Red Hat and Debian fans debate desktop Linux

Mail from longtime reader Steve Mahaffey on the state of desktop Linux. My responses interspersed within:
SM: It’s been a while since I’ve emailed you, though I still read your site almost daily and comment from time to time.

DF: I appreciate that.

SM: Other than our common faith the most important subject that I could comment on might be desktop Linux.

DF: And it’s been a while since I’ve written about either of those. Too long.

SM: In the past I’ve used Mandrake and Suse briefly, and Red Hat 7.2/3 more extensively. As a server, Red Hat 7.3, booted to runlevel 3, runs until the power goes off at my West Houston home long enough to outlast my UPS. On the other hand, as a desktop OS, Red Hat 7.3 with KDE or Ximian Gnome would crash 1-3 x per week, and Ximian Gnome would get corrupted, requiring me to delete various ./.gnome* config files or files in /tmp to fix it, which most users would not be able to fathom or guess at.

DF: The more advanced desktop environments seem to be pretty sensitive to something or other. I haven’t figured out what exactly. That’s part of the reason why I run IceWM on Debian on my desktop; it’s stable. Running Gnome apps under IceWM on Debian “Unstable” (the experimental, bleeding-edge Debian distro), I’ve been chasing a slow memory leak that eventually consumes all available physical memory and eventually leads to a crash, but it takes a month or two. More on what I think is going on in a minute.

SM: Red Hat 8.0 on my primary workstation, on the other hand, is currently at 43 days uptime. NO CRASHES, once or twice I have restarted the x-server, and once I had a problem with the gnome conifg files. I know that you use Debian mostly, but Red Hat, Lindows, Mandrake, Lycoris, or the like will be the ones to have a mass impact on the desktop. Seems like Lycoris or Lindows was Debian based, though.

DF: I know Lindows is based on Debian. I don’t know Lycoris’ origin. You are correct that Debian will have minimal impact on the desktop, at least in the home. Debian doesn’t give a rip about commercial success and it shows.

I saw Red Hat 8 and Mandrake 9 recently and I was impressed at how far they’ve come. I haven’t touched Red Hat since 6.2 or Mandrake since, well, 7.2 probably. They looked stable and fast. And I saw a minimal (no options picked) Mandrake 9 install the other night. It was 144 megs. I remember not long ago trying to do minimal Red Hat and Mandrake installs and they were 300 megs, at least. That’s definitely a step in the right direction.

SM: Anyway, besides much greater stability, I have enough functionality for most of my needs in programs like Open Office, gnucash, Mozilla or Galeon, Evolution or KMail, etc. Some may have other needs, only met via Windows only programs, of course. I have noticed that RH 8.0 seems on occasion to be slow, but not most of the time. The menus are a little funny … easy to add to the KDE menus, but they don’t always seem to work. With Gnome, it’s easier to add a custom panel to add a non-default application, but it does work then.

DF: Linux currently meets most of the needs I observe on the typical user’s desktop. Not necessarily power users, but for the basic users who are interested in typing simple documents like letters and memos, simple spreadsheets (and let’s face it, an awful lot of spreadsheets use very basic math, if any at all), e-mail, Web browsing, chat, and listening to music, Linux provides solutions that are as good as, if not superior to, those that run on Windows.

I also observe how many users don’t know how to add an application to Windows’ Start menu, or desktop, or that quick-launch thing on the taskbar. It may be easier on Windows, but it’s still not easy enough for most people.

Of course, this is coming from someone who keeps at least one shell window open at all times in Linux and launches apps from there because it’s faster and easier for me to type the first few letters of an app and hit tab and then enter than it is to navigate a menu. For people like me, Linux is much, much superior to Windows and always will be.

SM: RH 8.0 did recognize my nVidia card, but did NOT enable opengl 3d acceleration. I had to install the nVidia drivers from the nVidia web site to get opengl acceleration…apparently Red Hat has decided to not support that at this time. Another oddity is that I have had to turn on the cd sound to play audio CDs by using the kde mixer…can’t seem to do it with the gnome mixer, and don’t know where to hack a config file or file permissions to do this.

DF: Given Red Hat’s history with KDE, it’s ironic that some things work better in KDE than Gnome on Red Hat. Nvidia’s decision to only provide binary drivers (not source) hasn’t proven popular with a lot of Linux distributors, which probably has a lot to do with the OpenGL issues. Red Hat isn’t going to go out of its way to make nVidia look good, and might actually go out of its way to make nVidia not look as good as ATI or Matrox or other companies who are willing to provide straight source, taking the chance that users will blame nVidia rather than Red Hat or Linux. (That’s not a particularly safe bet, but it’s not out of character, given past history.)

SM: Other things… Evolution crashes a lot. I’ve given up and started using KMail (for IMAP since I use my own mail server with IMAP). Galeon is good, but it seems that I had some printing issues and I’ve been using Mozilla more. I’ll have to see how the Phoenix browser comes along…it might be the best choice. Flash and Java required a manual install.

