October 5, 2000

The many flavors of GNU/Linux

Author: JT Smith

By Emmett Plant
NewsForge Columnist

Speaking of GNU/Linux

Remember 1999? In 1999, if you were having dinner with a geek, he
would have told you to call off your old tired ideology and run Linux
instead of Windows. This year, he'll tell you to run Debian GNU/Linux
instead of Red Hat, and the reason may not be purely technical.I'm not going to play "judge the distribution" in this column. People
argue about the technical benefits of different Linux distributions
constantly, and it's rarely beneficial. In the end, it all comes
down to personal choice. The best idea is to look at your needs, and
then choose a distribution to fill them. One of the main reasons that
geeks prefer Debian is dpkg, the Debian package manager. Another reason
is less tangible -- Debian GNU/Linux is an independent Linux
distribution sponsored by Software in the Public Interest, a non-profit
organization.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it's a lot more
important than you think. The geek culture favors decentralization and
freedom at all costs. In a world dominated by Microsoft, the Linux
community is afraid of anything that resembles actions previously made
by that Evil Company in Redmond. The problem is that people in the
mainstream view Red Hat as the One True Linux, and in their own way, Red
Hat has quietly nodded at this assumption. For example, when Red Hat
Linux 5.2 shipped into stores, it was in a pretty box, and it said
"Official Red Hat Linux 5.2" on it. Sure, you could get the impression
that Red Hat was the last word in Linux. That's why it said "official."
It was to lead you to believe that Red Hat was Linux. But hey,
that's branding. That's what it's all about. I really don't think that
they included the word "official" because people were dealing "bootleg"
versions of Red Hat Linux on street corners, and they wanted consumers
to know they were getting the real deal. Red Hat is the most popular
Linux distribution, and that leads to the immediate assumption that Red
Hat is out for world domination. I'm sure they are. After all, they've
got a responsibility to the shareholders.

Debian, on the other hand, is an independent Linux that pays lip service
to the Free Software Foundation by labeling their distribution as Debian
GNU/Linux, acknowledging the value of GNU tools for Linux. This is an
extremely good thing in the eyes of the community. Debian has garnered a
fan base by remaining loyal to the code of Linux community
ethics. The Debian Social Contract was the basis for the Open Source
Definition, after all. In addition to being Free Software enthusiasts,
the Debian developers are also a large group of cool, talented
people. Don't be confused, though. Debian has had its problems with
corporatism, as well. Corel Linux is built on Debian. It wasn't until
recently that Corel agreed to put the Debian logo on the Corel Linux
box. Corel and the Debian developers sat down to dinner last February,
and ironed out a lot of the wrinkles in getting a closed-source company
like Corel to understand the Linux community.

Linux is already being treated as a "catch-all" name for the Linux
kernel and GNU tools. The problem is that if you tell someone that Linux
is just the kernel, you'll start putting people to sleep when you define
what the kernel is. At this point, if they don't know already, they
probably don't care. There is hope on the horizon, though. People are
getting it, and they're learning another important lesson at the same
time. The number of different Linux distributions does not mean that
Linux is susceptible to fragmentation, it means that the ideology behind
Linux is strong enough to offer an infinite number of choices without
having to tie yourself to a distribution.

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