Death of a Distro: Linux Has It’s Own Afterlife!

In a previous blog post, I tried to answer the question of why there are so very many Linux distributions (“distros” for short). Click there and read that one first, then come on back here and finish this post. It’ll help make sense of what I’m about to say.

The years have seen some small and some big Linux distros come and go. Some great notables among the honored “dead” Linux distros are Lindows, Mandrake, Libranet, and SimplyMepis. Lesser known but more recently popular ones include some recent “deaths,” such as SolusOS, Fuduntu, and Bodhi.

Dead, perhaps, but neither gone completely nor forgotten. Mepis/SimplyMepis is about to release Mepis 12. It’s already available for download as a beta, but because it is based on Debian Stable, I seriously doubt that it is of beta quality. The demise of Mepis has not been officially announced, but the resignation of its main developer has been. That usually spells the end of a distro, but not always. The same can be said about Bodhi, which also is losing it’s main developer. Is bonny Bodhi doomed? Is Mepis kaput? Perhaps not. A lot depends on the community around a Linux distro.

I think that the difference between a truly dead distro and one that survives, either through an “heir” or a “reincarnation,” is it’s community. And I think I can prove it with examples.

Mandrake lives! It has been reincarnated, mixed with the best of some other Linux flavors borrowed from both Debian and it’s former incarnation in a new(er) distro called PCLinuxOS. Because Mandrake had a loyal, competent, and enthusiastic following which included a very capable Linux wizard named “Texstar.” PCLinuxOS is “the heir of Mandrake,” so even though officially “dead,” magnificent Mandrake lives on through it’s heir.

Sometimes a distro’s community falls back to a living “ancestor” of their experiment, as was the case for Lindows and Libranet. Both built from mighty and immortal Debian Linux, the developers went back to their “parent” distro and brought lessons learned and triumphs earned back with them to Debian. There’s no “heir” nor apparent successor to these old commercial distros, but all Linux users – especially those of us who use Debian-based Linux – have directly benefited. Yes, Virginia, there is an afterlife for Linux distros.

I never used Fuduntu nor Cloverleaf. All I know is that the former was developed “just for fun” and very few people ever took it seriously. Yet it had a successor of sorts, also deceased. But Linux is fun for these cyber-explorers, and their accomplishments are probably not wasted. I would bet that bits of these two “minor” distros live on in other forms.

There are probably twelve zillion Ubuntu-based distros that fit a different category, never having ever actually lived at all. These were attempts to grow a distro “from cuttings of a bigger plant” (Ubuntu) that didn’t take root. It probably happens a lot. Usually these are “one-man distros” that have a poor chance of living longer than a few months anyway, because they’re not actually developed, only “borrowed” and re-branded. I call them “distrolets.” Not true distros.

Bodhi may only be changing hands, and not in any danger of imminent demise. Like Mepis, no one has announced the end of development, only the departure of one key person, the principle founder / lead developer. But unlike Mepis, Bodhi hasn’t been around long enough to gain a large and loyal following that includes several “Linux gurus” in it’s following. I hope I’m wrong about that and I wish them well, of course. But it seems that no one has stepped up to take the reigns of the Ubuntu-based Bodhi Linux project. Mepis, on the other hand, has an “heir apparent,” and several competent community members who continue to maintain and develop the project.

The next release of this one-time top-of-the-charts magnificent Debian-based distro may be the last one, but Mepis has a bright future by any consideration because of it’s very well established community. The successor and “rightful heir” of SimplyMepis is MX. Named according to it’s heritage (Mepis/AntiX) and featuring the Xfce desktop, some of its users have already demonstrated delightful success in modifying it with great results, from a KDE desktop to some of Mepis’ special tools and graphics. Old as my computer is, it ran the full SimplyMepis KDE version 8.0 with no more trouble than it had with WindowsXP when it was brand new.

My old relic couldn’t run the newest version, but it has only gotten more beautiful since I was able to run it on this machine. Still as beautiful in it’s MX version with the Xfce desktop and funny name. Because of it’s well-established and tech-savvy community (excluding this technophobe and some other new folks) and it’s Debian-Stable base, the heir of Mepis is poised to enjoy a long and fruitful life. It doesn’t appear on Distrowatch yet, at least under it’s new name, but I predict a steady rise in it’s use, particularly among those with older computers that want a rock-stable OS without the unexpected drama that many users of other Xfce distros experience.

