost a masterpiece level of perfection and has an incredible selection of software.
Ubuntu LTS, a distribution that has a 5 year support cycle, a lot of people like Ubuntu, so much so that it is arguably the most popular distribution with a myriad of Desktop environments. There LTS and intermediate releases don’t exactly make sense to me but it works well for the great number of people. It seems as though they “evergreen” too many releases making a lot of unnecessary work for themselves. It’s not exactly like they are struggling so what do I know. What makes Ubuntu great is that they are not afraid to try something new and be controversial. Although I don’t use Ubuntu regularly, I am a fan of Snaps, a universal packaging system for getting software on your Linux machine. I use Snaps on openSUSE quite happily and having that option for getting self-contained software that is kept up to date automatically is incredibly welcomed.
Debian is the oldest, the granddaddy, of the community distributions. Not a stodgy old granddaddy, more like the granddaddy that still runs half-marathons and plays community softball in the summer. What makes Debian unique is how very broad it is by it’s ability to run on nearly every bit of hardware. The packages are generally older but well tested and stable. Your desktop choice is all of them and it is real straight forward how to select from the list of options. Some have argued that it is not easy to install but if have patience and are willing to stop down and read carefully, you can manage the wall of switches and levers, but it is quite understandable if that is not for you.
Linux Mint built on the Ubuntu base but with their own unique desktop called Cinnamon that is a very familiar interface for Windows users. Don’t look at Cinnamon as anything like the bland, dry experience you may have from Windows. This is more like Windows assembled correctly with flair and character. What makes Mint unique is that it works boringly well and is suitable for just about anyone. It’s familiar and intuitive with just the right amount of customization options as to not overwhelm its users. There are some other desktop options but Cinnamon is its flagship and I don’t want to stray into the desktop arena yet.
Fedora is an RPM package based distributions sponsored by Red Hat, a commercial Linux vendor. I look at Fedora as a kind of cousin of openSUSE. The projects do work together from time to time. It is like a happy medium between openSUSE Leap and Tumbleweed. Not as much of a rapid fire as Tumbleweed in updates but not as long of time in between releases such as Leap. This works better for a lot of people and this is, frankly, where they should go for this kind of release cadence.
I want to give an honorable mention ElementaryOS. This is not a distribution I use but there are many that hail this as the pinnacle of user experience. It is built on Ubuntu but has a Mac style interface and focuses largely on style and convenience. It isn’t customizable to my liking but that doesn’t mean that my liking is appropriate for everyone. Computers are a personal thing and there are many persons that personally use it.
Arch Linux very popular and very configurable to a granular level. This method of assembling your software bits for your computer appeals to many as you select what components you want to put together. This is not my preferred method of setting up my computer. There is far too much tedious work and I am suspect of the sustainability of it due to the QA being almost squarely the responsibility of the user and snapshot rollbacks are not exactly a built-in feature. Although, unofficially, many Arch Linux users do claim that Linux should be painful… and I know those personality types too.
There are many, many, many more distributions out there, these just happen to be the ones at the top of my mind at the time of writing. I have reviewed many more distributions than this to which you can read here. I really like pretty much all of them. Ultimately, I think nearly all Linux is good Linux because as there are many different personalities among humans, there are different personalities in Linux.
Too Much Choice
Would all those users be potentially better served on a single platform? On paper, absolutely. It would make for an easier time for commercial and proprietary software vendors to target a more unified Linux platform but there would be an unfortunate loss.
There would be a loss of creativity and the freedom to explore and diverge and come up with competing solutions to answer the same question. There would be an unfortunate loss of these differing distributions of Linux, competing and also cooperatively working together to get to the same end. Red Hat works hard to be Red Hat, SUSE works on being the best SUSE and Canonical works to make the best Ubuntu.
There is something to be cherished by a family of unique, individual Linux distributions. It makes Linux fun and personal and allows for a gentle ribbing and laugh from time-to-time.
The statement gets made over and over again that the computer market is shrinking, people aren’t using computers as much as they mobile devices. A part of me thinks that is all a bunch of hogwash. Companies like System76 are growing, Dell is offering more Linux computers so the market is shifting. Another part of me thinks, yes, maybe this is true because computers for the masses just isn’t fun anymore. Who wants to wear a Three-piece suit everyday or eat tasteless, overcooked dry egg-product for breakfast? Who wants life to be bland, boring and pedantic? Of course the computer market is shrinking when you strip the very notion that personal computers are supposed to be personal and unique and a joy to use. Any piece of technology that is not fun to use, cumbersome or a generally dreadful experience is a piece of technology that is neglected, cast off and not used. If there is no joy in using a computer, there is no desire to use it.
Linux puts personal back into personal computers and in doing so, I see it as a kind of bastion against the tiresome commercial options It bringing life and joy to the personal computer once again.
About the Author
Linux and fitness geek, contributing member of the openSUSE project, enjoys being a part of the Linux community, playing with vintage tech and making a general mess of things with a DIY mentality. Further semi-coherent blatherings can be found at cubiclenate.com.