Married to the Mainstream

images.duckduckgo.comAfter months of struggling and solving simple problems with ‘heavy duty’ programming tools I finally decided to go mainstream. One doesn’t need to set up a minimal system each and every single time a new computer is bought/fixed/brought back to life. It’s demanding. It’s highly educating. It’s definitely FUN, but…there is a time in the life of every citizen of Linux-ville to switch from maintaining a system to finally using it. For me, this time has finally come.

Currently, I am using several of the so-called ‘mainstream’ Linux distributions on and off. Each I appreciate for specific features and depending on how fast I get annoyed with the features I don’t appreciate so much, I make a switch. I decided to put down my thoughts on the aforementioned ‘main-streamers’.

Ubuntu and its many derivatives are possibly the most widely known. Though most people don’t know what Linux or Unix are, I’m perfectly sure they have heard of Ubuntu before. Not only as an African word meaning ‘humanity towards others’, but also as a fringe Windows competitor for geeks. Ubuntu sports possibly the best hardware support and is the default choice of multimedia and game developers. Lastly, it has the largest repositories with some unique and useful software packages like nvidia-prime for Intel + Nvidia Optimus laptops.

Fedora is a very interesting alternative to Ubuntu. While Ubuntu offers appealing out-of-the-box experience for newbies, Fedora is more geared towards experienced users, developers and engineers. It also emphasizes the use of open-source and free software whenever possible. Fedora may seem slightly less flexible than Ubuntu in terms of initial desktop choice, but its netinstall liveCD more than makes up for that. I found the possibility to select software categories during installation extremely useful.

OpenSUSE is a curious mix of a community-driven distribution for developers and users alike with a strong enterprise focus. The online Build Service lets programmers easily produce software packages for openSUSE and many other popular distributions, while openSUSE Studio offers an online manager for building custom liveCD images. Much like the somewhat loathed Windows, openSUSE is governed through a Control Panel manager called YaST. With its central management and fast ‘1-click installs’ it will definitely win the hearts of Windows escapees. I much enjoyed working with the green lizard, except for some minor kinks.

At this point you may ask – Why only those 3? Where is Debian, it’s also very ‘mainstream’? In principle, Debian is a ‘mainstream’ distribution, however its general purpose is a stable development environment or a server. Desktop environments and a certain degree of user-friendliness are offered, but they’re not the focus of Debian. In all honesty, there are many more distributions which though not ‘mainstream’, could be considered at least easy to use. More on those in my next entry!

The Price of Free Software…?

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As part of my recent pursuit of GUI-heavy Linux operating systems I decided to take a closer look at Fedora. According to its website, it is an extensive, feature-rich distribution with software and hardware developers in mind. In principle it is a community-driven project, though thanks to its patronage by Red Hat it became tremendously successful.

I found Fedora interesting, because of its strict approach to licensed software. Considering its link to an entirely commercial entity such as Red Hat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), it’s surprising, to say the least. Most Linux distributions offer licensed programs as part of their non-free (Debian), restricted (Ubuntu), etc. repositories. Accessing those repositories is not mandatory, but usually offered to improve user experience. Most programs we know are licensed or even proprietary (‘non-free’ by definition), hence to me it was only natural to have access to those programs. Fedora makes it a tad more difficult, because its non-free repositories (RPM Fusion) are not available out-of-the-box due to them being against Fedora’s principal ethics. Therefore, one has to manually (either through the terminal or using a GUI) add them to the package manager. Though troublesome, I consider this to be an honest solution.

At this point it should be made clear that free software does not equate open-source software. Free software has been very well defined by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), headed by Richard M. Stallman. Thence, software is truly free only when it complies with the Four Freedoms. Otherwise, it is merely open-source software. Now, ‘free’ in ‘free software’ means ‘freedom’ (French libre, liberte) not ‘lack of price’. Therefore, a free software developer may require a donation or fee for his work, though once this has been paid, the piece of software is completely free to use, to modify, to redistribute, etc.

