Friday, March 26, 2010

Linux Achilles Heel...

If there's one thing that's holding back wide-spread acceptance of Linux on the desktop, it's the lack of a consistent application installation approach: in my opinion, that's the Achilles Heel of Linux.

The problem is there are several different installation packages (called package management systems) for the different flavors (distributions) of Linux. There's the deb package manager called dpkg, apt (used with dpkg), rpm, yum (used with rpm), and others, and they definitely are not compatible. Not only that, you've got to be really careful (read that as "know some of the internals of Linux-land") or you'll get screwed like I just did.

I'm using Dropbox (great product; more on that on another post - the free version allows you up to 3Gig of storage which is perfect for me) on my machines (Mac OSx and various flavors of Windows) and wanted to add it to my Linux box. I head for the Dropbox site, find the Linux download section and see all kinds of Ubuntu downloads. Now I'm on Kubuntu and I don't see anything specifically saying Kubuntu, but they've got a download that matches my version (9.04) so I give it a whirl.

First, I add it to my apt source files, which entails editing a file called "/etc/apt/sources.list or equivalent" (note the 'equivalent' part -- I still don't know what that could be). However, I've learned how to edit my sources.list file so I go ahead and do that using sudo (setting myself up as super user). The Dropboxers have done a nice job of listing all the options for the various flavors of Ubuntu and Fedora, another Linux distribution. Notice that there's a certain degree of special knowledge required already.

Once I've done that, I try to find Dropbox as one of the applications and it's not there; I try several things and nothing works. (By the way, this is a common occurrence when I try to use apt on my machine).  I do some searching on the web and locate the information about how to use the deb package manager and run that command directly per the instructions. This takes several iterations because the Dropbox software has dependencies (i.e., other software packages that it needs to run) and those software packages have their own dependencies... I slog through this morass and get to a place where it lists a slew of dependencies and says to run it all with specific options and I do that (there's the Big Mistake).  Everything is reported as "fine" and the installer requests a reboot to finish the installation. No problem, I think.

However, when the reboot finishes my KDE interface (what comes with Kubuntu - a blue-tinged interface) is gone and replaced with the Gnome interface (what comes with Ubuntu - a red-tinged interface). Folks, believe me... this is a Big Deal and one that is likely to cause me many headaches in the future. No warning... just "Boom" and the hammer drops!

By contrast, the installation for both Windows and Mac was a complete cake-walk: download a file, run it, and done! (As an aside, notice all the Linux  terminology links I had to create just to talk about this subject!)

Now any Linux geek will likely proclaim: "You should have known better" -- and they may be right. But that only serves to prove my point: there's too much knowledge required to do a simple installation on a particular flavor of Linux to expect just anyone to be able to use the operating system productively.

Those same Linux supporters (I do count myself as one... I mean, I am running a Linux box because it gives me greater development capabilities beyond what I can find on Windows and even the Mac platform) may also point out that "Normal users won't be trying to install Dropbox on their machines" -- and they may be right. But the range of what "normal users" are trying and expecting these days is expanding greatly, so the Linux community had better get ready to deal with it.

As another example which most certainly applies to "Normal users", I cannot get the latest version of Firefox installed on my Linux box without resorting to source code compilation, and if anyone in the Linux crowd expects "normal users" to jump into that frying pan, they're just asking for more trouble. I know I won't try that route anytime soon.

I don't know what the answer is. I do know that's it's a complicated task because of all the different distributions there are and the amount of investment in what already works for certain groups.

I just wish it weren't so...

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