May 7, 2001

Progeny brings Debian to the masses

Author: JT Smith

- by Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I have tried to install "pure" Debian on my own and failed, not just once but three times. Enter Progeny. Last week I got a boxed set of this new Debian-based Linux distribution. Less than an hour later I had a functional installation, complete with working printer, sound, and network functions, without a single command line rearing its ugly head.My previous Debian install attempts were frustrated by hardware detection problems more than by any other single factor. Like most "use the computer as a tool and think about it only when it doesn't work right" people, I can't tell you my sound or video card specs. For people like me (probably 90% of all computer owners) any operating system that can't automatically detect hardware during installation is probably going to be set aside after a couple of futile attempts. Microsoft understands this. Mandrake, Red Hat, and SuSE all have this figured out. Only Debian, among Linux distributions commonly sold in boxed sets from the shelves of mainsteam computer stores, still requires a hardware knowledge test before you are allowed to taste its bounty.

But so many people I know have so loudly sung the praises of apt-get and talked up Debian's famous stability that I still wanted to try it. I even had a friend install Debian for me once, but he installed a system that met his needs, not mine, and I regretfully had to strip it out a few days later because I had too much work stacked up to spend a week learning all the commands I would have needed to perform basic functions like writing articles and sending them to publishers. I tried an early version of Libranet, confronted the usual lack of Debian hardware detection, and gave up. I tried to get my hands on a copy of Stormix, but they were too busy going broke to send one to me.

Progeny broke my pattern of Debian failure. It installed flawlessly and smoothly, dropped me into an attractive, up-to-date default Gnome desktop, and automatically installed KDE libraries and KOffice in case I wanted to use some of the fine KDE utilities. Sound worked without a thought. My all-time favorite text/HTML editor, Bluefish, was not installed automatically, but I read the surprisingly lucid manual, typed in apt-get install Bluefish, and less than three minutes later I had Bluefish running. Another couple of minutes of reading, and I had a Bluefish icon on the Gnome panel so I could call it up with a single click. Ready to write!

(Realize, though, that I am not a Windows user trying Linux for the first time. I have run nothing but Linux for three years, and the desktop computer on which I installed Progeny was built specifically with Linux compatibility in mind. A Linux newbie trying to put Progeny Debian on a store-bought "Wintel" computer might not have had my instant success.)

So here I am, running Debian at last. I am using Netscape for email and Web browsing, as I have for years, and it works fine. Now I go to cnn.com to catch a few news videos, and whoops! No Real Player. Download. Try to install. Segmentation fault. Try again. It seems to install and configure itself as a Netscape plugin, but even after a system reboot it doesn't work. Yes, this is a problem I could probably solve with manual reading and some futzing around, but it is taking up time I could use to do other things. Ditto other Netscape plugins; one of Mandrake's great features, to me and other people on tight schedules, is that it takes care of these details for you. And Mandrake (like most other commercial Linux distributions) includes StarOffice, Adobe Acrobat Reader, and other packages that, like it or not, are essential tools for people doing office-type work who must constantly interact with Microsoft users.

I understand and admire Debian's adherence to Free Software principles, and I respect Progeny's decision to abide by them. I wish I could live in a world where it was possible for me to follow them strictly myself and still earn a living, but reality dictates that I must use programs created by people who do not believe in Free Software. Given this caveat, Progeny Debian is not ready for everyday office desktop use without many hours of individual effort; finding, downloading, and installing commercial software in Debian is harder than it is in rpm-based distributions, and is nowhere near as convenient as getting everything I need in a single set of CDs and installing it all at once, a la Mandrake or SuSE.

This is going to be a big competitive problem for Progeny when mainstream computer publications start to review it and it starts appearing on computer store shelves. Stability and apt-get are wonderful, but it is going to take a wider range of included applications to give Progeny the commercial success it deserves.

Right now, I see Progeny primarly as a learning tool. Anyone who wants to get a Debian installation going without stress, then gradually and painlessly learn to control it through a command line interface, will love Progeny. The printed manual included with the boxed set is the most straightforward one I've ever seen for Debian newbies. If you have a friend who has talked about getting into Linux or Unix system administration but is worried about getting past the first stages of the learning curve, give them Progeny as a gift and they'll thank you forever. Two or three old computers with Progeny Debian installed on them should be all most people need to teach themselves the basics of CLI-based networking and server maintenance.

I wish Progeny had more productivity applications both on the CDs and in easy-to-find-and-browse sections on the company's Web site and ftp servers. I love the way Progeny Debian looks, feels, and runs. It is sad that Mandrake and other rpm-based "workstation" distributions contain just about everything I need to function, while Progeny does not. If Progeny ever decides to produce and maintain an expanded distribution that includes the software I (along with millions of other non-geek computer users) must use to survive and and work in a world dominated by Microsoft and other proprietary software houses, I will almost certainly dump rpm and embrace deb.

Category:

  • Linux
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