/var/opinion - It's free. It's proprietary. No, it's two (click) two (click) two distros in one.

Freespire is Linspire's new inspired response to the factors that are holding back the best desktop distribution around.

This column has a new name, /var/opinion. I changed it for three reasons. First, as much as I enjoy a good rant (and I will continue to rant whenever the mood strikes), I've found too much to rave about lately. I find it constraining to produce a rant when I get excited about something good. Second, I named it /var/opinion because a column is, by definition, an opinion. We editors and writers take that for granted, but not all readers are as savvy about publishing practices. Some readers express dissatisfaction when someone expresses an opinion in a column. I'm not finding fault with these readers for doing so, because they simply may not know better. The title is meant to remind them that an editorial column is opinion. The two are inseparable. Finally, as many readers were so kind to point out, /etc/rant was not LSB-compliant. So I changed the location of the column to /var.

Linspire recently announced that it will ship a community-driven distribution called Freespire sometime in August 2006. When it gets here, I'll decide if it's worthy of a rant or a rave. But the idea is spot on, and worthy of a rave.

Let's get the self-serving nature of this move out of the way. Linspire may grab a lot of pieces from Debian and other sources in order to produce the Linspire distribution, but the company still has to do a lot of work fine-tuning the distribution to make it easier to use than the competition. Linspire is attempting to off-load that work to the volunteer community. It sounds like Linspire is exploiting volunteers, but if so, Linspire is just joining a very big club. Red Hat created Fedora Core 5 in part to off-load the development of the core distribution to volunteers. Countless Debian-based distributions exploit the hard work of Debian volunteers. So, unless you want to spread the blame across just about every distribution available, Linspire doesn't deserve any criticism for doing the same.

Let me squash another probable criticism. Is Freespire Linspire's response to the threat of an Ubuntu/Kubuntu revolution? Probably. But again, what difference does that make if we Linux users benefit?

Here's the cool thing about Freespire. The Linspire folks are adopting some of the most significant improvements you'll find in other distributions, such as Ubuntu. For example, you will be forced to create a user account and will no longer log in as root by default.

More important, the plan is to make it customizable. Those who are anal about licensing issues can have a completely open-source version of Freespire. Those who want to use Java, Flash, play DVDs or do anything else that requires an alternative license or proprietary software can get Freespire with support for these additions.

Maybe you're a license freak, in which case you don't use Java, Flash or play DVDs on Linux. Sorry, but I'm not only unafraid of most licenses (some are unacceptable, but not most), I actually use and pay for proprietary software. For example, there's a new proprietary graphics program out there called Pixel, and it looks fantastic. It's almost like an incredibly inexpensive Photoshop clone. It is far more intuitive and friendly than GIMP. So, to me, it's worth every penny. Visit www.kanzelsberger.com/pixel for more information, and don't be a cheapskate if you like what you see.

I also want Flash support for my browser, I want to play DVDs, and I can't live without Java. Aside from applications like Jedit and Eclipse, my favorite Java applet is the doppler radar applet you can find on the National Weather Service site (NOAA). Just visit www.srh.noaa.gov and select your location, click on the radar map and then select one of the radar types (composite reflectivity or base reflectivity, among others). I went tornado chasing while I lived in Missouri, and I found this feature to be invaluable. By the way, I'm told NOAA has adopted Linux as its standard platform.

Back to Freespire. If Freespire attracts a community of developers, it could easily turn out to be my distribution of choice. Why? I think Linspire is by far the best desktop distribution available. Linspire blows away every other distribution in terms of ease of use.

In spite of all this praise, I don't use Linspire on a daily basis. One reason I don't use it is because Linspire takes so long to stay up to date with KDE and hardware support. It always has an older version of KDE, and it doesn't even install on my latest dual-core AMD64 machine.

Just as the Fedora developers have been able to keep Fedora more up to date than Red Hat was able to do internally, perhaps the Freespire developers will be able to keep Linspire current, and therefore more attractive to people like me. And, maybe even you. Keep an eye on Freespire. I will.

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.



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I think that Freespire is terrific!

Brian Masinick, NH's picture

I have long been a proponent of Lindows.com, then of Linspire, but I confess the doubts I had before they first came out. Like Corel and Xandros, when they were testing, they did not release any source code, so the Free Software Foundation made them come clean, and they did.

When I first saw Lindows.com in action at Debconf 2 at York University in the summer of 2002, I knew that Michael (and Kevin) were on to something.

By the time the name Linspire came about and we were at the Release 4.5 and 5.0 versions, their stuff really started to look and behave nicely. The one problem they had, and I think you hit it on the head, is that they were always playing catchup on versions. I had to hack the code and change the repositories, effectively breaking CNR in order to get what I wanted, so as a result, I would not end up using it for very long.

But when Freespire came out, I could have it both ways. IF I want, I could do the CNR, which a consumer is going to want to do. A geek like me can mess around with their repositories, yet still have an easy to use every day system that I need not mess around with much, unless I have the time and I am in the mood.

Perfect! At last, a consumer ready, safe, flexible, easy system that can be updated with a click, but also is palatable to the hobbyist and tweaker.

Beware, though. I just noticed in the past week or so that other distributions are now adding one click updates. I first saw this a month or two ago in PC-BSD and thought, "Wow, FreeBSD is finally easy enough to install and use every day on the desktop!" But more recently, I saw a task bar icon in SimplyMEPIS that allows you to click and download updates. It uses Synaptic, but that is barely more difficult than Click N Run. I also note that even the distro with the reputation of being hard to install, Debian, contains a really easy to click GNOME task bar icon that, guess what, updates packages!

So I say "Hurrah!" to Freespire, but frankly, they HAD to do this or fade away, because I am starting to see features nearly as easy to use in Xandros, MEPIS, and even in lowly FREE Debian itself!

I do like Freespire, and I am glad that Linspire is keeping up. Now I wish that the free Debian project would learn how to write a halfway decent installation and configuration program. The base installer installs the software fine, but the configuration component must plug in to a ten or fifteen year old configuration program because it is interactive (even when using installgui) and it forces you to check in on your installation WAY too often because it wants too much interaction. Maybe Freespire can donate some of their good work to the Debian project and even make it portable so that it can be used with the many architectures that the full Debian project supports. Since Debian has SO MANY good attributes, perhaps the Freespire (or maybe the Ubuntu) project can help by donating code for a decent installation and configuration, not something that comes from the days when I still had a full head of hair! :-)