Prime Time Freeware for UNIX
Editor: Richard Morin
Reviewer: Preston Brown
As I unwrapped the package which the post office had delivered, I was preparing myself for just another carbon copy of the sunsite.unc.edu archives, or perhaps some other big Unix software site. However, as I removed the book from the shipping material and observed it for the first time, I had a strong suspicion I was in for something much more professional, and thus useful, in nature.
Prime Time Freeware (PTF) has now changed the format of the book that acompanies that CDROM to the familiar glossy paperback cover and standard size that most computer books seem to come in today, so it should fit in comfortably on your shelf. The back cover claims that the collection of software is geared towards programmers and users alike. But looks aren't everything; it's what is inside that counts with a package like this.
Prime Time Freeware for Unix includes not only the book, but of course a plethora of UNIX software, comfortably housed on two ISO-9660 CD-ROMs. The “version” of the package that I reviewed was 4-2, but since it is updated every few months, a subscription buying plan is available. New issues will arrive automatically, and a one-month trial period with a money-back guarantee is standard. By the time you read this, the next issue should be out.
The CDs included are filled to the brim; PTF makes full use of the medium and doesn't skimp. Uncompressed, there is about about 5 gigabytes of information. Because the package is targeted at most Unix platforms, and is not limited to Linux, there are no binary packages; everything is distributed in source code form. This fact alone may turn off some potential buyers, but learning to compile code is an essential basic of Linux education, and should not really act as a deterrent.
The book, in addition to acting as good installation and troubleshooting guide, contains descriptions of all the packages on the disk, as well as their size and location. An index is included for easy reference. Finally, a good deal of space is devoted to describing the nature of free software itself, and it is clear that PTF is very devoted to the cause of the Free Software Foundation and independent programmers the world over.
Unfortunately, I encountered a problem early in my evaluation of the software, but one that was easily fixed. A slight flaw in the mastering process of some of the version 4-2 discs made it necessary to install a patch to the Linux kernel so that the discs could be successfully mounted. Needless to say, this was a pain, but the patch was included and was not difficult to install. PTF assured me that future issues would not have this problem.
Another drawback, while not an inherent problem, can still be slightly annoying. The PTF discs stick to the strict ISO-9660 format. This means that filenames must comply with the standard MS-DOS 11 character filenames, with no “funny” characters. PTF's decision to not use the “Rock Ridge Extensions,” which so many of us are used to, is a result of a lack of support for the extensions across all the platforms the package is targeted at.
Once the disc was mounted, I had to run a simple shell script which set up certain environment variables and the like to “customize” the disc for the operating system (in this case, of course, Linux). Navigating the discs to find software I wanted was fairly easy. Several methods are provided, including a detailed description database with paths, a more simplified database, and a HTML hypertext version of the database. A keyword index makes searching the detailed descriptions fairly easy. Information on using these databases is all well described in the accompanying book.
Just about any kind of software you are interested in is included on the discs, and it is all very up-to-date as well. For the user, there are databases (including Postgres and Onyx), archiving and compression tools, simple spreadsheets, editors and formatters (all flavors of Emacs, (La)TeX, troff), and graphics tools (data plotting/drawing, image manipulation, modelers and renderers). For the system administrator, there is plenty of communications stuff, including FAX tools, everything you could ever need for email, Usenet News, and the Athena networking suite.
Programmers will be delighted by the vast array of libraries (including graphics, GUI, etc.), and there are over 100 compilers and interpreters to choose from—some familiar, some relatively obscure. Few people have heard of CLU, but the latest version of gcc can be had here as well. There are also plenty of debuggers and profilers, syntax checkers, and the like. The full source code for X11R6 is here too. Math tools include the popular Scilab and Pari as well as many others, and for the scientist there is stuff for astronomy, chemistry, and even geology. Last, several operating systems (more or less complete) are included, like Andrew from Carnegie Mellon University, the OSF version of the Mach kernel, BSD 4.4lite, and Condor. Chances are, if you want it, it is here.
Installation of the packages is fairly primitive because of the source code format. Packages can be copied to hard drive, unarchived, and compiled by hand, or a simple included utility can be used to copy and unpack them. Either way, compiling and using them is up to you. However, these packages have all been tested and evaluated by the people at PTF, and would not be on the disc if they did not work.
Different parts of this disc will make different people happy. But the key point is that there is something (no, plenty of things) for everybody. The fact that all the packages are well documented and up-to-date is an additional big plus. Instead of yet another dump of some FTP site, we have two logically organized and planned discs which makes finding what you want more intuitive and easy than an Archie search.
I would tend to recommend the discs more for the programmer or hacker than end-user, despite the number of “user programs” included. For anyone who does any programming or scientific work, the discs can be quite helpful. I admit to using several of the packages myself off the discs. Also, anyone who doesn't have a fast Internet connection will appreciate how quickly they can have access to all the latest Unix software with the PTF package. It takes the drudgery out of FTPing and downloading. In short, while the discs are not a revolutionary breakthrough, they are definitely a big step for UNIX software packaging and free software in general. If you think you might use it, get it. You won't be disappointed. However, if you neither need nor want the convenience of good package descriptions and organization, stick to your favorite FTP sites and save your money.
Preston Brown (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sophomore computer science student at Yale University. He first discovered Linux with an early TAMU release in late 1992, and has been using it ever since.