August 28, 2003

Interview: Morphix founder Alex de Landgraaf

Morphix is an Open Source/Free Linux distribution, based on Debian GNU/Linux and Knoppix. Morphix is a modular distribution with live-CD support that can be tested without the need to install. It is still experimental, but it is growing in popularity. Users can choose among Morphix ISO images such as an XFCE4-based one for low-end systems, Gnome 2.2 or KDE 3.1 for higher-end desktops, and a game ISO for gaming enthusiasts.

Prakash Advani conducted an email interview with Alex de Landgraaf, the founder and the lead maintainer of the project. Alex is 21 years old and a student of artificial intelligence and computer science at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam. He reports he loves coding, Debian, gaming, beer, music, and more beer. He hates bugs (alive or self-caused), short-sighted people, and too much fresh air.

When did you start Morphix and why?

I actually started playing around with Knoppix, was pretty active on knoppix.net, in December 2002. I had a remastered version called KnopNL, because I was planning to make a light-weight Dutch distribution. There was (and still is) a lively community working on making specific distributions using Knoppix, but I saw time and time again that people had to "put Knoppix on a diet" and merge new changes from Knoppix before they could do anything useful.
There was an adapted version called kix, which was pretty small, but not small enough for me. I thought up a modular design to build a live CD, which would relieve all the remasterers from upgrading changes and let them work on the actual task at hand. Thus Morphix was born from Knoppix. :)

Why did you decided to choose Knoppix as the base?

Well, when you say Linux live CD, you say Knoppix. Knoppix is well-known for its near-perfect hardware recognition, and as it's based on Debian, it can't get much better. But we're doing our best!

What are the benefits of having Debian as the base?

Well, sane package management of course :). Personally, I've tried out a lot of different distributions. I still do, if only to look around for good ideas. But in the end, having 10,000 packages available within your grasp, that take mere seconds to install, and (near-)flawless dependency handling -- it's like being Charlie in the Chocolate Factory: too good to be true. :)

Why aren't Morphix binaries optimized for the Pentium?

The kernel is optimized for 468 PCs, the standard packages aren't optimized at all. We all know optimizing for your PC doesn't help much (especially when running a live CD), and it leaves enough time left for the good things in life. Like coding. And beer. ;)

What is the key difference between Morphix and Knoppix?

Knoppix was made as a rescue CD, and to demonstrate Linux. Morphix was made to facilitate the making of your own live CD. The key difference is the modular design, the side differences are that I'm more into experimenting with
new kernels and patches, different packages, and an attempt to make an install as Debian-like and easy as possible.

Since Knoppix has also decided to move to a modular system, will people still prefer Morphix?

If Knoppix really goes modular, I hope the design will be as good or better than that of Morphix. If it is, we might be able to merge changes, or at least make the modules compatible.

The big question isn't "will people still prefer Morphix?", but "will Knoppix become Morphix?". The Knoppix team and I have been working together on some issues, but I don't expect things to move very fast. Then again, if Morphix becomes irrelevant and interest fades away, Morphix will fade away too. But really, things are moving in quite the opposite direction. For now Morphix is here to stay. :)

What's new in the recently released Morphix 0.4?

Heaps of fixes, a load of new minimodules, Enemy Territory in the Game version (instead of Q3A and UT2003, which are available separately as minimodules), a load of new bugs (most of them my fault; thankfully there are enough alert beta testers who won't cease to report and sometimes fix them), Firebird in both Light and Game -- the list goes on and on ... and don't forget the new bootsplash screen (thanks to bootsplash.org for their hard work!).

Other than Knoppix, where does Morphix draw its inspirations from?

Every distro I can get my hands on! But really, I talk to a lot of people, and if someone tells me about a new feature, or has a new idea, I just give it a try. The main problem is that there are too many ideas left to implement, and too few free hours left to work on them every day. I used the old Mac OSes extensively, so that's my personal inspiration on how Morphix could end up (easy to get stuff done), but if I think something in Windows might be worth the trouble, I'll try it out to see if it is possible. I'm quite interested in UI design, so I sometimes wonder how I've ended up with a distro. XFCE4 works well enough for now, though. :)

Are there any forks of Morphix?

Morphix is built on trying to be as forkable as possible, that's what it was built for. There are a number of different distributions based on Morphix, and some are more connected to Morphix than others. In a few months I hope to have more forks, and a way to easily download forked modules. I'm aiming for a
community of module maintainers, and things are looking pretty good in that aspect.

How may people have downloaded Morphix so far?

40,000? 60,000? 80,000? I don't know! I think sf.net now has something like 40,000 downloads, but we link to the files themselves too (as does DistroWatch), so their statistics are probably off. And we've only been hosting on sf.net since 0.3-5.

Do you know of any large organization that is using Morphix?

Thankfully no! It still has quite a lot of bugs, but things are slowly getting better. Even then, Morphix isn't a full platform to be used in large organizations, not yet. Recently, Debian-NP (non-profit) has been started, a Debian subproject, and they have been interested in a Morphix/Knoppix-based system for distributing. It'll be interesting to see how this will work out, as on the workstation side Morphix works fine (although there is
work left to be done), but for quick deployment you need a server distribution too. Having two different types of live CDs to quickly set up a network, that would be fun. :)

Do you think CD bootable Linux distros are the way to go?

Naturally; if I didn't I wouldn't have started Morphix. :)
I think the popularity of Knoppix speaks for itself. Live CDs are a great thing to have around, and certainly much more useful than a Red Hat CD lying around somewhere. They are easy and fast to use, cheap to give away, and when
installing is easy they make for a great hard disk distribution. Some people might want to juggle around with 7 CDs, or want to build their system up from scratch. Kudos to them, but if John Doe wants to give GNU/Linux a spin, starting the computer and popping in a CD should be all it takes. To get stuff done quickly, live CDs beat install-first distributions hands down. In terms of flexibility, however, install-first distributions have the advantage. Morphix is a hybrid, letting you choose at download time what you'll end up with. It gives you a choice.

Will that help in the desktop acceptability of Linux?

It lowers the bar for people trying out GNU/Linux, naturally. But personally, I think projects like OpenOffice.org, Evolution, and Mozilla are a tad more important. Users can forgive the trauma of installing something if what they get is worth the trouble and does the job. Live CDs give John Doe a preview of what they'll have once they take the trouble of installing.

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