Free Agent: The Latest Free Linux
First there was Lindows, the Linux that was going to be worth our cold, hard cash because it was going to run all our Windows apps. That idea didn't exactly pan out--and neither did the Lindows name. Then came Linspire, the latest version of which wasn't very inspiring at all.
But enough of what happened on previous seasons of the Linspire show. The new season began with a bang on August 9, when the Linspire folks released Freespire 1.0, a no-cost offering that seems a direct response to other freely distributed Linuxes such as Ubuntu, Red Hat's Fedora, and Novell's openSUSE. The Linspire people believe that Freespire is a cut above, for at least 15 different reasons. In my testing, I found Freespire to be the most compelling release yet from Linspire, but I also came away more appreciative of Ubuntu Linux than ever. For desktop users, Ubuntu has simply become the distribution to beat--and Freespire doesn't rise to the task.
To give Freespire a go, download the ISO image of its installation disc, burn it, and boot it (just as with Ubuntu, Fedora, or openSUSE). You'll arrive at a boot menu with the Freespire installer as its first option. My first time, I didn't make it through the installation process: I got stuck when Freespire asked me where it was meant to live. The installer wanted to take over my entire hard drive, blowing away the copy of Windows XP on my test machine. Uh, no thanks.
It turns out that, unlike the Ubuntu and openSUSE installers, the Freespire installer can't shrink your Windows partition to make room on the drive. So I rebooted and selected the third option from the Freespire CD's boot menu. This loads GParted, an Open Source tool that aspires to be a Free alternative to Partition Magic.
I used the tool to shrink my Windows partition and add two Linux partitions (one for the OS itself and the other a "swap" partition for virtual memory). Without my years of experience with Linux, I would have had no clue what to do here, so I think it's a little odd that the Linspire crew, which espouses a vision of "Linux for the masses," hasn't taught the installer how to take care of partitioning for newbies who can't handle it on their own.
Rebooting again to return to the Freespire installer, I found that it also didn't know what to make of the stock sound card in my test machine, a Dell Dimension 8100. I never did get sound working on the machine while it ran Freespire. (Ubuntu, on the other hand, sounds off just fine on the same machine.)
Aside from its ignorance of partitioning and its inability to make noise on my PC, the Freespire installer displayed no rough edges. Installation takes about 10 minutes and is pretty much painless, as we've come to expect from Linux installation programs these days.
At the end of the process, you reach a stark screen that instructs you--solely via pictograms--to remove the installer disc and to press Enter to reboot. I have no idea why, but I love the wordless approach this screen takes; it's probably the most quaint of Freespire's unique aspects.
The Freespire Desktop
After you reboot, you'll get your first look at the Freespire desktop, a KDE version 3.3.2 setup. As of this writing, the KDE team is up to version 3.5.4, so Freespire is lagging a bit. GNOME is not an option at this point; neither are lesser desktop environments, such as XFCE, that some users prefer. (Freespire claims that a GNOME variation could emerge in time, but I'm not holding my breath.)
KDE is a perfectly fine environment, and Windows refugees might find it more familiar than GNOME, so you really can't quibble with Freespire's choice unless you're already a GNOME fan or you have a machine (with an older processor or a dearth of RAM) that needs a lightweight interface like XFCE's.
As for applications, OpenOffice.org 2.0 is on board, of course, as are the Firefox Web browser and Gaim, the fantastic Open Source universal instant messenger.
For images and sound, the Linspire-built Lsongs and Lphoto come installed by default. Both apps are friendly but not terribly full-featured; they're still at version 1.0 a year and a half after their debut in Linspire Five-0. I'd recommend installing Amarok for your music and F-Spot for your photos. Both are available via CNR, Linspire's "Click-N-Run" Web-based package management interface, which now serves Freespire users as well.
CNR used to be a for-fee service, and I've taken Linspire to task more than once for charging folks money to download Free Software. So I was pleasantly shocked when Linspire announced on August 30 that CNR had become a free service. You now pay only if you're downloading and installing commercial applications.
I expected to see big improvements in CNR over the last time I used it (in 2005). But the only difference I noticed was the lack of price tags everywhere. I experienced none of the stability issues that have been reported elsewhere. However, I did notice that many packages still lag behind the latest released versions of their respective apps, and other packages are difficult to find because they've been given generic names.
For instance, I used CNR to install Streamtuner, an Internet radio tuner that I cannot live without (and that has no counterpart that I know of in either the Windows or Mac OS worlds). Streamtuner itself loaded up fine, but it relies on another application, XMMS, to actually pump music out to the speakers. CNR didn't know about that dependency, and had not installed XMMS.
My initial search for XMMS in CNR turned up nothing. Only after a closer look did I discover that the XMMS package has been renamed 'MP3 Player' in CNR. This might be helpful if you know what sort of application you're looking for but don't know its name; when you do know the name of the app you want, this is maddening.
I don't wish to leave the impression that CNR is hard to use overall. It's relatively simple and straightforward, though the Web pages it depends on look rather ugly in the CNR tool's built-in browser. (These pages also sport some usability issues: Does it really make sense to click a button marked 'CNR' to download and install an application? Wouldn't a button labeled 'Install' be friendlier?)
What I can't understand is how anyone can make the argument that CNR is easier to use than, say, Gnome-App-Install, accessed via the 'Add/Remove Programs' item in Ubuntu's Applications menu. When you get right down to it, there's really no comparison: Ubuntu's package management is easier and more attractive.
Batteries Included! Well, Most Anyway...
As we've said before in this space, noncommercial Linuxes like Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE come without certain batteries: You have to add support for various multimedia formats, Java, and DVD playback yourself, post-installation. This isn't the case with Freespire, and therein lies the biggest difference between this upstart and its competitors. Linspire, the company, has agreements with the corporate owners of various non-Free system components, allowing Linspire to provide those components on the installer disc rather than expecting users to fetch them on their own. (If you have Richard Stallman-esque tendencies and spurn all software that isn't Free, check out the "OSS edition" of Freespire.)
So Freespire supports MP3, Windows Media, Real, and QuickTime files right out of the box. Java support is built in, too. The only thing missing is DVD support. The Freespire site tells visitors that users can get DVD support from a "Legally licensed DVD Player available via CNR for a minimal cost." So I went hunting through CNR, and the only option I could find was PowerDVD, a commercial player app costing $50. "Minimal" cost, my foot.
In all honesty, I do get a warm fuzzy feeling when I see the makers of Linspire embracing the values of Open Source more than they ever have before. (The company also deserves recognition for the numerous contributions it has made to several Open Source projects over the last few years.)
But unfortunately, nothing in the Freespire package will entice me to abandon Ubuntu Linux--nor do I find anything in Freespire that will make it rise above Fedora or openSUSE in the scrum of free Linuxes. Nothing about Freespire 1.0 is particularly deficient (and as far as I could tell, nothing major is broken), but it has a lot of growing to do before it truly sets itself apart from its competition.
The Latest Great Linux Book
No Starch Press has been on a roll with its Linux books lately, and Rickford Grant's Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks ($35, ISBN 1-59327-118-2) keeps the momentum going. This is not at all a book for power users; rather, it functions as the ideal "missing manual" for anyone new to Linux.
Topics include an easy introduction to the GNOME desktop, file management, e-mail, and Web surfing. More-advanced topics include installing and removing software, and a splendid introduction to the command line. You'll even learn how to compile applications yourself from source code--a task that becomes necessary (and fortunately is easier than you think!) when no binary package is available for the app you want. Highly recommended to all Ubuntu newcomers.