March 16, 2002

Commentary: Toward a successful Linux desktop install

Author: JT Smith

- By Don Goodman -

Without an easy-to-use, universally accepted setup for Linux programs,
Linux remains relegated to the server room. Building a successful future
for Linux on the desktop begins with understanding the history of Windows
and Mac. How did Windows beat out Apple when the Mac was easier to use?
Installing programs onto the Mac was easy, but not so with Microsoft operating

In the early of days of MS-DOS and Win3.x, there were a variety of methods
for installing programs and often, one had to "hack" the system configuration
files to enable the programs. Sometimes hacking didn't work. When MS
settled on "setup.exe," problems continued because each application
company's notion of the setup.exe runtime was different. Eventually, a consistent
pattern emerged because of the common use of MS development tools and
Microsoft's embrace of partners, who agreed to make their setup programs
look like Microsoft's setup programs.

When Microsoft created partner companies and blessed the partners'
methods, standardization of the Windows setup process occurred and lead to
the world's embrace of Microsoft's notion of "ease-of-use."

Microsoft attacked Mac ease-of-use on at least two fronts. First, Microsoft
defined a standard. Secondly, the company forced anyone who wanted to install
Windows-related programs to follow its standard.

Partners agreeing to mimic the appearances of the MS setup programs found
kindness from the gorilla, but more important in the war with Apple, simple
setups led to more programs for Windows, which led more people to acquire
the Windows machines. The ubiquity of Windows usage created a common source of
cash for the partners and Microsoft. From this cycle, a standard practice
was born. Mac fell by the way because it did not establish a similar standard and did not successfully use the work of others as part of its
business strategy.

Linux opportunities

The Linux community has a partnership concept -- many entities creating lots
of code for the OS -- that is similar to the Microsoft partnerships. The
Linux world lacks the central force driving a simple process.
Some in the Linux community are clued in to the needs for simple
interfaces. These same persons could guide a universal Linux application setup (LAS).

Just as the Linux GUIs use copy/paste and mouse clicks, so can the Linux
world use the current accepted Windows setup practice by imitating it in
the LAS.

What needs to be done?

Establish a central authority to drive a feature set in the setup
structures that satisfies the expectations of Windows and Mac users. Without it, MS
continues its domination of the desktop while a superior OS is languishing
in the server room. Establish a direct, intuitive approach for installing on and removing
programs from Linux. Intuition today is defined by setups on Windows
whether we like it or not. Linux developers need utilities that they can employ to
encapsulate programs into standard install interfaces (read Wizards) that
behave like those traditionally found on Windows.

Conquering Microsoft by playing to Linux strengths

An Applications Setup Committee approved by the guiding Linux lights could
define and create the processes, procedures and interfaces. Then the committee could
define the LAS, approve standard interfaces and features, embrace an
un-install, establish a test team and provide Seals of Approval for
application developers and companies. The committee could become the voice of
the Linux install and promote its use so that normal non-Linux people can have confidence in the installer.

The question before Linux application developers is: "Who shall best serve
the 'normal' user -- the sloppy coders from Redmond or the LADs?" In the
end, ease-of-install and use shall define who owns the desktop. Apple failed but
Linux has strengths -- coding partnerships, peer review and a passion to
win. If these are played correctly, MS will be relegated to the history of the

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