May 18, 2002

Commentary: Where standards are needed in Linux

Author: JT Smith

- By Nico Coetzee -

I have read many articles on standards, but it never really seems to
sink in. So, I have asked some friends who are Linux users to comment on
what they feel Linux is short in the area of standards. What follows is
a short description of what my friends and I would like to see included
as a standards base in all Linux distros. Please note that some of
these might already be in the process of being addressed. What follows is
largely an end-user perspective of Linux systems.
The usual stuff: Office documents.

We desperately need a standard file format for word processor documents,
spreadsheets and presentations. HTML has many shortcomings, unless you
start to play with Java, JavaScript and other tools. These obviously
have their technical challenges in a word processor/spreadsheet/presentation environment, but maybe Java is something to look at. XML is
another alternative to consider. The aim of this standard would be to use your favorite office tools, without worrying about file formats.

Internet Software: central configuration

It would be really cool is some developers could create a single
configuration point for all your Web browsers. I personally use
Netscape, Mozilla, Konquerer and Links as my Web browsers -- depending on
what system I'm using where. I would like an easy way to share my
personal configuration for these browsers from a single point. This
includes bookmark management. I believe XML is just about the perfect tool for this. I particularly like the Konquerer bookmark format. It's easy enough to edit in Vi if you had to make minor adjustments.

The same applies to email clients, newsgroup clients, chat, etc. I was
recently in the situation where I lost a SVGA card on my wife's PC. I had
to fall back to the on-board VGA chip, which was not very good friends
with X, so we lost the pretty GUI. I installed Pine for my wife, so that
see could at least read her email, but I had to go through all the
trouble of setting up her account again. It also took me a while to let
her see all her old mail in Pine as well. As soon as the new SVGA
adapter was installed, it was again a good day and a half to get
everything back to normal. In the email's case, the need for this standards is not only
account settings, but also the messages themselves.

Window managers: Some interesting needs

This must be one reason I enjoy using Linux -- options times
millions! But the greatest challenge is to keep menu systems in sync.
Distributions like Mandrake have done a lot to get this right, and I
believe it's only a matter of time before all little irritations will
be addressed.

Themes, on the other hand, are specific to a particular window manager.
Wouldn't it be great if we had a central point from where we could
install and configure themes for all window managers, including
screensaver settings, sounds and keyboard/mouse preferences? I would
really like to see some more progress in this area.

General stuff: SysAdmin

Why does every distro have that "little" difference in where
stuff in the file system in placed? I must say, things are much better than a
couple of years back, but what is starting to irritate me and my friends
a bit is the fact that every distro still has some minor changes with
certain configuration issues. Thanks to SuSE for pulling back to the
mainstream, because it was one confusing system to admin from the
command line!

I also have a need to configure the skeleton directory ( /etc/skel )
with some nice tools. For example, I would like to easy distribute
certain default app settings to the skel directory without it being a
pain, which it is for me at this stage. Together with this should be a
tool to manage all user specific configuration files for each
application. Maybe I should illustrate with an example: We have software
package X installed. We upgrade. There are some major changes in
configuration, etc., and we need to push and integrate the new configs to
all existing user configs. This is a pain. I experienced this moving
from Netscape 4.x to 6.x.

Another final point: There should be a standard for the Linux file system hierarchy.
Together with this, Linux needs a more standard software management system, like RPM, on all systems. I believe there are pros and cons for each system, but a standard would be really nice for users. I must add that this is the single most important reason
why I have not yet tried a non-RPM based system.

Conclusion

Well, there you have it. I am sure you can think of many more areas
where we as a community can benefit from better standards. As I said,
this was a wish list from my friends. I am working on short-term
solutions for some of the stuff, like syncing bookmarks between
browsers, but it will be much easier if all systems could use a single
configuration system.

I also need to thank the developers for Webmin, which I believe is a
great tool for cross-platform sysadmin tasks. The only criticism I have
with this system is that I don't really trust Web-based administration,
even with SSL. We need more work on the underlying system.

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