Free Agent: Getting Better All the Time

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Toto, We Don't Have Setup.exe Anymore...

Most Free Software is crafted in the time-honored fashion of standing on the shoulders of giants. Your typical Linux system comes with hundreds and hundreds of code libraries on it--shared code that can perform all sorts of low-level functions. You name it, and there's a system component hanging out on your hard drive that can do it.

So if you're a Free Software hacker and you want to build an app like Graveman or NetworkManager, you begin by finding out what the system already knows how to do. In the case of Graveman, author Sylvain Cresto began by working with components on his system that know how to do things like read MP3 files, burn data to a CD, and more. To grossly oversimplify for just a moment: The work involved in building Graveman is to a large degree all about getting existing system components to play nice with each other and with a newly crafted, attractive interface.

When I downloaded Graveman, it came in the form of source code. Cutting-edge versions of most Free Software are distributed this way. After you download the code, you compile it, and then you install it. During the compilation process, the compiler hunts down all the system components that the new application will need in order to get its work done. If a given component is missing, or isn't the latest-and-greatest version required by the app you're trying to compile, then the compilation will fail.

When this happens, you have a choice to make: Either track down and install the needed component, or give up. Sometimes installing the necessary component will require another download-and-compile procedure, which may itself reveal another missing (or antiquated) system component. If this sounds like a potential snowball effect, then I've explained it adequately.

The situation I just described is what longtime Linux users refer to as "dependency hell"--and it's dependency hell that keeps me from enjoying NetworkManager on my Mandrake machine. In my particular case, attempting to compile NetworkManager generates an error message saying my copy of the "wireless-tools" system component is too old. However, the version I've got installed is the one supposedly required by NetworkManager. I banged my head against that wall, trying various bits of trickery I've learned during my six years with Linux, for a couple of hours before finally (sigh) giving up.

I have two options. First, I can wait, hoping that some kind soul with far more geek credentials than I will figure out how to make NetworkManager compile on Mandrake. At that point, said kind soul may make a binary (that is, precompiled) NetworkManager package available for Mandrake. This sort of thing happens all the time: I am running Gnome 2.8 on my Mandrake 10.1 machine thanks to the hard work of another kind soul who posted some carefully crafted binary packages. (Mandrake 10.1 comes with Gnome 2.6, not Gnome 2.8.) My second option is to wait for Mandrake 10.2, lobbying Mandrake in the meanwhile to include NetworkManager in that release.

Sure, there's a third option: I could spend a whole weekend getting NetworkManager to work. I might very well meet with success. But there are too many better things to do with a weekend.

Vapor Can't Fetch, But Beagle Can

Some folks say that Free Software is perennially in catch-up mode, and that it takes the profit motive that's inherent in the commercial model of software distribution to generate actual innovation. When you take a look at the Gnome desktop, you see some signs of this alleged weakness, with CD burning and wireless handling being just two examples of missing pieces that ought to be there by now.

Elsewhere in the Free Software universe, however, innovation blossoms. Consider, for example, the Firefox browser from Mozilla, the first innovative Web browser of the 21st century.

There has been a lot in the tech press lately about desktop search, what with Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo releasing apps that live on your machine and help you locate your own precious data.

In this context, it is gratifying to see the Free Software community produce a tool as promising as Beagle, the forthcoming desktop search tool for the Gnome desktop. I have not been able to get the current version to run--more dependency hell--but have played enough with an earlier version to know that Beagle isn't vaporware. It's very real, and if screen shots are any way to judge the app's current capabilities, Beagle can fetch with the very best of 'em.

The Gnome desktop won't be left behind when the rest of the world discovers desktop search: Beagle (shown here in a screen shot from the project's Web site) will be ready to leap into action.
The Gnome desktop won't be left behind when the rest of the world discovers desktop search: Beagle (shown here in a screen shot from the project's Web site) will be ready to leap into action.
Enter a search term, and Beagle combs through your e-mail, your documents, your instant message history, your media library, and more, looking for related information. I wish I had Beagle running on my machine today, and perhaps I'll give compiling it another shot before long, but I smile to note that I am likely to see Beagle ship as part of my Linux distribution of choice long before my friends running Windows see any analogous tool built in to their own operating system.

Catching up? In some respects, yes. But in other respects, my Gnome desktop is every bit as cutting-edge as anything else I could install on my Thinkpad. And it's getting better all the time.

Have you taken the Free Software plunge? Have a gripe or a success story to share? Scared to switch operating systems and have some nagging questions? Send them to PC World's Free Agent, who will read every last message and respond to as many as he can. Other thoughts relating to Linux and Open Source are welcome too, of course. Speak Freely!
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