February 16, 2019

.comment: Taking Inventory

So Much for Source Code

  • March 7, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The current trend among distributions, desktops, and even some applications is a feature that automatically updates your distribution, desktop, or application. This has existed to some extent for awhile; most people probably first encountered it with Netscape's "smartupdate" feature which has even been known occasionally to work. Updating Netscape is one thing -- it comes as binary only, and those binaries are pretty closely held. It's not at all difficult for that feature to keep track of what you have and therefore what exists in a newer, perhaps but not certainly better, form. Upgrading is, theoretically, a breeze, and this model of things could be applied with fine granularity, upgrading only the files that have changed (though Netscape has mostly not done this, going with version upgrades instead of smaller, incremental ones).

In a closed-source world, this can, and no doubt in the closed-source world will, result in hands-off upgrades whenever something new exists. The new binaries will just be there, downloaded and installed with no user intervention. (The potential problems here are staggering, but for our purposes right now we'll assume that it works perfectly.)

But in the open-source world, this is all fraught with peril, for several reasons.

The first is that it additionally fragments the community. Distributions are not only cooking up auto-upgrade features, they're cooking up ones that are incompatible with everybody else's. Red Hat has one now; Debian has for some time; Caldera's working on one for whatever their next distribution ends up being, and so on.

The second is that it compounds the problems created by the various incompatible binary packaging systems. There's no doubt that these range from clever to very clever, from .rpm to .deb. But they also don't speak to each other (though Debian's alien program does much to address this.)

The third is that they suggest that distributors want users to stay away from source code. This flies in the face of the things that caused the community to exist in the first place. Worse, it promises to divide the community in some ways that would produce long lasting and terrible results.

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