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Friday, August 11, 2006


About Installing Software in Linux

I recently read the 10 reasons to dump Windows [part I] article and I found it is an interesting reading. It's just the first of three articles where the author presents the top 10 reasons why he decided to use Linux instead of Windows and I agree the three reasons mentioned in the first post. However I won't to discuss the entire article but to talk about my experience with the third reason: Installing software.

I don't want to create controversy. Further more, I like and use Linux. I'm just expressing my thoughts about the package management in Linux based on my short experience (about 7 years) using that OS.

In the mentioned article the author points the convenience of having package managers and repositories in Linux: to install a new software package we just need to run a package manager (i.e. Synaptic Package Manager) and "choose the app from the list (which is nicely divided into categories, making it easy to find stuff) and confirm the choice". Then the program is automatically downloaded from a repo and installed in our system.

All those things are true. But it is not always so simple for everybody. All works fine provided you have an internet connection (and is preferable to have a broadband connection, as many packages are big in size). You may think this is not a big problem because most people have broadband access to internet nowadays. Well, if you think so you're wrong.

Many, really many people, specially in developing countries access to internet through dial up modems or have no connection at all. So, these people relies on a few other individuals or institutions that have the appropriate access to download the needed packages. Many people download packages at work or university to install them at home. For those people all the mentioned convenience is very limited.

Installing software in the Windows-like way

OK, those people can download individual packages (i.e. an application or library) and install it at home. The same apply if you want to install something not found in the official repositories. As the author says:
How many programs are there in those repositories? What about the apps we cannot find in them? Well, in Debian (and Ubuntu) the official repositories hold over 10 thousands of packages (programs, tools, libraries), all available for instant installation with a few mouse clicks. It’s really hard to find an open source program which is not available in the repositories (either official or additional unofficial ones). The exception are non-free apps like Acrobat Reader, Java or Real Player. Most of them can be installed from unofficial repos (which need to be added to the repo list) as well, but the alternative way is it to use the binary installers provided with them (this is the Windows-like way).
Again, this is true but not always works. You can download a program at work, save it in some removable media and try to install it at home. Then you realize that the program requires to install several libraries but... those libraries are already installed on your system! It's weird.

To explain this I will use my own experience: About three years ago I wanted to install XSane so I downloaded the package and when I tried to install it I found that It was needed to update just one library (from version 1.14 to version 1.15 or so, I just remember that the difference was a minor version) which at the same time required almost all other installed libraries updated too. It was easier for me to install a new version of the OS.

I must say that my system was pretty outdated but I think it's just absurd that I minor version update in a library requires all the system updated. Later I found that this problem is due to APIs and ABIs that are quite volatile in linux. It was an rpm based distro and this problem tend to be less noticeable in Debian based distros though (like the Ubuntu family).

But that's not all. Some GPLed programs are not updated in the repositories or even not included at all. For example, Free Pascal compiler is not up to date in the Debian repo. I install it in Xubuntu from an rpm package using alien, but I'm still trying to configure Lazarus to work fine.

In despite of all the previous things the author of the article says:
Central repositories, apart from the convenience, provide another
important benefit. For software infected with malware it’s much harder
(in practice almost impossible) to get into the official repositories.

I agree, definitively. I only hope that this approach can be improved soon.

I'm waiting your comments, whether you agree or not.

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