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Open Source Distributions and the Freedom to Choose

Mark EdworthyMay 8, 2018, 6:28:28 PM

Everyday we are giving choices in even the most minimal of details. Do we want plastic or paper, do we want plan A or plan B, do we want coffee or tea, do we want Coke with vanilla, cherry or lime?

Given all this choice, when purchasing a new computer, why do most vendors only offer these devices with either Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOS pre-installed?

With ongoing concerns about security, privacy and costs of updates; there are many users that are looking for alternatives to these operating systems and are considering to replace their current pre-installed system with a Linux based open source alternative.

Why Choose Linux Over a Microsoft or Apple Product
As stated above, most workstations (desktop computers and laptops) are usually pre-installed with either Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOS by default. These operating systems come with proprietary, closed source end user license agreements (EULA); which forces the user into accepting a fairly rigid set of condition. These conditions can effect how the operating system can be used (reference: Windows 10 S example within my ‘Microsoft Predictions’ article – URL provided below), as well as how copies of the operating system can be distributed to other workstation devices and further conditions on end user privacy rights.

Where as Linux based operating systems (otherwise known as distributions) generally gives the user the right to modify, contribute and redistribute the system (as demonstrated within my ‘What is Free and Open Source Software’ and ‘Open Source, GNU, Linux Kernel and the Free Software Foundation’ articles). These distributions usually provide the user with a wide variation of environments, applications and frameworks to choose from.

Which Distribution to Choose
According to Distrowatch.com, there are currently over 880 different variants of open source (BSD, Linux and other open source kernel based) distributions to choose from. Many of these distributions are forks (ie. modified versions) of other distributions and whilst a most of these distributions can be used as general day-to-day environments, some are developed for specific markets, users and other demographic needs.

As an example, both RedHat and SUSE produces distributions specifically tailored for professional corporate environments but also contributes there operating systems as a base for free distributions. Red Hat provides their commercially available RedHat Enterprise Linux (RHEL), which contributes to the development of CentOS and Fedora. Whilst SUSE provides code to their enterprise distributions, which is then used to contribute to the upkeep of OpenSUSE. Generally, the reasons for purchasing a copy of RedHat or SUSE enterprise distributions is due to the extra support contracts that are available.

There are a number of distributions that may not be suitable for novice computer users or users that are only beginning to experience Linux based operating systems. Installing and using distributions such as Gentoo, Linux from Scratch or Arch Linux does require users to be familiar with storage device partitioning, command-line interfaces and various configuration files. Many distributions provide an option for customisation of partition tables of the existing storage device (ie. hard disk or solid state drive), most distributions will offer to partition a storage device automatically. However, there are some reasons for creating customised partition tables, this may include the user wanting to use and configure multiple storage devices or the need to retain existing data.

There are many distributions that are produced for novice end users, these distributions may include licensed multimedia codecs (code that allows for encoding and compression or decompression for playback or editing of various multimedia formats), proprietary hardware drivers (such as Nvidia or AMD graphic card drivers), proprietary gaming clients (ie. Steam client) or other close source software and third party firmware. These types of distributions allow for minimum user interaction during the installation process, allowing for an operating system to provide an out-of-the-box (OOTB) experience.

However some users may not wish to have the addition of proprietary, close source software and drivers to be included within their operating system. These users may prefer having access only to open source based software, which would suggest that they may not want to use these OOTB distributions.

Good examples of OOTB distributions include: Ubuntu, Linux Mint, MX Linux, Deepin, PCLinuxOS and Manjaro. As stated above, these distributions provides a complete operating system, which automatically download, install and configure the appropriate proprietary, close source graphic card drivers, licensed codecs and may have easy access to other proprietary, close source client applications (such as Microsoft Skype, TeamSpeak and Valve Steam).

Choice of Desktop Environments
Open source is all about choice and choosing a distribution is only the first step. As shown within my article about ‘Core Components of Open Source Operating Systems’, there are a several desktop environments (DE) to choose from.

Many distributions provides the user with a default DE and utilizes a standard set of widgets, which allows for a standard look and theme for many applications. Also many of these desktop environments provides their own set of utilities and desktop applications, which may include a file manager (which allows for the displaying of files and folders within a storage device), text editor (notepad application), calculator and various configuration tools.

Some desktop environments are preferred due to their stability to run on older hardware or their familiarity, whilst many others are popular because of their aesthetics and functionality. Most distributions tend to use either Gnome, KDE or XFCE as their default desktop environment and may include other user interfaces (or shells) to be implemented over the desktop environment to add extra functionality (good examples include the usage of Unity, Mate or Cinnamon to act as an overlay for Gnome).

As stated above, some older hardware (such as 486 and Pentium based computers) may perform better with lightweight desktop environments, such as XFCE or LXDE. Whilst the user may want to use these desktop environments on newer hardware (so that more resources can be provided to other applications), the user may prefer a more resource intensive environment (such as KDE or Gnome) which provides more customisation options.

Also, many of these environments do come with their own login managers, which can further be configured to share a similar look and feel. Like a lot of options within an open source operating system, the login manager and desktop environment can be mixed, which provides the user with many customisation options that can allow for some unique and personalised looking environments.

Open Source Providing a World Full of Choice
The benefits of using open source software provides a platform from where software can be shared, modified and adapted to the users own individual needs. Unlike proprietary software which only allows for projects to be adapted by the original creators, open source encourages collaboration between developers and their users.

Choice, freedom and transparency are the three core components of open source software, this allows users and developers to communicate between each other, as well as providing an open and transparent environment which allows for the sharing of software, code and ideas that benefits the entire community.

References & Other Resources:
* Distrowatch: Directory of Open Source Distributions
* Wikipedia: Linux Distributions Timeline
* Microsoft Predictions
* What is Free and Open Source Software
* Open Source, GNU, Linux Kernel and the Free Software Foundation
* Core Components of Open Source Operating Systems
* Technology and Open Source Blog