March 20, 2007

BOSS Linux makes new users feel at home

Author: Mayank Sharma

BOSS Linux is a single-CD Debian-based distribution primarily designed for an Indian language user, though everything from the installer to the desktop defaults to English. BOSS 1.1, which was released last month by the Indian government-sponsored National Resource Center for Free/Open Source Software (NRCFOSS), includes several utilities and desktop enhancements, such as a document converter and the 3-D desktop Beryl, which make it a very usable distro, despite a few rough edges.

To assist Indian language users, BOSS, or Bharat Operating System Solutions, includes BharateeyaOO, a localized version of OpenOffice.org in Hindi and Tamil. The distro also bundles the Smart Common Input Method (SCIM) which allows Indian-language users to input text in Hindi, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Nepali, Bengali, Tamil, and Telgu.

In addition to the hard drive installation version, the distro also has a live CD version. You can either download the distro or use the customized Debian Windows installer to install BOSS from within Windows over the Internet in a dual-boot configuration.

Installation could be better

BOSS has a custom installer that can be used in several Indian languages in addition to English. It isn't the easiest Linux distro installer I've run into. For instance, it lacks the candy-bar view of the partitions on the hard disk that Fedora and Ubuntu installers have. On the up side, the BOSS installer is LVM-aware and can install BOSS on a logical volume.

To simplify partitioning, BOSS has three automatic partitioning modes. You can choose to keep all files in one partition, or have a separate /home partition, or keep /home, /usr, /var, and /tmp in four separate partitions.

Like most single-CD Linux distros, BOSS doesn't let you customize the packages being installed. Instead, BOSS makes the decision for you, depending on whether you're installing BOSS on a desktop, a laptop, or as a print server, without telling you what packages are installed in each mode. The desktop option installs a decent number of applications for everyday office and Internet use.

You cannot afford to leave the installation unattended, even once the installer starts writing files to your disk. The installer interrupts installation to ask configuration questions about such things as choosing a kernel, specifying the Samba domain name, and selecting screen resolution. The developers should move all the configuration questions to the tail of the installation process.

The installer also didn't recognize the touchpad on my IBM laptop. I had to plug in the external mouse to run the install routine. The touchpad works fine after installation.

Usable desktop

BOSS uses a customized Linux kernel 2.6.17-2-686 and GNOME 2.14.3. The Beryl 3-D desktop is automatically activated if your graphics card is supported. There's also the GNOME-bluetooth package for Bluetooth transfers, SodiPodi for vector graphics, Thunderbird email client, Gaim for instant messaging, X-Chat for IRC, Brasero for burning disks, and BharateeyaOO, which is OpenOffice.org 2.0.1 plus the localizations. In accordance with their licensing guidelines, BOSS bundles Totem and XMMS applications for video and audio playback without codecs for playing MP3s and DVDs. There's a detailed user manual that has instructions on downloading these codecs from BOSS's online software repositories. This manual, for some reason, is only available on the root user's desktop.

BOSS also features a Bulk Document Converter tool that converts a bunch of documents from one OpenOffice.org supported format into another. This is useful for people who want to migrate to BOSS and move their documents, presentations, and spreadsheets from Microsoft's closed format into respective open formats.

For Web browsing, BOSS packs Firefox 2.0-beta, although Firefox 2.0 has been available for some time. Several Firefox 2.0 plugin components, such as dictionaries, don't work with the beta version. Unfortunately, you cannot even upgrade to Firefox 2.0 using the BOSS's update manager, which is similar to Ubuntu's update manager. If you want the most current version, your only option is to download and install the application from the Firefox 2 tarball available on Mozilla's Web site.

Apart from Firefox, installing applications on BOSS isn't any different from the process under Debian or Ubuntu. BOSS maintains its own software repositories, and between its main, contrib, and non-free repositories, BOSS contains more than 18,000 packages. I installed several applications and games, such as the AbiWord text editor, Apache 2 Web server, MySQL database, and Frozen Bubble, using the Synaptic package manager. All the applications are stable and nothing crashed or became unresponsive during my testing.

On the hardware front, BOSS recognized the wireless card on my laptop and plugged into my home network effortlessly. I could browse the Samba shares on the other machines without editing a single line of text. BOSS also recognized the ATI Radeon graphics card on the desktop, but failed to recognize a Samsung 17-inch LCD monitor and wouldn't accept any resolution higher than 1024x768, even if specified manually.

BOSS detects and automatically mounts all partitions on the machine including FAT and NTFS, if you're dual-booting BOSS and Windows. If you fire up an application that requires superuser privileges, you can ask BOSS to grant you access to the app until you log out.

As a government-supported project, BOSS lays emphasis on Indian language users. The custom installer isn't very newbie-friendly and could use some work to sort out the configuration bits from the installation process. First-time Linux users should find BOSS pretty usable; its selection of applications and ability to work with Bluetooth devices, mount other partitions on the disk, and share files across the network, out of the box, make it a good distro for first-time Linux users.

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