Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

OpenSUSE 11.0 – The Kobayashi Maru angle

The Kobayashi Maru scenario figures in various Star Trek novels. It’s a no-win scenario that only a few are able to beat. One of those is Mackenzie Calhoun, the main character in the New Frontier books, who simply blew the Kobayashi Maru and it’s crew to smithereens. Writing about Linux distributions is like that, a no-win scenario. Yesterday I decided to follow Calhoun’s lead and smashed the reviewing process.

What is surprising is that I didn’t actually hide the fact it was a bogus review. Still, some were offended to enough to start defending their own little distributions against this unwarranted onslaught. But why has reviewing Linux distributions become a Kobayashi Maru scenario?

In essence, what set’s one distribution apart from the other? Is it the software collection? The choice of graphical interface? Hardly. Within a certain timeframe all distributions have similar collections with slight third-digit differences in version numbers. All major distributions have to juggle between providing a userfriendly distribution while at the same time wondering about licensing and other rights. Smaller distributions can get away with adding default support for this, but the larger ones can’t. Hence the necessity for creative solutions, either by providing easy access to repositories or simply paying for the fees themselves. The quality of the creative solution is one way to set itself apart.

One can distinguish oneself in but a few areas. Installation routine? Yes, somewhat, though it limited to the amount of questions you would want to ask your user. You can add some shine to it, but the essence of the routine is virtually the same.

The next area is that of management tools. Managing users, groups, hardware, various settings and software, but to name a few that are of interest to end-users. It’s here that we see the differences creeping in. SUSE/OpenSUSE users will point to YasT, Mandriva users to the various *drakes, Fedora users will see what is the current flavour of the month and proclaim that and Ubuntu users start looking for the generic names that describe the main functions of the tool.

Now, the issue is that working with these tools is an acquired art or taste. When migrating from Windows to Linux you will have to learn to work with these and once you are used to them -with all their quirks and idiosyncracies- it becomes harder to move to another distribution that provides “yet another graphical innovative frontend for basically the same function”, shortened to YAGIF. Every YAGIF requires getting used to. You might like your YAGIF but that is in itself insufficient proof that it is better than the other YAGIF.

Sadly, some participants in online discussions fail to see this. They simply see an all out attack on their favorite distribution, claiming that the other distribution didn’t work on their machine. Right… What they are actually saying is they didn’t understand the other distribution enough to make it work for them. Why can I say this? Well, because tons of others will yell that they didn’t have any problems getting hardware X running with distribution Y. And vice versa of course.

The development of Linux distributions is an evolutionary process. Packages are developed constantly and a distribution is a snapshot of that process. In each distribution release innovative new features are heralded that finally solve whatever problem is the fad of the day. 2007 was the year of Compiz and 2008 seems to become the year of PulseAudio, “yet another tool to solve a problem that was to be solved by the previous yet another tool”. I’m not arguing that PulseAudio is good or bad, I’m simply saying that previous solutions were heralded as well without actually solving all problems. The development should continue, but it shouldn’t be something to bicker about in the comments.

So, what are my real impressions of OpenSUSE 11.0? For one, it is a decent release. In fact it is better than the 10.x releases or SLED 10. It is way faster and snappier and more polished in various areas.

The solution for the multimedia issue is elegant and easy to use for novice users. Adding the collection of other repositories isn’t what I call elegant. Plus, if you enable them all (something a novice user might do) you run into problems with dependencies that can’t be solved. I would rate the software management tool between that of Ubuntu (easier to use) and Fedora 9 (who ever came up with that idea).

I don’t like the menupanel in GNOME or KDE. It looks nice, seems elegant, but it requires way too many clicks to get to the program I want. The ‘older’ program trees requires two clicks (menu and the program) instead of clicking from panel to panel. Yes, I can change that without a problem.

I have been working with OpenSUSE 11.0 for a couple of days now and will continue to do so for some time to come. However, not a day went by with at least a few program crashes or error messages. Simply launching the file manager is enough to get another crash report. Of the tested spring releases (Ubuntu, Fedora and Mandriva are the other ones) OpenSUSE is the only one that shows this behavior. To answer your question: no, I didn’t file bug reports. No doubt all problems will be fixed and the fixes be made available through the update channels. That is one of the things you can count on with open source software.

Is OpenSUSE 11.0 better than Vista, Leopard, Ubuntu, PCLinuxOS, SabayonLinux, Fedora or whatever other distribution you can think of? Well, better than Vista perhaps, but that’s easy. In comparison to all other distributions it is safe to say that OpenSUSE 11.0 is keeping pace with them, satisfying their own userbase the most, but hardly bringing something so innovative that it would lure users away from them.

“Computer. End program.”

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2 thoughts on “OpenSUSE 11.0 – The Kobayashi Maru angle

  1. pengpengpeng on said:

    Nice posting.
    A tiny sidenote: I don’t like the menu too much, either (though it’s easy to change). What I do like is that it can integrate e.g. Beagle so you have one place to search and look for programs.

  2. Thank you.

    True, desktop search programs have become an essential tool and Beagle is one of them. I am afraid my experience with Beagle is mixed. Firefox and Beagle seem to be at odds with eachother, with Beagle offering to disable the integration. I wil find out what is wrong with it 😉

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