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It's all a fashion show (or, forget the conventional wisdom)...

Posted 02-17-2010 at 02:51 PM by Lufbery

Once again, somebody had criticized a new GNU/Linux distribution for not being friendly enough to new users. This time the target is RMS's Mostly Slax, and the person criticizing is Bruce Byfield in this blog post.

As I understand it, the distribution has been pulled for now. But my comments here are more on Byfield's points of criticism. Specifically, this statement bothers me:

Quote:
However, Slax is not exactly the first name that comes to mind if you are asked to recommend a distro for anyone new to free software. In particular, its module manager, differs strikingly from the online repositories of either .RPM or .DEB-based distributions, starting with the fact that you have to download modules before installing them. And, so far, RMS's Mostly Slax contains only a handful of modules, almost of them programming languages.
Byfield is a good and deservedly-respected columnist. I've enjoyed his articles for several years now. I respect his opinions and experience. Having said all of that, there are a lot of assumptions -- conventional wisdom, even -- packed into his criticisms.

First, does a new distribution have to be targeted to new users? (For that matter, do we really know what new users want or need? I suspect that most people speculate, but never do controlled user tests.) And anyway, new users had to learn how to use .deb and .rpm repositories. They're not really any more beginner-friendly than any other system.

Second, why is it a problem to download modules before installing them? I've been doing that with DOS and Windows since 1991. I still download before installing anything new on my Windows machine at work. In fact, I'm pretty sure that teh .deb and .rpm distributions actually download the stuff they're installing too, it's just transparent to the user. More to the point, I got into the habit years ago of downloading software and checking it out before installing it. I've also never had a malware or virus infection on computer I run -- regardless of the OS.

Later in the article Byfield notes that the new distribution does not include Open Office or the GIMP, and it sticks with KDE 3.10. Those are valid complaints -- if you want OO.o and Gimp be default and prefer KDE 4.x.

But this is the FOSS world. The whole point is that if you don't like something, don't use it, make your own, or contribute to make it better. It's not like this distribution (or any other) hid it's specifications, and the reviewer was completely surprised at what he saw.

No, what's happening is the same thing that happens with any other endeavor -- the conventional wisdom rules. The conventional wisdom in the Linux world is that distributions need to have a graphical (Xwindows) installer, a huge online repository of additional software packages, a package manager that does automatic dependency checking, Open Office, the Gimp, Firefox, and well, you know the rest. That's all great, but it does not follow that a distribution without any (or even all) of those features is lacking, substandard, or an automatic failure.

Maybe if the RMS's Mostly Slax developers marketed their distribution as "a totally FOSS, live CD or USB distribution stripped of fluff and dedicated to the needs of hardcore users" then Byfield would have given it an entirely different kind of review.
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