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28 May 2010, 19:10

Spinning off from Ubuntu

by Richard Hillesley

Ubuntu is probably the best known desktop GNU/Linux distribution at street level, picking up new users by word of mouth and astute viral marketing. So much so that for many users new to Linux, Ubuntu has become synonymous with Linux. Linux is Ubuntu; and Ubuntu is Linux. But Linux and free software come in many different flavours, and the adventurous user goes in search of wider options, other distributions and new desktops.

Ubuntu is easy to install, easy to update, and easy to manage, which makes it attractive to first time users and long term Linux enthusiasts alike. It has a regular six-monthly upgrade cycle, which makes it easy to keep up with the latest and greatest with the minimum of fuss, but also has drawbacks in the form of occasional reliability issues.

Ubuntu plays nicely with the new user who has come over from Windows or the Mac armed with curiosity and a sense of adventure, boasts better hardware support than many GNU/Linux distributions (at least for the peripherals and proprietary wireless drivers that are the bane of many users) and has a willing and thriving user and developer community that can provide answers to the majority of queries.

On most machines, installing Ubuntu is automatic and relatively easy. Getting acquainted isn't too difficult and there is surprisingly little to learn. The imagined complexities of the command line and the power of root are more or less hidden from view, or revealed slowly to new users.

The aim of Ubuntu is to appeal to desktop users who have grown up with Windows and the Mac, and who expect a familiar landscape with all the trees and windows in familiar places, who want something that "just works" and don't really care if it's Windows or Linux, as long as it isn't virus ridden or difficult to use. For most users Ubuntu serves its purpose.

What's in a distro?

One challenge with Linux for the majority of computer users is that the shear breadth of choice on offer is extremely confusing. Windows or Mac users at least have a strong unified brand to identify with and for many computer owners the operating system and other software is simply 'what came with the computer'.

Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS software appears clearly divided between the operating system and application software. The form of these products is driven by the commercial need to be able to sell something that is clearly defined and the only opportunity for third party contributions is in the development of applications, often with considerable control exerted by the owners of the operating system. This form is actually an illusion because even the commercial desktop operating systems are composed of a number of building blocks; an installation utility, device drivers, a boot manager, a system kernel, system utilities, a windows manager and a desktop manager. When you buy Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS X you get all of these building blocks tailored to work together and packaged as a complete operating system. Within these commercial organisations are teams of software engineers, with each team perhaps working on only one of the building blocks that make up the packaged operating system.

With Linux and open source this fragmented modular nature of a modern desktop operating system is much more evident. In the early years Linux was extremely D.I.Y. – only a few building blocks were available based around the Linux kernel (the name of the kernel is now applied collectively to all the software that has grown up around the kernel). It was expected that those wanting to use Linux would have to assemble all these blocks together and get them installed and running smoothly themselves. As time passed more and more people became involved and groups of programmers, or even individual programmers developed their own solutions for particular tasks. With no overall commercial imperative this meant that very often several competing solutions for the same problem emerged and the pool of available Linux related software grew in a very organic fashion.

However once the open source software movement passed a certain growth point it was obvious that there was a place for some organisation. It made sense to gather together all the building blocks, make sure they all worked together and then to package them together with a installation utility into an operating system that could be installed fairly easily, even by those who weren't Linux programming specialists. This is what is now known as a Linux distribution, or 'distro' for short. Linux distributions even have the advantage over commercial proprietary operating systems in that there is a vast pool of free applications available and as many of these as you like can be distributed along with the operating system components as a Linux distro.

Of course even though Linux distributions have made it a lot easier to install a working Linux system, confusion remains because there are now a large number of distros to choose from, all built from a different selection of components. Ironically for those wanting to buy and install Microsoft Windows, over the years the choice has become equally confusing because there are now quite a few 'versions' of Windows. (trk)

A sense of adventure

Although Ubuntu offers a safe ride, many users have come to Linux because they have a sense of adventure or direct experience of Unix-like systems through their work and are looking for something more than a system that "just works". Unless you are one of the lucky few who bought a machine with Linux pre-installed, the move to Linux has been an affirmation, a statement of exploration and adventure, a decision to be different and to explore the possibilities of your hardware and software.

Curious users who have come to Linux through Ubuntu gain from the traditional virtues of a closer relationship with the software, the computer, and how it works, and may have become inquisitive about other versions of GNU/Linux and why they exist, the loyalties and animosities they arouse, and the experience and fun they bring.

With Linux, choice is everywhere and freedom is the watchword. If you don't like an application, there is always another one that does it better. If you don't like the colour, appearance and behaviour of your desktop, you can easily change it. If you find GNOME too restrictive you can try KDE – the desktop of choice for many distros which are equally easy to install and use, such as Mandriva, Kubuntu, Mepis or PCLinuxOS.

If you have plenty of disk space you can run different versions of Linux side by side, and compare their relative qualities. If you are short of disk space, you can run one of the smaller distros which will run off a USB stick or a CD, such as Damn Small Linux or Puppy Linux.

If you are short of memory, you can run a distro with a minimalist desktop such as Blackbox, LXDE, Windowmaker, E17, ratpoison or dwm. If you want a more thorough knowledge of your system then distros such as Gentoo, Arch Linux, Debian or Slackware are probably the place to be. If you have specialist needs of your system you can either look for a specialist distro, or build your own.

And if you have discovered the hope and promise of free software you can look for a distro that comes closer to the ideals of the developers of the software, such as gNewSense.

Next: First steps

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