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Editor's Note: How Many Distros Must a Man Walk Down?

Oct 14, 2005, 23:30 (14 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

So, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and in a fit of conformism, I installed Ubuntu this week.

There have been, by my count, six bazillion reviews of one form of Ubuntu or another, mostly of Warty and Hoary. I am going to make a concerted effort not to inundate LT readers with a similar wave of Breezy Badger reviews.

Therefore, this is not a review.

Not that I have anything against this Ubuntu distro. This will be my second try at using a Debian-based distro--the first having crashed and burned miserably about four years ago when then-LT editor Michael Hall tried to walk me through a Debian install over the phone from his home in Virginia. I was a miserable student, and after two hours of head banging, I chucked it and went to SuSE 7.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Ubuntu. I've been wanting to make the jump away from Fedora for some time, and it was finally a recent presentation by Jorge Castro that finally tipped me. (So if it blew up, I would have someone to hunt down.)

I did my usual install method: backup the /home directories and then do a full-blown clean install. Risky, sure, but hey, I live life on the edge.

I pulled the /home directories back in and managed to get my holy of holies--the Thunderbird data--up and running with only a small hitch: having never compacted the Thunderbird databases, I suddenly found myself with 51,447 unread messages in my Inbox... that came back after deleting them and emptying the Trash. Stymied, I Googled around and discovered I could do a meticulous compaction of the folder followed by incremental steps to repair it--or just copy what I wanted into another folder, delete the Inbox folder in Nautilus, and then rename the shunted folder to Inbox.

Kids, don't try that at home.

When I started actually using the distro, I discovered two things: I think brown is a weird color for an interface, but it grows on you; and that looking at distros these days really does boil down to the desktop interface. In other words, instead of "wow, this is Ubuntu," I felt more like "so this is GNOME 2.12." (In a few weeks, I'll pull down the Kubuntu packages, and it'll be "so this is KDE 3.x...")

Again, there's nothing wrong with this, it's just that I can remember the days when all of the distros were farther apart in tool choice than they are today. I look at Ubuntu, and with few exceptions, I feel like this is just a snazzier Fedora. I have a feeling that this would be the same if I'd tried SUSE or Mandriva.

In a way, this is a little disappointing. I remember when burning a new ISO was an event worth anticipating. Now, I get the sense that this yet another update in a slowly progressing run of software.

But this is probably for the best. Big jumps can sometimes lead to flaky software. Slow and steady wins the race, and the fact that GNOME, KDE, OpenOffice.org, and <insert almost every Linux software application here> have been constantly updated while a certain monopolistic operating system won't be updated until 2007 demonstrates that Linux is the place to be for development.

I will say this for some unique Ubuntu qualities: I, like my colleague Robin Miller, think that the Synaptic Package Manager is a thing of beauty. While I can apt-get with the best of them, I find myself opening the GUI a little more often than the command line to get things installed. Having slogged through YaST (1 and 2) and beat my head against Red Hat Update, I have come away very impressed with this piece of code.

Another thing that stands out is the excellent onboard documentation, particulrly the Getting Started guide. Every tried getting Java running in Firefox in Fedora? I have, and even when I would find decent instructions out on a third-party site, I would still not have Java working. For someone who needs his local radar to go into an animated loop on Noaa.gov, this was torture.

In Ubuntu, I read the guide, followed the seven easy steps, and boom! I was watching an approaching cold front march across western Indiana in no time.

Having moved to a new distro, I feel like I have new glasses. They are still helping me see, but the world looks strangely distorted at first. So it is with a new distro. Everything is almost the same, but not exactly. It makes me wonder why anyone would switch from one distro to the next. Unless you have deep, deep feelings about package management, or other esoterica, a distro running KDE is like another distro running KDE, and so on. Or GNOME. Or fvwm, for that matter.

It lead me to have this observation: all of this talk about Linux needing consolidation is really, from a pragmatic point of view, not necessary. Linux is Linux is Linux, ultimately. Yes, there are differences between distros, but these differences are getting narrower and narrower with each new release. If I am a company who wants to move to Linux, it would be very easy to pick one (Dell? are you reading this?) and just go with it. If another distribution does get a new toy, it won't be long before someone pulls it over to the distribution you chose.

So, calls for consolidation are absolutely silly. Who cares if there are 200, 500, 1 bazillion distros?

Most of us are only going to use one at a time.