DF: Evolution is stable for me in Debian (more stable than Outlook 2000 under Windows 2000) but I’ve heard that complaint. I have to wonder if Evolution might be picky about the libraries it’s linked to and what it’s compiled with and how? Debian is really conservative; Red Hat is much more apt to use C compilers that haven’t proven themselves just yet. It’s great that GCC 3.2 is so much faster, but if that speed is still coming at the price of stability, let’s back off, eh?

I like Galeon but I don’t print Web pages much. Phoenix is turning into a very nice browser. Lately I’ve been using Mozilla nightly builds for the spam filtering in the mail client and no other reason.

SM: All in all, maybe Red Hat 8.0 is still more a distro that is more suited for corporate environments that have IT personnel around to hand-hold, and which need only modest desktop application abilities. But, it’s coming quite close to the fabled “Aunt Minnie” friendly OS that will really give Microsoft fits.

DF: It’ll take time to get mainstream appeal but I believe it will. Linux PCs in Wal-Mart are a very good thing, because it gives exposure and feedback. The press hasn’t been too kind to the Linux PCs sold there, but if the criticisms are addressed, things will get better, faster, for all distributions. Windows nothing but a really bad Mac wanna-be for 10 years, but it ripened because it infiltrated mass-market PCs. The press applauded Microsoft as it washed its dirty laundry in public. Linux won’t get that same treatment, but I’ll take a criticizing press over a kiss-butt press any day of the week if the goal is product maturity. Windows has been 20 years in the making, but XP still crashes too much.

And as far as Red Hat vs. Debian goes, I may have to give Red Hat another look as a desktop OS soon.

SM: Most of your comments seem to center around Linux and server applications. This is not trivial or unimportant. However, I think that the time for desktop Linux may be getting quite close, and I’d be interested in your comments if you feel so inclined.

DF: My focus has changed in the past year. Two years ago, I did desktop support, and server work in emergencies. About a year ago, I started moving into server support and only did desktop support in emergencies. It’s been a year since I’ve dealt with end users on a regular basis, so I don’t know as much what’s wanted or needed on the desktop anymore and I definitely don’t think about it nearly as much since I’m almost never confronted with it.

I think my thoughts on it are still worth something, since it’s only been a year, but that kind of experience definitely doesn’t age well.

Getting back to the desktop, the apps we need are in place. What they need most now are must-have features that Microsoft won’t supply, or won’t supply quickly. Bayesian spam filtering in Mozilla is a prime example of Open Source beating MS to the punch. A great idea showed up on Slashdot, some early implementations showed up immediately, and within a month or two, it’s in Mozilla’s alpha builds. The public at large will have a usable implementation within a couple of months. And there will be others. I suspect we’ll see lots of examples of it in digital media. I mean, whose design would you rather use, the design of someone concerned only with corporate interests, or the design of a group of users concerned with their fair-use rights and yours and mine?

SM: Anyway, maybe you’ll find my observations to be of interest.

DF: Always.

6 thoughts on “Red Hat and Debian fans debate desktop Linux

  • November 19, 2002 at 9:28 pm
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    Very nice piece, Dave.

    Lycoris is based on Caldera). I pointed a Windows user that way a while back; she converted her home Win2k machine to a Linux box networked to her kid’s Windows box in an evening with no prior experience.

  • November 20, 2002 at 1:41 am
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    Another interesting move on the desktop is Xandros, which is also Debian-based. I’m informed (I’m not prepared to pony up the $99 :)) that it installs beautifully and perfectly, and then once its done, instead of subscribing to “Xandros Networks”, their subscription-based updates service, you can (as you might imagine) just poke /etc/apt/sources.list to point at the Debian archive. So you get all the benefits of Debian while escaping its installer, which requires lots of knowledge (although, as Dave has pointed out here before, you only need to run it once). I’m unclear how much of their work will become GPLed and therefore feed back to the real Debian project, but I suspect that, if the code is clean and competent, that Xandros are what Progeny tried to be.

  • November 20, 2002 at 12:15 pm
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    I have done a few RH8 test installations both at work and at home and after my initial good feeling I have found some bugs (none really serious though) and some other stuff that I don’t like all that much.

    What irritates me a lot with RH8 is that they market version 8 as a desktop release. But in terms of multimedia, this distro lacks just about everything. I can understand their motives but what irritates me is that they don’t really go out with any information about this until they have been pressured by the Internet media to do so. I had to download a whole bunch of material in order to be able to play mp3’s and movies of various sorts.

    Now that I have been running RH8 since the week it was released I have decided to give it up. I installed it on a 450 MHz Celeron (overclocked 400MHz) and it feels quite slow. The main distros that I work with the most are Gentoo and Debian.

    Another comment on your discussion above. In my opinion there is always too much focus on comparing Windows and Linux using the strengths that Windows builds on. I am pretty tired of reading about Linux and Open/Staroffice vs Windows and MSOffice. I couldn’t care less about Office suits. I do think a good spreadsheet is essential, and Linux got 3 of those (at least) that are more than good enaugh). Anyhow, I can definitely say that I can’t even imagine having to go back to Windows now that I have gotten used to Linux. I find that lots of stuff that I use is missing in Windows. Configuration possibilities are poor, choice is there but usually expensive. One of the reasons why I am not using Windows is that I don’t want to pay for every piece of software that I want to use. However, most Windows home users don’t pay for software. They copy software and download patches and cracks to make software work without nagging them for money. If I was to run Windows and pay for every piece of software (shareware and the like) then I would be a poor man indeed. And lets face it, there is freeware out there for Windows, but they are usually of much poorer quality than those for Linux, they are not maintained as well and they are definitely not as plentiful.

