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.comment: The Developers Haven't Heard - page 3

Don' Need No Steenkin' Distribution

  • April 3, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Anyone who has followed this column for the last several months (and I thank you and applaud your patience and, perhaps, your stomach) will see a trend beginning to emerge here. It is no surprise that Linux distributors, putting in a colorful box some CDs containing a Linux distribution that was neither optimized nor documented for any particular purpose, did not make a lot of money. Or, in most cases, any money. Some things are obvious: date somebody who's married and it will turn out unhappily; market one-size-fits-all Linux and -- well, you might as well date somebody who's married; at least there's probably a good dinner or two in it for you.

Sense suggests that contrary to the current prevailing view there is plenty of room for a desktop-optimized Linux distribution. And the recipe is not at all tough. It's so easy, in fact, that I've built one right here, on my desktop machine, no big deal. What does it comprise?

A great desktop, your choice. I favor KDE; there are those who for reasons I do not fathom, prefer GNOME. Fine. Just pick one and throw yourself behind it. Equip it with the latest XFree86 you can get your hands on. Give it a very recent kernel, and don't get cute with the kernel code. Make every imaginable module available. Don't load the system up with services that are of use only to the enterprise. Apache is great, but desktop users have no need for it, and those who use it anyway to host their own websites are delusional, so you can ignore them. And don't turn anything on by default. If you want to send an invitation to crackers, take out an ad or something.

Do provide development tools. "Desktop user" and "total moron" are not synonyms. There will be things that will undergo major upgrades between the time you freeze your code and the time the boxes hit the shelves -- and not everybody will buy it the first day. If you want to do something cool, make a nifty little graphical application that sits atop the compiling process (prompting for the root password up front, so that "make install" will work). If you need to have some kind of package manager, become friends with Debian and use theirs (and tie in your compiler front end, because otherwise a lot of users will break your precious database the very first day, and everybody will eventually). And for Heaven's sake, provide documentation, good, thorough, readable documentation.

Make sound work. That's a tall order, but it's important. About half the sound problems are permissions issues. Sound is something that desktop users want and a lot of enterprises, seeking to prevent office-related homicides, don't. Do the same for OpenGL. Desktop users are not allergic to games, and even those who are will be pleased by the latest XScreensavers. If for some reason your install program, which oughtn't presume your users are idiots but ought to presume that this is the first time they've seen Linux, can't install working sound or GL (or anything else), provide both a screen explanation and a file in the user's ~ directory, giving details. Users might not understand it now, but it will help them later.

Revamp support. No, it's not ever going to be a profit center for desktop Linux. But you can keep users happy for very little money. How does KDE provide support? Through mailing lists. So set up a support mailing list. Find something else for the people who don't answer your support phones to do, and instead assign a couple of people to the mailing list. These need to be relaxed, non-authoritarian folks, because there will be times when the discussion will turn to the best way of making barbecue or who can endure the hottest chile peppers. Clue: these are signs of community, and that's exactly what you want to achieve. And you want your people there to be part of that community, but always ready to go looking for an answer to an urgent question.

And don't be surprised when in due course every other distribution decides to do the same thing. It won't last.

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