October 10, 2005

Why the DCC Alliance needs to love Synaptic

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Debian users have always boasted that their Advanced Package Tool (APT) was the best and fastest way there has ever been to install and delete software. They were right, except for two details: First, many computer users are scared of the command line -- and APT is a command line utility. Second, even for users not afraid of the command line, setting download repositories and other parameters was not easy unless you spent enough of your time administering computers to remember all the text commands it took to make APT do what you wanted. Then came Synaptic, which promised to make Debian software installs GUI-friendly. Not long after that came a version of Synaptic that didn't crash every time I tried to use it. And finally, in late 2004, Synaptic became so lovable that I would no longer want to have a desktop computer without it.

We can go on and on about how the GUI (Graphical User Interface) administration tools are only for lame users, but the reality is that most people use their computers as office machines, Internet terminals, and entertainment devices, and have no more interest in learning their inner workings than most car owners have in learning how to balance tires.

As long as it took command line skills to administer Debian, it was not a good distro choice for most computer users. If they wanted to have Debian's benefits they were better off using commercial Debian derivatives such as Xandros or Linspire, which worked to hide Debian's complexities behind a friendly face. Otherwise, they were probably better off sticking with SUSE, Mandrake (now Mandriva), and other RPM-based distros that made administration as easy as they could for the technically unhip.

Community vs. Commercial

I had some input into the development of SimplyMEPIS, a commercial, Debian-based distro that came out in mid-2004. I wrote a book called Point & Click Linux! based on it, and in the process of preparing that book I tested more than 200 software packages for possible inclusion in the SimplyMEPIS CD that came with the book. Synaptic was one of the packages I tested and, reluctantly, rejected. MEPIS developer Warren Woodford had added a little code to KPackage to make it function as a GUI front end for APT, and the Warren-ized KPackage, while far from perfect, was easier to use and crashed less than the version of Synaptic that was available at the time.

I chose MEPIS for my book because Warren was more amenable than most other distro publishers to making freely redistributable versions of his work available while still providing enough non-free add-ons -- including Adobe Reader, RealPlayer, Flash Player, and Java -- to give new Linux users the kind of full-featured multimedia Internet experience they were used to getting with Windows. I watched Warren struggle with a basic decision each distro publisher must make over and over again: "Should I trust the community to improve essential software that needs significant work to become useful for non-geek users, or should I write an alternative myself?"

This gets to the heart of another question: "What value does a commercial Linux distribution add that makes it worth paying for?"

My personal answer is, "convenience."

I'm willing to pay money for the convenience of having software packages that all work together, all my security updates in one place, and steady improvements that I can download and install without thinking much about them. In other words, I want "It Just Works" computing. Ideally, support should not be an issue because everything should work well enough that support is not needed. But if it is, I would like to have a decent source of email or phone support -- preferably both -- available.

Members of the DCC Alliance -- including MEPIS -- are working together to come up with a common, Debian-based, LSB-compliant "core" system and group of packages they will all share and share alike. This does not mean all Alliance member distributions will be alike, just that they will be more compatible with each other than they have been in the past, and hopefully stay compatible with Debian itself -- especially when it comes to package installation and dependency resolution.

Naturally, the more APT and Synaptic development work done by DCC Alliance members that makes its way back into the Debian core, the better things are for everyone. In an ideal world, any piece of software for Linux could be installed in any distribution. Neither community nor commercial software developers would worry about producing RPMs and DEBs for specific "flavors" of Linux. They could simply put out a Linux version as they now put out a Windows version, and users running Ubuntu, Fedora, Debian, and Mandriva would all be able to run it without modification or special packaging. But we don't live in an ideal world.

Why the DCC Alliance needs Synaptic

Sadly, it looks like the RPM/DEB divide is going to be with us for a good long time. And with Red Hat and SUSE both on the RPM side, and with Red Hat and SUSE's parent, Novell, doing a high percentage of the world's enterprise-oriented Linux advertising and PR, RPM is probably going to stay the dominant package management format for commercial Linux users, and the software developers that cater to them, for many years.

This means commercial distribution vendors working on the Debian side must work extra-hard to make life easy for their users.

Synaptic (combined with APT) is their secret weapon -- if they choose to use it. It has matured to the point where I like it better than the Windows add/remove software utility, SUSE's YaST, and all others I have tried. I suspect that I am not alone in my affection for Synaptic. It is a good, user-friendly program that does an essential job -- and does it well.

If DCC Alliance members actively support Synaptic, as a group, they will have a mutual competitive edge over their RPM-based competitors (and Microsoft). They will also make free Ubuntu and free Debian more popular, which will increase the demand for .deb-packaged software, and this, too, will help them increase revenue.

Of course, we can apply the same "cooperation is better than competition for everyone involved" thought process I just applied to Synaptic to many other open source projects. And there will still be plenty of room for different Linux distribution publishers to compete on the grounds of convenience, support, breadth of software offered, pre-built themes, and other factors that don't make them incompatible with each other technically but preserve their identities and brand differentiation.

I worry about whether the DCC Alliance will manage to do this. I've seen so many attempts to unify Linux burst on the scene, then fade away, that I am not going to get my hopes up this time around until I see at least a year's worth of cooperation.

Meanwhile, I will go on using Synaptic, no matter which Debian-based distribution I use. And I suspect many other Debian and Debian-derivative devotees will, too, even if DCC Alliance members don't support it as much as they should.

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