    Another issue on the Office issue. When listening or reading these comparisons of Windows and Linux, everybody always talks about the Linux alternatives lacking features. Excuse me??? I have only once met a user that I can seriously say was using as much as 90% functionality of Excel. I have never met anybody using Word using that to the extent of the package. Lets face it, 80% of the Office users are using features such as changing font types and sizes, running spell checker and basic formatting of their documents with the occasional inclusion of pictures. Every single Office package under Linux does this just fine.

    The only stumbling block in my opinion when it comes to Office packets under Windows and Linux is reading the Microsoft formats. However, most people have got this all wrong. Everybody is pushing the idea that the Linux alternatives should be able to read the closed microsoft formats. Since these formats are closed then I think paying customers should ask Microsoft if they could also include support for the open formats found in other packages for compatability. That is only simple support in my opinion. You have bought the product and found it lacking.

    However, many think that the above is incorrect. They say that if Linux wants into the market then the Linux software should be compatible. You can bet that many of those many haven’t gone out and bought their version of MS Office. Another reason why I think chasing these closed formats is a lost battle is because if those formats were finally reverse engineered to the max then it is within Microsofts power to change the format, make it backwards compatible within their own product line and throwing the rest of course.

    Sorry about the long rant ๐Ÿ™‚ Just my 2c worth…

    /Dave T.

  • November 20, 2002 at 8:19 pm
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    Dave T,

    I suspect that you’re right about the Office Software feature set issue. When I was an accountant, I was known as an Excel guru at the company where I worked, and was once jokingly called a “spreadsheet engineer” by one of the sales guys. Still, I was only proficient in a small subset of Excel’s features, and most users utilize a lot smaller subset than I did.

    I decided to focus on Red Hat as I hope to see the day when I can use my Linux knowledge more at work, and Red Hat offers the best hope of this. My workstation is a 1.2 GHZ Duron, 256 MB RAM system. Even so, I occasionally notice a little slowdown, as I mentioned. With a 450 MHZ system I might not like RH 8 so well, but with my system I’ll trade a little performance for the stability. I’ve wondered if it’s not just suboptimal 2D nVidia drivers…the 3D seems pretty good.

    Dave F,

    I can understand the server focus, since that’s where you mostly “live” now. Same with me in my present job, although at a somewhat lower level. Monitoring servers, supporting backups. User support is focused on supporting users on large Unix servers, doing password resets, adding users and printers, etc. Routine tasks that the sys admins don’t want to do, so we sys ops do. It’s easy to lose sight of how many users are out there, both using the large multiuser systems and using their local machines.

    It just seems like with Microsoft’s need for ever-increasing revenue to justify their stock price, the continuous cycle of security/virus vulnerabilities, DRM, etc. that the time is ripe for a sea change. I’d sure like to see it happen, and it looks to me like desktop Linux (both Red Hat and others) is about ready to step into the void and provide real competition.

  • November 21, 2002 at 2:32 am
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    Steve,

    What is important for you in my opinion is that you have made a decision on using RH8. Stick with it and you will do just fine. All distros have their quirks in my opinion so making a decision just to go with one and then working out the quirks as they show up is a good thing.

    I have been using Linux for quite some time, but for the longest time it was my “secondary” system as I was using Windows on my main machine and I had another machine hanging around with Linux on it. I used to try out distros all the time, never getting any stability in the way I used the OS at all. In the end I decided not to go buy another Windows License so I threw that OS out and decided to start using Linux full time. Then came my worry: what distro should I use? I had dabbled with Slackware, Red Hat, Debian, Mandrake and the like. In the end I decided to install Red Hat 7.2 and stick with it. I had several reasons for that. Red Hat is well known, well documented and in cases where I have worked with Linux installations at work it has been Red Hat that is installed.

    I have been running a modified RH7.2 until this week. I am currently working on setting up my main machine with Gentoo.

    A few hints:

    If you don’t want to get into the compiling your own business yet but you want to install software not found under Red Hat then go to freshrpms.net. You will find almost everything you need there in RPM format, and up to date too! Highly recommended. Also, http://www.rpmfind.net is also another good resource for locating and finding rpm packages. I can also recommend Red Hats support forum mailing lists. I subscribed to them and learned a lot and got some help too on occasion. Sometimes they are high traffic but it can be worth it if you feel that you might need that type of assistance.

    By the way, your Duron will do just fine in my opinion. I am running a GHz Athlon w/512 megs of memory and Nvidia Geforce2. I have played games like UT2003 demo and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, full version (and paid for ๐Ÿ™‚ ) and they looks absolutely gorgeous! High resolutions and high detail are no problem. I had a Windows user/game player over the other day and he refused to believe that I was running Linux and not Windows ๐Ÿ™‚

    Good luck!

    /Dave T.

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