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.comment: How Distributions Can Succeed (and help Linux take over the world)
SuSE 7.1 Revisited
May 16, 2001
Last week I wrote about my observations of two packages I was surprised by in my installation of SuSE 7.1 -- pcmcia-cs, which was surprisingly good, and XFree86-4.02, which was surprisingly bad. Actually, it was not so much the packages themselves as their configuration that struck me: the former worked perfectly with no configuration, while the latter, after days of configuration (and all sorts of messages to newsgroups, study of documents, and a note to tech support whose response did not provide a solution) didn't work and still doesn't. The responses, both public and private, were about as expected, though I still don't see how the column could be read as a general attack on SuSE, which I think is a fine distribution and which is the one I'd recommend to anyone contemplating a first exploration of Linux for desktop use.
Having played around with SuSE 7.1 on the notebook machine for a few days and having, I thought, learned where any little bombs specific to the distribution -- and all distributions have them -- were hidden, I undertook to install it on my wife's desktop machine. Unlike the notebook, it can boot from its CD drive. Like the notebook, it has an 800x600 LCD panel.
The installation went very well. The graphical version of Yast2 fired right up, slightly off-center, but the display's "center" button fixed that. The installer did take issue with me when I told it not to format the /home partition. I hit the "Tough, Do What I Told You to Do" or words to that effect button and the install proceeded. It was pleasing to see "LCD" among the monitor choices, but I've not been able to determine the extent to which this is merely a placeholder. I said that it was an 800x600@60Hz version, and it took. (One does wonder when XFree86 will catch up in hardware detection with the GUIs found elsewhere.)
There is no group packaging system I've ever found that works well. Some distributions install packages based on the use to which you tell it you intend to put the computer. Others are vague in different ways, and SuSE is among them. For instance, I don't want the vestiges of KDE-1.x. As worthy as I'm forever being told that a variety of window managers and desktops are, I will have KDE2, thanks, and you can keep the rest; if I change my mind, I know where the CD is. Neither SuSE nor any other distribution I've seen offers as part of a fairly simple installation routine that level of choice -- it's always either the general groups or a package-by-package install. The latter would be time-consuming but tolerable were it not for the tendency of distributions to split things up in odd ways and rename them as they go along. There is no reason why QT should be more than one package; likewise kdeadmin, kdebase, kdegames, kdegraphics, kdelibs, and so on. The felony is confounded by distributions having abandoned the once-common practice of including in the printed docs a listing of all the packages, what they do, why you might want them, and what else they require.
As it is, you always get more than you want and less than you need.
Nevertheless, in under an hour there was a working SuSE 7.1 on my wife's machine, running XFree86-4.03 and KDE-2.1.1. I grabbed the much-improved Opera beta 8, which had gotten wiped out in the installation, and my wife's system was pretty close to where it had been. In a number of respects better.
For instance, the boot prompt is replaced by a nice Tux graphic with a listing of the lilo choices (which I promptly rearranged to make Linux-2.4 the default). The seldom-used Windows drive was listed through no intervention of my own. Access to its files is available by default on the SuSE incarnation of the KDE desktop, though I moved all the desktop icons, as in my habit, from the Desktop folder and into a different directory, which I then linked on Kicker -- makes for a far cleaner desktop, I think.
And there was some goofiness. The default is to boot into Run Level 5, which in SuSE and most other distributions is graphical. Having discovered that SuSE creates a /var/X11R6 and does some things with /etc/rc.d that are new and annoying to me, I wondered if I would at least find the default run level setting in /etc/inittab.
I did. Then it occurred to me what distributions ought to be providing, what they oughtn't to be providing, and how they could succeed without causing Linux to be incompatible with itself.