November 30, 1999

NetBSD on the desktop? Is there a point?

Author: JT Smith

- By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols -

For the basics of Wasabi Systems' NetBSD 1.5.2, you can see
Russell Pavlicek's "A Linux guy looks at NetBSD." Today's question: whether NetBSD 1.5.2, as Wasabi claims in a press release, is an off-the-shelf, easy-to-use NetBSD desktop operating environment.

First things first. Although the Package Release, five-CD, shrink-wrapped $64.95 box (a less expensive version, with only two CDs, is also available for $24.95) was released in late January 2002 at LinuxWorld, the contents reflect the state of the NetBSD operating system and programs circa September 2001.

That's a significant five months. Current NetBSD
includes its Python port
and an improved pkgsrc, which is a program installer roughly the equivalent of Linux's RPM. While NetBSD is usable out of the box, you should be ready to do a lot of ftping and package updating before you have a state-of-the-art system.

As promised, though, the package comes with binaries that will run on just about every computer architecture known to desktop-using man, including Intel-based PCs, 680x0 and PowerPC Macs, and Amigas. It also runs on some architectures, like MIPS-based Cobalt Qube systems, that few people are likely to consider for desktop use.

The installations, on a generic Pentium 700MHz system, a NEC 9734 Pentium 200Mhz and an Apple Performa 6220CD powered by a 75 MHz PowerPC 603, went smoothly for someone who first installed Unix on a PDP off seven-track tape.

Unless Mom and Dad are computer pros, this is one installation they don't
want to do. Think of a Linux installation circa 1997, and you've pretty much got it.

On the plus side, once installed, NetBSD ran like a champ even on the 1995 vintage Macintosh. If you've gotten tired of standard Linux installations that can rival Windows XP for disk and memory requirements, Wasabi's NetBSD is a pleasant blast from the past. If you want a Unix system with a modern KDE or Gnome interface that will run on an old, slow machine, NetBSD is for you.

This is also, to the best of my knowledge, the first commercially packaged BSD marketed for ordinary desktop users. Others, like the Walnut Creek FreeBSD packages, were really for Unix addicts only or like Wind River's BSD/OS, which is a server OS.

Once you're past the installation, Wasabi NetBSD actually is about as ordinary-user-friendly as any BSD or Linux this side of MacOS X. It comes with games, StarOffice, and all the other trimmings that one might expect from a fully packed Linux distribution like SuSE's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink packages.

Performance was good on the trio of test systems. In particular, network throughput was a tad faster than when the same boxes had Windows 2000, Corel Linux, and MacOS 7.5.5 on them. It was nothing to write home about it, but they ran a bit more sprightly.

Still, Wasabi NetBSD is not better than any commercial Linux desktop. While a Solaris-on-Intel orphaned user might like it better than Linux, it's hard to conceive of any established Linux desktop user, much less a Windows or Mac user, finding any compelling reason to switch. The best reason to switch to NetBSD is for those who believe the BSD license is a better one than the GPL. Frankly,
that's not an issue that matters much to Joe Desktop User.

Make no mistake -- it's a fine Unix desktop system, but it's not compelling enough to win any news users to a NetBSD desktop. Wasabi really wants embedded system developers, not desktop users.

In a DesktopLinux interview, Wasabi founder and CEO Perry Metzger said that winning the desktop market is "not our primary business strategy -- we're actually mainly targeting the embedded market." Why do it then? He answered, "Making NetBSD friendlier for people on the desktop supports that strategy, because the more people who use NetBSD, the higher Wasabi's profile
becomes, and the more we'll see engineers designing us into embedded applications."

Agree with his logic or not, if you want to give NetBSD a spin, or if you're an embedded system developer, Wasabi NetBSD is worth trying. It may not replace your desktop, but it is an excellent introduction to the BSD operating system family.

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