Desktop Linux needs to develop standards
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Say what you will about Windows' lack of openness or its seemingly never-ending software flaws, but if you double-click on an installer and the version of Windows you're using is reasonably up-to-date, your software will install. This is even truer on Mac OS X, where installing software often involves nothing more than dragging a single icon from the install disk to your applications folder.
However, the hapless desktop Linux user doesn't have it so easy. Generally, each distribution requires add-on software to be packaged in a different way. That places an extra burden on the user who is installing the software, not to mention the burden it places on software developers to create those various packages. What's more, each release of any given distribution brings a host of new dependencies and internal changes.
If you're an experienced systems administrator with lots of Linux installs under your belt, you're probably rolling your eyes at this point. Congratulations to you — you've developed your skills to a point where setting up a Linux system seems trivial. I'm not talking about you, though — I'm talking about end-users who want to run Linux on their desktop PCs the same way they run Windows. More than any other customers, desktop Linux users need standardisation.
Addressing that need was top-of-mind for some attendees of the fourth annual Desktop Linux Summit last week. At the show, the Free Standards Group was due to unveil Version 3.1 of the LSB (Linux Standard Base), a standard that dictates how the software and configuration files for Linux distributions are organised. The new version now incorporates specifications drafted by the LSB Desktop Project, which was launched in October. Linspire, Novell, Red Hat and Ubuntu are already on board to support the new version, according to the FSG.
The LSB won't fix everything. While it does take steps to lock down the internals of Linux distributions, thereby making it easier for developers to write installers and default configurations that will work on a variety of Linux flavours, it won't do anything to change all the other facets of life on the Linux desktop that seem perpetually in flux.
When you boot up a Mac, you know what you're going to get. Whether you're using the latest edition of Mac OS X or an earlier variant, the look and feel is fairly consistent. Not so for Linux, where the only thing that seems to change more rapidly than the software itself is the user interface you use to install, manage and use it. If you liked using a certain Linux distribution enough to want to upgrade it, chances are the new version will bring you a completely different look and feel all over again.
For example, I liked the look of Suse Linux 9.3. It had a pleasant organic feel, with lots of green — a pleasant change from Microsoft's plastic-looking blues. But then Suse 10 came along and all that went out the window; it was back to corporate-looking blue again. What hoppened?
Ubuntu took a stand with its Human user interface. Human's browns and earth tones angered those who didn't share Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth's culturally minded aesthetic. But even Shuttleworth says it's "unlikely that anything will be static forever". And indeed, each new release of Ubuntu has tinkered with the default theme in various ways, some subtle and some not so subtle.
Other changes can be attributed to the underlying software. Each new release of the Gnome desktop, for example, adds and removes preference panels or introduces new features to the desktop menus. Some of these changes are positive, while others are debatable.
My point is that change is great for developers — indeed, the very function of the developer is to introduce change — but it's not always great for end-users. And, especially, it's hard to sell enterprise customers on a product when they can't predict how it's going to work six months or a year from now. As hobbyists, we all like the latest and greatest, but if you're going to ask businesses to take a risk, there's something to be said for giving them a safer bet.