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UserLinux White Paper

Howard Jones has written a follow up to his earlier article about UserLinux. This is a new unified Linux distribution currently in the proposal stages of its development cycle.  UserLinux continues to raise questions and cause a few headaches.



The UserLinux white paper (found at www.userlinux.com) makes for some interesting reading, especially if you have certain financial or operational interests in current Linux software, or (like me) you're just plain nosy.  For a background read may previous article:
UserLinux: Bringing Order to Chaos – Finally a United Linux?

The white paper (by Mr Bruce Perens) for UserLinux sets everything out in language not too hard to follow.  The main points are:

1. UserLinux will be free.  Doesn’t mean that much to the home/end user as Linux can be obtained for free anyway, but some businesses have been stung by adopting Linux as a “free” operating system, then being “locked-in” to a vendor that demands ludicrous support fees and restrictive support methods.  Mr Perens also states that in some cases, companies are rejecting Linux because it now costs more than a Windows set-up!  Commercial Linux vendors are trying to profit from a non-profit product by making distributions that operates slightly differently from other distributions.  When a fee has to be paid, the biggest and most desirable benefit of Linux immediately disappears.  A “Body-Shop” linear growth structure is outlined briefly for support vendors (growth increases per “body” working for the vendor), which enables these vendors to “...make a living, they can't make a killing”.  Essentially, UserLinux will have support available to all as default.

2. Standardisation of elements within the UserLinux distribution.  At the moment, you can obtain one out of hundreds of different commercial and free Linux distributions, each with their own set of programs included.  UserLinux will have a defined set of applications and standards for critical operations.  This element alone has caused more discussion than any part of the proposed distribution, especially the choice of Graphical User Interface.  In short, the preferred applications supported within UserLinux will be:

Graphical User Interface - Gnome.  It has been recognised that KDE and Gnome are both equal in overall technical abilities.  Something hidden from the average Linux user is that KDE has a royalty fee attached to its “widget “set (Qt).  This means that developers creating an application would have to pay a sum for using the default buttons and functions.  Nasty, eh?  However, UserLinux will not operate a “shut-door” method on KDE, so people can ignore Gnome if so desired.

Linux Base - Debian.  Apparently, Red Hat put up a proposal, mainly based around the fact that a brand name is already established.  Mr Peren’s choice however was swayed by the massive support and the Open Source ethos Debian still has (plus, ten years worth of volunteer support cannot be ignored).  With this in mind, a certain Debian distribution (to be announced shortly) will be modified to incorporate the UserLinux proposals rather than creating a totally new distribution from scratch.

Office Suite - OpenOffice.  No real surprise there; it is free (an immediate advantage over Win32’s Office, which retails for £470 on top of Windows) and has a fantastic range of compatibility options.  Plus, as stated in the white paper, standardisation exists through its own widget set.

Database - MySQL.  Not a popular choice amongst Database professionals.  Chatting to some database developers online, the preferred option here seems to be PostgreSQL.

Web Browser - Mozilla, from Netscape fame.  Strangely, there may be compatibility conflicts arising from the way the web browser handles Java apps and the default actions from the operating system.  Something to watch for, no doubt.

Web Server - Apache.  You’d have to be stupid to pick anything other than Apache.  The real issue here is the version that will be taken on board - 2.0 or 1.2.

3. Brand.  Businesses need to feel assured that they’re in with the big boys.  Microsoft has no problem in this respect; it even has its own range of technical qualifications, therefore businesses know that the operating system is taken seriously.  Lessons have been learnt; Wang computers killed their business by naming one of their systems the King (the Wang King).  So, Userlinux needs to become something catchy (along the lines of LinuxFX or Xinix, maybe) with an extremely accessible and serious package from the start.  One major part of this is the driver certification programme.  If current hardware retailed with a Linux logo much like the little Windows flash seen on almost all hardware, people will be assured that support exists and thus buy into Linux.  In my mind, the driver certification is the most important aspect of any future Linux distribution; I always feel downtrodden when a piece of hardware just won’t work properly with Mandrake.

I have briefly covered the above in the earlier article, UserLinux: Bringing Order to Chaos – Finally a United Linux? , but one area has been overlooked in the UserLinux white paper.  If a standardised distribution of Linux appears, a magical opportunity to enter the domestic market presents itself.  The domestic PC user is like a sheep; they will use whatever operating system comes with the PC until the day it dies.  If UserLinux can make headway into the domestic market, growth will happen overnight.  Hardware manufacturers will start shipping out proper 100% compliant drivers with their products, software developers will start making games, PC suppliers will be offering Linux with their PCs.  Heck, we could even see a Linux--based console if taken to its full limits!  The big beans may be in winning enterprise businesses over from Win32, but a large established domestic user base could become a useful lever when persuading big companies to change from Microsoft.

Until a beta release of UserLinux is made, a lot of arguments will continue over the choices above.  Perens even states that he has received a fair bit of personal abuse over the Gnome - KDE issue, which strikes me as just plain crazy.  If you're hell-bent on trying out UserLinux this minute, all the proposed programs are available now.  Grab a copy of Debian (the third release, A.K.A. Woody, is now available for download) at www.debian.org and choose Gnome, Mozilla, MySQL and all the other proposed programs during installation.



by Howard Jones
Published: Jan 20, 2004


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