Linux software installation myths

In a recent story about Microsoft running scared of Linux, I got a lot of mail saying things like, "when installing programs becomes as easy as Windows then Microsoft will be in trouble....most people couldn't be bothered stuffing around trying to find programs that will work and then figuring out how to install [them]." Ah, hello, it's actually easier to install software in Linux than it is in Windows.

There is, however, a key difference that it appears many Windows users don't get. In Windows, every program has its own installation routine. Usually, but not always, it requires you to click on some variety or the other of individualized setup program. In mainstream Linux distributions you use one program, often called a package manager, to install all your programs.

Personally, I find the Linux method easier because not only do package managers install the programs, they also enable you to search for a program. Say you want a program to display Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format) files. In Windows, you need to find out what program you'll need-Adobe Acrobat Reader, then download it, and then install it. Easy enough, but it could be easier.

With openSUSE, for example, I select Install Software from my main KDE menu. Install Software is part of openSUSE's YaST administration program. I'm then presented with a menu where one of my options is to search for software. I put in 'PDF,' you see I don't even need to know the name of the program that can handle PDF, and it shows me a listing of programs and their descriptions. At the top of the list is AcroRead from Adobe. I click on it and YaST takes care of downloading and installing it.

So, in short, with Linux I don't need to even know the name of a program, I just search for what I need with the package manager and once I find something I like I just give it one click and that's it. With Windows, searching, downloading and installing software is three separate operations. Advantage: Linux.

To quote Ian Murdock, co-founder of the Debian Linux distribution and now Sun's vice-president for Developer and Community Marketing, "What's the single biggest advancement Linux has brought to the industry? It's an interesting question, and one that in my opinion has a very simple answer: Package management-or, more specifically, the ability to install and upgrade software over the network in a seamlessly integrated fashion-along with the distributed development model package management enabled." I completely agree.

All Linux distributions include package managers. These include command-line based tools like Debian's apt-get and GUI-tools such as Synaptic, commonly used by Debian and Ubuntu; PackageKit, which is used by Fedora; Conray, which goes with Foresight Linux and Smart Package Manager, which attempts to work with a wide variety of Linux distributions.

There are also projects like Xandros', formerly Linspire's, CNR (Click-N-Run) software installation system. In CNR, Ubuntu, Linspire, Freespire and Linux Mint users have an online catalog of free and commercial software programs. You explore the Web pages, find a program that strikes your fancy, and with one click, once more you download and install it.

Underneath these package managers, things do become more complicated with RPM (Red Hat Package Manager) and Deb package file formats. Debates on how to handle the package manager engines can get quite heated and technical, but users don't need to worry with any of this. You just use your distribution's package manager and wonder why in the world anyone would think installing software on a modern Linux is complicated.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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