With Linux, enough is sometimes too much

Von Neil McAllister

There"s a lot more to the Linux operating system than just the kernel itself. Each Linux distribution ships with compilers, utilities, small tools, and even full-blown desktop applications. Some of that software is essential; no Linux system could run without it. In other cases, however, it"s superfluous. Sometimes it"s even a hindrance.

How so? Ignore servers for the moment and consider that other market -- the one that"s likely to be the most crucial for the Linux movement over the next few years -- Linux on the desktop.

The wealth of free software installed on your average Linux workstation has long been a point of pride for open source advocates. When you install Windows, they"ll argue, you get an operating system, a notepad, a calculator, and a copy of Minesweeper. When you install Linux, in addition to the OS, you might get an image manipulation program, a database management system, a software development environment, a graph-plotting program, a full-blown office productivity suite, and more.

Much more, as a matter of fact. Installing Fedora Core 3, the community-maintained distribution that forms the core of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, means downloading either four CDs or a 2.6GB DVD image. For the Linux hobbyist, that"s great. But for business environments, I wonder whether it isn"t entirely too much.

As it stands today, executives, specialists, and other so-called knowledge workers are unlikely candidates for desktop Linux. The real market lies in volume installs: call centers, support desks, and other environments that rely on little more than a few Web-based applications.

As impressive an achievement as the GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) may be, and as much as we may want to show it off as an example of what the open source movement is capable of, basic enterprise Linux workstations simply have no need for the free software equivalent of Photoshop.

You could argue that it never hurts to have too many options, but I disagree. Under the hood, any Linux PC is a system of incredible complexity. Adding more applications to the mix only increases that complexity and gives the end-user more blind alleys to wander down. Anything that raises the barrier of entry to Linux is harmful, no matter how good the intentions.

So who"s doing it right? My current favorite desktop Linux distribution is Ubuntu , the brainchild of South African dot-com billionaire Mark Shuttleworth. The base Ubuntu distribution ships as a single CD-ROM. No compilers are included; no database servers are installed by default. Anything you want to add to the core system must be downloaded separately from servers managed by Canonical, Ubuntu"s parent company.

Is it the perfect bare-bones desktop? No; it still ships with multimedia players, unnecessary Internet tools, and, yes, the GIMP. But Ubuntu"s developers have taken great care to streamline its Gnome-based UI to make it as accessible as possible to entry-level users. In this respect, it resembles the early Macintosh UI.

You"ll be hearing more about Ubuntu in future columns. For now, though, I hope the major enterprise Linux players are paying attention to Ubuntu and other more streamlined distributions. In an ideal world, there would be distributions custom-tailored for different categories of workers -- sales forces, accountants, and even graphics professionals. In the early days of Linux, offering the user everything under the sun was laudable. These days, it"s time to start offering just what each user really needs.