Thursday, 08 December 2011 12:11

A tale of two distros: openSUSE and Linux Mint

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For as long back as I can remember, GNU/Linux distributions have resembled Windows in one respect - that start menu at the bottom of the left side of the screen.


This is not surprising, considering that most people who move to GNU/Linux are Windows refugees. And one needs some points of similarity in order to ease the transition.

Even when Ubuntu came along in 2004, though the menu was located at the top of the screen, it was child's play to move it to the bottom. Ubuntu was tracking the development of GNOME, keeping in sync with the six-monthly release schedule of the latter.

But when Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth decided that he needed something different as an interface and could not convince the GNOME developers to go along with his ideas, a split of sorts eventuated.

Unity was unveiled.

Given that Shuttleworth sees the Mac as the platform to emulate, it was only a matter of time before he either asked his programmers to create a design that took in some elements of OS-X, or else tweaked one of the existing environments to do the same thing. He took the first route.

Unity has emulated the look of a mobile phone interface; the intention is to also cater to tablets and mobiles down the track. That's the way business is trending, that's the way any company that wants to balance the books will have to look too.


But Unity has proved to be the opposite of its name, sharply dividing the Ubuntu user community, many of whom appear to have started looking for alternatives. What these people want is a distribution that has all the ease of use that Ubuntu does, but something that has an interface more like the old-style GNOME interface.


The fact that the GNOME developers also got it into their heads to go in the direction of a mobile-like interface - GNOME 3 is as bad or as good as Unity - meant that there was an opportunity to be exploited.

If one looks at a couple of recent releases, there appear to be two distinct approaches. Some, like openSUSE, have chosen to implement GNOME 3 and jazz it up as well. openSUSE is the community distribution run by SUSE Linux and serves as a gateway for changes to the enterprise distribution, SUSE Enterprise Linux.

The way openSUSE has implemented GNOME 3 is reminiscent of its past. When SUSE was a German company, it used KDE as its default desktop and did not merely implement the stock KDE; the desktop was nicely designed, changed a bit here and there to look very polished, and a number of very individualistic touches were added. At that time, GNOME was not adorned in any way by SUSE; the stock GNOME was all one would get.

After Novell bought SUSE, the default desktop became GNOME in keeping with its American ownership. GNOME is implemented the same way KDE was then, with little tweaks, and looks very, very good. It is memory-intensive but then these days that is a relative term given that 4GB of DDR3 memory sells for $A35. openSUSE has retained the shade of green for which it was well known, and it looks like a nice rich desktop.

The old warhorses haven't gone away - utilities like YaST (Yet Another Setup Tool), the configuration tool that was present in SUSE 12 years ago, is still around and still doing a very capable job. It is a good mix if you like the GNOME 3 layout and the concept of the shell that it implements. GNOME permits only limited tweaking by the user - that, to some, may well be a drawback. But one really can't find fault with the openSUSE implementation of the desktop environment. It means a bit of learning but then all computer use encompasses learning a bit here and there all the time.


Linux Mint has taken an entirely different approach in implementing GNOME 3. It has implemented a layer - called Mint GNOME Shell extensions on top of GNOME 3 to allow users to gradually ease themselves into using GNOME 3. And for those who dislike the mobile-like interface of GNOME 3, Mint has a fork of GNOME 2.32 called MATE that preserves the old GNOME 2 interface.


This approach has earned Mint chief Clement Lefebvre praise aplenty and there have been numerous claims that Mint is now overtaking Ubuntu in user numbers. But this is impossible to verify with any degree of certainty as most GNU/Linux distributions do not call for registration forms to filled in when one installs the operating system. There are enterprise distributions which require subscriptions in order to receive updates.

While Mint is aiming at the market for Ubuntu users, it has one drawback - it is, itself, based on Ubuntu and even uses all the Ubuntu update servers for its updates, other than Mint-specific ones.

To some extent, this resembles the relationship between Red Hat Enterprise Linux and CentOS - the latter strips out all the trademarks from RHEL and thus allows people to use it free, without paying a subscription as one has to do with RHEL. Earlier this year, RHEL suddenly made a decision to release all updates as one big compressed file, making it that much more difficult for the CentOS project to provide those updates, often critical security fixes, to its users in a timely fashion. This is one way of nobbling the competition.

There are two questions that present themselves when one looks at the approach taken by Mint. One is, how long will it continue to provide MATE and be confident that fixes, if needed, will be provided by the upstream community? GNOME 2 will be maintained for some time, not forever. At some time in the future, all those GNOME 2 refugees who are using Mint will have to move to GNOME 3.

There is also the possibility that if Mint is perceived as making inroads into the Ubuntu brand and user base, then Shuttleworth may well look at something similar to what Red Hat has done, just to make it more difficult for a distribution like Mint to continue to be up-to-date in terms of fixes.

Mint is helping people to delay change as long as possible. openSUSE seems to have the better of the two approaches - accepting change and making it smoother than the raw interface.

 

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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