In whatever form it takes and by whatever name it is known, long live Mepis!

Debian vs Ubuntu

I’m truly puzzled by some of the comparisons between Debian and Debian-based Linux distros and their Ubuntu and Ubuntu-based counterparts. I know this is an old debate and that it is complicated by rants from rabid fanboys and zealots on both sides. I don’t care. What I care about is what works for me, on my computer.

On the Linux forums I lurk in, both sides appear to agree that Debian + the Xfce desktop is a hundred zillion times faster on modest hardware than even minimal Ubuntu + the Xfce desktop. This is supposedly because of the Ubuntu changes to the Debian system. They claim that the trade-off of making Debian “easy” and “user friendly” is a loss of speed and efficiency. That’s what they say, frequently, on both sides of the debate. This makes the debate more about simplicity-vs-efficiency, and users of older, modest computers have to choose between them.

My experience has been exactly the opposite!
I have tested all of the Ubuntu variants including derivatives like Mint, and Debian proper and several direct-compatible derivatives from AntiX and MX-14 to Mepis, SalineOS, and Crunchbang Linux. They are all delightful in their own way, and all are supported by large communities of users. But even in their most light weight configurations, Xubuntu and Mint Xfce were much faster than Debian and it’s Debian-compatible spin-offs on my computer. In my own experience with this very modest 12-year-old Dell with its Celeron 2-GB processor and half-gig of RAM, every single instance of Xubuntu, from 10.04 through 14.04 has been much snappier than any Debian-compatible, non-Canonical counterpart – even with the same desktop environment and applications. Linux Mint Xfce, from 10 to 13 also ran faster and more elegantly than Debian, AntiX, Crunchbang, and MX-14. From all I have read, it should  be 10 times slower, but it just ain’t so.

I don’t know what Canonical does to the Debian kernel, but in my experience it has had two effects:

On one hand it makes the Ubuntu family largely incompatible with it’s parent distro. Software from the Debian repositories may or may not actually run on Ubuntu derivatives and vice-versa. It’s a crap shoot, and potentially bad for whichever OS you’re using.

On the other hand, Ubuntu’s changes make Debian not only easier, but also more responsive and compatible with a wider range of hardware. It seems that the trade-off of speed for ease is a myth – at least for this user, on pretty old hardware. And I bet I’m not the only one.

So all of this brings up another mystery for me: If Debian wants to be “the universal operating system” and “ready for the desktop” by users other than the geekiest of techno-nerds, why won’t they adopt some of the huge improvements that the Ubuntu developers have made? The Ubiquity installer, for example. Highly graphical and wonderfully simple, it makes installing the ‘buntus and Mints, Zorin, Pinguy, UberStudent, WattOS, and countless other Ubuntu derivatives fast and easy. While Debian’s new graphical installer is much easier now, it’s still confusing and clunky by comparison. Why make it harder on Debian users? Why not adopt some of the changes Ubuntu has made to the kernel and firmware to make Debian run better?

Because it’s “pollution from downstream,” perhaps? It reminds me of an old boss I used to work for. The only way to get an idea past him and applied to the workplace was to make it look like his idea. If it was his idea, it was brilliant. If it was anyone else’ idea, it was bad, not well thought out, poorly designed, too costly, whatever. And it never got implemented, period. Yeah, that’s pretty bad bossing, and if it hadn’t been a government job he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he did.

This is all free software, Debian. Take it! Use it! Make Debian better! Why not?

It it because Debian wants to remain aloof and “superior?” Is it because Debian doesn’t want “mere ordinary mortals” in it’s community since they don’t write code? As if code is all that matters. Debian and Ubuntu even share many of the same developers and coders! So you would think they’d still be compatible and both would be awesomely fast and super-efficient, elegant, easy, simple, and beautiful. All I can conclude from all this is that Debian is a haughty, nose-in-the-air snob that has nothing but disdain and contempt for her most popular and successful child. Debian is simply jealous of Ubuntu. And for good reason. They claim that Ubuntu is “copied” from Debian and that Ubuntu has “given nothing back.”  WRONG.  Ubuntu has given a lot back, but Debian is too arrogant and elitist to accept it.

C’mon, Debian, you can’t have it both ways!  Either take what Ubuntu offers and make Debian better, or quit whining and crying that your “little sister” is prettier and more popular than you.