To the titular question though – what is the price of free software? Obviously, the direct cost of using a specific piece of free software is typically zero. However, once one decides to use free software exclusively, the moral cost is enormous. It requires the user to severely limit his options of work and leisure. A more detailed picture can be drawn using an example.

I have an old Intel-based MacBook Pro 2008 with Fedora 22 64-bit on it. I cannot use the AirPort Extreme Broadcom 4322 wireless chip, because only the proprietary broadcom-sta driver supports this specific chip revision (a common problem, in fact). Therefore, I am forced to buy a USB dongle with kernel support and permanently keep it in one of my 2 USB ports. Next, of the available browsers I can only use Midori, which is still very buggy and incomplete, or Firefox’s libre equivalent IceCat. Therefore, I’m left with Firefox/IceCat and a teaspoon of plug-ins considered to be libre. Should I decide to commit to graphics design and 3D rendering, I would probably need proper drivers for my integrated Nvidia card (320M or 9400M) to profit the most from my out-dated hardware. Not possible, because the default nouveau driver for Nvidia graphics cards is frankly speaking still light years behind its proprietary counterpart. Summing up, I’m left with a decent, but grossly limited computer that feels more like a ‘demo version’ of itself.

In my opinion the concept of free software is very noble and definitely facilitates good developer practices. Alas, for now it is completely Utopian and will never gain full momentum as long as we, flawed human beings continue to cling to our earthly principles, such as property and money.

Dem Bells ‘n’ Whistles

cowbellFor quite a while I’ve been busy with my life and happy with Arch Linux on all of my computers. However, recently I came to a somewhat regretful realization that I hardly have time to tinker with my computer(s) and set everything from the ground up every single time I decide to do a full system re-install. I do like to know what’s under the hood of my operating system and I like extremely minimal setups (bare window manager + most basic tools), but lately I do not have the luxury of time and, to be completely frank, my artistic skills are insufficient to make my desktop look anything, but generic. Hence, I decided to explore various GUI-heavy, user-friendly distributions with their rich offering of pre-installed software.

My first choice was an old love Lubuntu with a possible alternate of Peppermint OS (a new installment was released recently). No surprises here. Contrary to Linux Mint, which I also tested by-the-by, Lubuntu was highly responsive and as always very light on resources. I find the selection of pre-installed software it offers to be just perfect. Firefox has never failed me and I use Pidgin on a daily basis as a multi-protocol messenger tool. As Lubuntu is a lightweight flavor of Ubuntu proper, one has immediate access to the vast repositories hosted by Canonical and its partners. Peppermint OS is equally interesting, because it follows Lubuntu, though with a more cloud-centric twist. The art is eye-catching and some applications have been relocated as browser plugins to reduce system load. The latter is especially valuable due to the current ever-growing reliance on small computers and cloud storage.

My second choice was also unsurprisingly Manjaro Linux. It was my first lightweight Linux distribution with great hardware support and a strong, reliable base in Arch Linux. In fact, Manjaro encouraged me to try Archbang and finally Arch proper. Seeing Arch’s popularity in decline and the multitude of Manjaro’s flavors, I decided to give it a spin. I started with my old-time favorite Openbox edition (previously, the only available edition), but also gave the i3 and minimal Xfce editions a try. I was honestly awestruck by the minimal Xfce edition! For a very long time (save for AntiX) I have not seen such a light and efficient adaptation of Xfce. I liked that desktop environment for its resemblance to old Windows, but always felt it’s heavier on resources than it should be based on its looks. Though here I am, mesmerized by Xfce once more!

To conclude, I greatly appreciate the time I have spent with Arch Linux and the insurmountable amount of experience I have gained from using it. While I regret I no longer harbor the time to utilize it to its full capacity, I look forward to using various established user-friendly Linux distributions with a smile of anticipation…