Struggling towards a great Linux desktop

I'm very happy with my Linux desktop. To be precise, I'm very happy with SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 SP2; openSUSE 11, Kubuntu 8.04, Mint 5 and MEPIS 7. I'm also getting fond of Fedora 9.

Anyone see the problem here? I do.

That's too many desktops, except for a nut case like yours truly who really likes playing with operating systems. Most people, most sane people anyway, want one desktop that works for them and can at least get along with the other desktops in the office.

The beauty of Linux is that you can have a safe, powerful desktop operating system. The ugly thing about Linux is that it can you also give you enough options to drive you batty.

Now, I can tell you, after asking a few questions what Linux is likely to work best for you. Three quick examples: You want a desktop to deploy over an enterprise; SLED 10 SP2's your best choice. Want one for the home, right now I'd say Ubuntu/Kubuntu 8.04 pre-installed on a Dell PC or Mint if you want to do it yourself. Want one that looks and acts a lot like Windows XP, then Xandros comes to mind.

I'm not going into the details of why I made those calls; those are stories for another day, but all these operating system share a problem: they have little rhyme or reason in how they enable you to install programs.

On SLED or openSUSE, you use a tool called YaST. On one of the Debian/Ubuntu Linux family - Ubuntu, Kubuntu, Mint and MEPIS of the ones I've mentioned here today, you're probably best off using Synaptic. On Fedora 9, the newest version, it's PackageKit. If you're running an older copy of Fedora, it's Yum. These programs, call package managers, are easy to use... once you get the hang of them. If you need to work at a level beneath that you'll find a complex and downright creaky infrastructure of different approaches all designed to put a working program on your desktop.

Fortunately for desktop Linux users, it does work. These days most of you don't need to worry about picking between any of these options. You can buy -- you lucky dogs you -- a PC from Asus, Dell, HP, or Lenovo that gives you a Linux already set up, ready to run and ready to install programs for you.

Of course, now you need to figure out which programs you want, and that can get tricky. Chances are you know OpenOffice is a great pick for an office suite. But, what about an open-source replacement for Quicken? Hint: Try GnuCash.

The package managers make it easy to install a program. They don't make it easy for you to find the right program to install.

That's why I was so excited when Linspire first announced that it was putting up a distribution agnostic combination of package manager and Wiki-ed software review site CNR (Click 'N Run). You can think of it as being a lot like or TuCows and you won't be far wrong.

Well, that was the idea. The reality had a lot of rough edges. That's why I'm cautious optimistic about Xandros, the oldest of the desktop Linux distributors, buying Linspire. According to Xandros' CEO, Andreas Typaldos, Xandros intends on perfecting CNR and using it so that desktop Linux users, regardless of what brand of Linux they're running, can use a Web-based, one-click software delivery system to update and enhance their platform.

Xandros should have the cash to pull this off. The growing popularity of Asus' inexpensive Linux Eee PCs, which run Xandros Linux may not have made Xandros rich, but it should have given the money needed to take CNR from an OK beta level to something that anyone can use.

I like this plan. I hope Xandros can carry it through. If they can it will be another big step forward in making desktop Linux significantly easer for the vast majority of people who just want to use their computer and don't give a hoot about what's happening under the hood. Making the Linux desktop great for anyone to use, yes, the more I think about it, the more I it.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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