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Those of us who are involved in the Linux community are often frustrated by the lack of widespread acceptance of Linux. Granted, I haven’t used all of the newest “desktop” distributions (‘distros’), but I know that my choice - openSuSE - is far from being ready to compete with Windows for the novice user market. From the first few screens of the installation, it’s clear that this isn’t something for the uninitiated. However, to get off on a short tangent, openSuSE has also severely hampered access to the command-line-only, text-mode installation, which I need in order to install on many of my servers.

Granted, it will take a lot of work to get Linux to retain its’ strong points, and still be user-friendly for the non-technical user. However, there are three main points that I see as being the biggest problems for new users. All of which, coincidentally, are ones which some people would bill as strong points of Linux. And they all have to do directly with some of the founding principles of Linux - interoperability and choice.

Packaging.

Searching for a package for a linux system goes something like this: figure out what package format your distro uses, figure out the distro version and architecture, and then start checking the online repositories. If it’s something simple, you may be able to use a you distro-specific maintenance program to automatically upgrade it. If not, you can sift through the myriad online repositories for packages that fit your package manager (RPM, Apt, etc.) and your distro/architecture. If you have no luck there, find the package’s homepage, and hope someone has contributed packages for your distro and architecture - usually a hit-or-miss situation. Last but not least, when all else has failed, you choose either to compile from source yourself, or give up. Compiling from source not only requires some knowledge of your system, Linux, and the compilation sequence used by the software - hopefully the generic GNU-style ./configure, make, make install and not some more esoteric scheme. Furthermore, compilation requires a whole slew of tools to be installed on your system - make, gcc, autoconf, and may others, depending on package. While it’s not practical for people with limited resources, homogenous environments, or novice users, I operate in a largely heterogeneous environment - i586/compatible systems running SuSE 9.3-10.2 - and therefore maintain a dedicated system for compilation, if merited.

All of this complexity just enforces the novice’s idea that there is not much software available for Linux, as many novices are limited (due to technical knowledge) to the packages that come with their OS.

While there are a few schemes to standardize all of this, the real solution is quite complex, and would be based on a single package system to be adopted by all distros (beginning with the main ones). Such a system should have the following features:

  1. Ability to work easily with all distros
  2. I main configuration file which can define which directories to use - i.e. /etc, /bin, etc.
  3. Support for both simple, novice-oriented interfaces and expert-level configuration
  4. Multiple interfaces, including command-line, text/ncurses, GTK, and other graphical subsystems
  5. A generalized package format that is non-distro-specific
  6. Integration with an online master-list of repositories
  7. Ability to search, download, and install packages from these repositories
  8. Automatic update ability
  9. Ability to mine the repositories for updates, and display a list on screen or emailed to a user account
  10. Very good tools for easy compilation from source.

Some of these ideas would be incorporated in the tool itself, and some as add-on modules.

The features that I, as administrator of a largely heterogeneous network of about 10 machines, would most like to see are:

  1. Truly automatic updates via list - select which packages can be automatically updated, and run a cron job nightly to check for any updates for those packages and automatically get and install them.
  2. LAN-based updating - A single server on the LAN maintains a list (perhaps gathered via an automatic tool) of ALL packages installed on ALL LAN machines. Each night the configured clients will update this list over the network, and then the master server will download all available updates for all packages. Once this is complete, it will send a message to all LAN machines, which will then update their software from the central repository on the LAN. This would, in effect, automatically keep all LAN machines on the same version of each package and totally up-to-date.

Kernel updates would be done manually, but should have an option for the administrator to push the update to all machines.

Distro-specific tools, filesystem layout, etc.

This is not only a barrier for novice users, but experienced users as well. If you do a search online for Linux training, you will surely come by a nubmer of certifications - NCLE, RHCE, etc. The many distinct certifications - offered by each Linux vendor and independent training companies - underscore the inherent differences in Linux distributions. While I’m perfectly comfortable working with SuSE Linux (by Novell), if I was to sit down in front of a Gentoo system, I would probably be totally lost.

While the LSB project (http://www.linux-foundation.org/en/LSB) has aimed to provide compatibility between distros, there are three main points which must still be addressed:

  1. The organization of filesystems on different distros, specifically the directory tree and default locations for certain components, still differs. In the interest of usability, the Linux directory tree should be standardized, so that locations of programs, files, etc. will be identical across distributions.
  2. An effort needs to be made to make administration as similar as possible across all distros. This means that program names, functionality, location, etc. should be standardized as much as possible.
  3. It seems that each distro has its’ own administration tool - YaST for SuSE, and others for other distros. An effort needs to be made to develop a tool encompassing all of the features in one, distro-neutral form. Webmin (www.webmin.com) has done this wonderfully in a web-based interface, but attention should be focused on a text-mode console version as well.

GUI

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for novices using Linux, and the biggest development challenge, is general ease of use. While the above two points may fall into this category, I am specifically referring to the general, day-to-day use of the operating system.

While I will not begin to suggest solutions, the main problems that I see are as follows:

  1. The stability and security of Linux must be kept intact, unlike distros such as Lindows.
  2. There must remain a way for advanced users to perform advanced tasks.
  3. As much of the inner workings should be hidden from the end-user as possible, unless specifically requested.
  4. I good system would have a field added to a users’ GECOS data specifying their level of “novice-ness” - i.e. allowing a dumbed-down interface for users while retaining a full interface with Expert features for those who want it.
  5. Mysterious” things such as file permissions should be hidden from novice-level users when not absolutely needed.
  6. There must be a strong integration with “anti-mistake” tools and DWIM technology. The system itself should manage file permissions in a way that grants only the minimum needed access.
  7. There should be good, strong mistake detection, specifically in terms of catching a user’s inadvertent changing of file permissions, deleting required files, etc.
  8. Tools should be built so that the novice user is never required to login as root or run a root shell.
  9. Perhaps, and I’m sure this is controversial, the root account should be given either CLI-only access, or should not have X running by default, so as to discourage novice users from running day-to-day tasks as root.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot, and have also probably mentioned a number of things that are already in place. However, the bottom line is that Linux has to be able to achieve the easy of use and interoperability (between distros) that Windows currently has, while retaining the extensibility, advanced features, security, and stability that make Linux what it is.


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