25 Sep 2014

The hair loss cure for new Linux users

If you've spent countless hours making an open source operating system run perfectly on your machine, how about sharing it? You will save new users from the same hair loss or mental breakdown that you experienced. Distroshare.com is a new site that makes it easy to share and download installable distributions for specific hardware or purposes. This has the potential to increase the number of people using Linux and other open source OSes.

If you have been using Linux for a while now, it is pretty clear to you why Linux hasn't taken off on the desktop. Installing Linux distributions on standard PCs and laptops has become much easier in recent years; however, often there are multiple issues related to the software, hardware configuration, or drivers that need to be fixed before the system is as functional as Windows. A new user would have no idea how to find and install a solution for their issue, which would lead to the end of their Linux experience unless they had help.

Why haven't Linux distributions been able to become a one size fits all solution? The answer is due to the vast amount of hardware available. If you think about it, Windows isn't a one size fits all solution either. Original Equipment Manufactures (OEMs) include drivers and software that support their hardware. Until we see more hardware that ships with Linux distros that are as polished as their Windows offering, the same trend will continue.

Will more major OEMs adopt Linux? Some have, but with limited devices and some smaller OEMs have showed up to fill the niche. We will likely be waiting a very long time, if not forever, for Linux to be supported on the majority of machines as there is little incentive for OEMs to do so. Since Linux distributions contain open source software, what the Linux community can do is become the role of the OEM and support machines that we have. Most often advanced users or developers find or create fixes for popular machines to get a working system. Often, you will find their posts on forums explaining how to fix certain issues. If these users shared their changes as an installable distribution, it could be quite simple for new users with the same machine to install a fully working Linux based OS.

Critics of this idea cite security concerns. They are correct that there are security concerns, but I would go as far to say that there are security concerns with official distributions as well. Hundreds of thousands of developers, if not more, contribute to the code that makes a distribution. It would only take one of them to insert something malicious knowingly or unknowingly (e.g., Heartbleed) for your system to be vulnerable. Yes, their source code is available, but how often have you gone through every line of code that makes up your OS? That itself is a scary thought, but even scarier is the thought that someone could knowingly insert malicious code into a program generating program, such as a compiler or assembler, that would insert itself into every program. Ken Thompson explains how someone could do this and how hard it could be to detect, even if the source code is available. In conclusion, I think the benefits out weight the risks.

To foster the idea of sharing installable distros for specific hardware or purposes, I created distroshare.com. An example purpose may be to mimic Windows or Mac OS X for users comfortable with those user interfaces. Anyone can submit a distro to share and each one will be reviewed for security issues or functionality problems. Submissions can be uploaded directly to distroshare.com or a link to the file/project can be provided in the submission form. The submission form also accepts an optional PayPal or Bitcoin address for users to donate to. Currently there are nine distributions listed and only three for a specific machine (the Acer C720 chromebook). As the number of distributions grow, we should see more desktop Linux users and perhaps even cause OEMs to pay more attention.

It is not difficult for an experienced user to create installable distributions. There are many tutorials on how to do so and several scripts out there to automate the process. I have a section in the FAQs on distroshare.com that points to several links and scripts: https://www.distroshare.com/faqs/. One of the scripts, Distroshare Ubuntu Imager, is one I that created for Ubuntu and Ubuntu based distributions.

It is easy to see why new users get so frustrated with open source OSes. It should work out of the box with minimal hassle, so let's take the hard part out of it for them.

This is a guest post by Hugh Greenberg


  1. I think it's a great initiative. Shared the same sometime back:

  2. We get use to some linux distros being tidy whilst others are the opposite .(perhaps they are more fun that way ! )