Since a couple Computerworld bloggers have been discussing installing software in Linux, I'd thought I'd chime in.
Preston Gralla lived with Linux for a couple weeks and complained about the software update process. This was a small part of his story but it generated enough interest that he wrote a followup, Seven newbie tips for installing Linux apps
In my opinion, Linux newcomers shouldn't need seven tips to install software. Just the existence of this article says a lot about installing software in Linux.
Later, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols commented that "When we live with any technology, we start taking for granted knowledge that we have that's a foreign language to others."
I couldn't agree more. This is a huge problem standing in the way of the widespread adoption of Linux.
A while back I was considering installing Linux on a computer and using the free VMware server to run other operating systems on the machine. But VMware's instructions to install their software were written by Linux techies for Linux techies and I couldn't understand them. I contacted a PR person at VMware who put me in contact with a techie at the company. After a couple emails back and forth I was right where I started. As Shakespeare said, it was all Greek to me. I gave up.
Interestingly, the rest of Vaughan-Nichols' article is about a great new system from Asus for updating software in Linux. They need a new system. I own an Asus 1000 Linux netbook and its software update application fails time and time again.
I want to like Linux, but it consistently disappoints.
Over the last few years I've installed a number of different distros, kicked the tires and dropped each one to return to my trustworthy Windows XP. Even though Linux can be had for free, is resistant to viruses and doesn't have a huge learning curve (for someone familiar with Windows), I still don't use it.
All because of Firefox.
Updating Software under Linux: Strikes 5 and 6
To stick with Linux in any way shape or form, I have to have the latest and greatest version of Firefox. Thus, the first thing I try to do, on any newly installed distro, is update Firefox to the latest version. And I fail every time.
To expand on a comment thread from Vaughan-Nichols' posting, here's my experience trying to update Firefox v3.0.3 in the latest version (8.10) of Ubuntu. This should be low-hanging fruit, after all, you can't get any more mainstream than Ubuntu and Firefox.
On the Applications menu, the choice for Add/Remove programs seems pretty self-explanatory. I started it, searched for "Firefox" in the search box and got back a short list of applications that included Firefox.
But that's it. It doesn't say which version of Firefox is installed or whether a new version is available. It doesn't, in fact, say anything useful. And there is no "Update Now" button to click.
There is an update manager application off the System Administration menu. It tells me there are 74 patches waiting to be installed and breaks them up into an Important category and a Recommended category. A Windows Update user should feel pretty much at home at this point.
But, Windows Update defaults to installing only the most important patches, this application defaults to installing them all. If you want to install only the most important ones, you have individually uncheck the 50 or so Recommended patches. Are you kidding me?
And, despite the fact that the installed copy of Firefox is three releases old (3.0.3 vs. 3.0.6), the update manager didn't find a newer copy of Firefox to install.
Strike three comes at mozilla.com. The home page auto-detects your operating system and offers a big green button with the download of the latest version of Firefox in a format appropriate for your system.
I download version 3.0.6 as a tar.bz2 file and took the Ubuntu default action of opening it in Archive manager. This left me at a read-only list of files and folders. What now?
Browsing the files I came across a readme.txt file that says to go to getfirefox.com/releases for installation instructions. That turns out to be a false lead as the web page it gets redirected to, has no installation instructions.
Commenters to the Vaughan-Nichols posting have said that this is not the way software is installed in Linux. If that's so, then why does Mozilla.com offer up a downloadable bz2 file rather than an error message? Any website can easily detect the presence of Ubuntu 8.10 from the web browser user agent.
Finally, I tried the Synaptic Package Manager. Entering "Firefox" in the quick search box returned a huge list of stuff. Stuff like ubufox, Firefox trunk dev, wmnetselect and the Firefox DOM inspector. What these have to do with Firefox is not brutally obvious. In fact, Firefox itself is not obvious. There is an entry for "Firefox" and another entry for "Firefox-3.0".
Synaptic is aware that version 3.0.3 is installed. But it doesn't seem to know about any newer versions. Worse yet, I can't figure out how to check for a new version or tell it to update to a newer version. There is no "update" or "upgrade" button. Right clicking on the Firefox entry offers a re-install option, but is this re-install, as in the thing is acting up, or is it a code word meaning update? The check boxes offer to re-install and remove, but not to update.
February 8, 2009 Update: A reader pointed out that Firefox can be updated by right clicking on the "Firefox" entry and checking the "Mark for upgrade" option. This option was disabled. Synaptic says the currently installed version, 3.0.3+nobinonly-0ubuntu2 (intrepid), is also the latest version.
ACT, TOGETHER, GET
Let me be clear about where I stand. I want to like Linux and want to use it more. Free is good, rooting for the little guy is good and not having to worry about malware is great. But until the software update process is improved, it's not ready to assimilate Windows users.
Update: For more on this topic, see Updating Software under Linux: Strikes 5 and 6