desktop Unix has not arrived

Recently, the arrival of desktop Linux (and, no, I refuse to say GNU/Linux as much I refuse to say GNU/X/OpenBox/LXDE instead of Lubuntu) was announced. I think this came as no surprise to those of us that already use it on desktop. Sure, people may complain about this and that, but, honestly, Linux gives you choices. You can find your perfect desktop on Linux quite easily in this day and age of package managers. Filled with pre-compiled binaries, changing even components of a desktop environment is fairly seemless and just a few clicks away. Gone are the days of having to roll your own kernel from scratch (though, in typical fashion, you have the choice to do so). Heck, you rarely have a need to touch the command line (though it's often quicker). With Chromebooks and about half of the mobile devices out there running Linux under the hood, user-focused Linux is certainly here.

However, if we revisit that blasted GNU acronym, we should be reminded that GNU's Not Unix, or rather that Linux's Not Unix (ooh, we could fix the naming controversy by calling it LNU… but then someone would wawnt to call it G/LNU and that would be hard to pronounce). See, Linux owes its design and heritage (though not its code) to Unix. In fact, Unix is still plugging along, with some notable examples being the ever-secure OpenBSD, the distro that runs on pretty much everything, NetBSD (yes, that does include Amiga and VAX!), the almighty FreeBSD which is widely used by web servers, OS X, and plenty of embedded devices, and the version from whence Linux was born: MINIX.

So one might wonder how desktop Unix is doing. OS X certainly has made it but the FreeBSD core, Darwin, is quite different. Not to mention that it's a walled garden. It's not easy to change your window manager and using the command line is a frustrating experience, especially if you don't want to use the GUI. I guess that's not a very "user-focused" concern, but I think it reflects just how much OS X deviates from anything we think of as Unix-like. Ignoring that, it might be good to look at FreeBSD, as it is, if I may conjecture, the most widely used Unix out there.

Well, to give one a sense of things, I had to recently do an update on a co-worker's development machine, which was running FreeBSD and had an X setup. According to the FreeBSD documentation, assuming one doesn't need the "easy button" when it comes to installing, there's no need for PC-BSD. In this case, everything was installed, so no big deal, right? For that matter, all that needed to be done was to do some security updates. Those friendly folks at FreeBSD offer a script in periodic daily that emails root with updates on packages that need to be patched for security updates. Admittedly, the thing hadn't been updated in a while, but having been doing regular maintenence on other FreeBSD servers, I figured it would be fairly straightforward.

All of these machines use ports, which is basically a package management system that uses source code and compiles with each fresh install. There's also packages, but we use ports. Adds a little extra flexibility and is no more difficult, really. The package management system takes care of everything, including dependencies, as any good package manager would. The portmaster tool makes this task quite simple, needing little more than the package name to be installed.

Unfortunately, I faced several gotchas. One, in fact, came when having to update pkg, which is usually used for binary package management. It was super weird because I couldn't install it with portmaster, even if I specified it's full location (which usually fixes any ambiguity). I looked at /usr/ports/UPDATING, which is the canonical place to look for gotchas, but didn't find anything. On a whim, I chose to include the package version to upgrade from, and that worked. Never had that happen before at all, and never found any reference of others having it.

The next one was fairly easily solved, assuming you know where to look. gettext gave me an error on its install. I found the solution in /usr/ports/UPDATING: the port had been split, so I needed to remove the port and then reinstall it. Simple fix, but greping through a text file is not something one typically should be expected to do to install a freaking package. Also, the error didn't suggest where to look for the problem. You had to put two and two together.

So then I ran into some issue with GTK. First, I was having issues with gtk-update-icon-cache. I found something related, albeit old, in /usr/ports/UPDATING, so I decided to give it a go. I understood what I was doing and that doing it wasn't going to hurt anything if it didn't fix my problem. It referenced using pkg_delete -f gtk-2.\*. Now there's several problems here, the most obvious being the fact that there are three different package management tools: pkg, pkgng, and portmaster. Sometimes you might use a pkgng command even though you otherwise use portmaster. Problem is that that's not all described in these terse notes. Secondly, GTK2 is in a port called gtk2, so the search string was wrong, too. So pkg delete -f gtk2-2.\* did the trick.

So then there was complaints about cairo not being installed with X11 support. I confirmed it was installed. I checked the Makefile and there was a line that suggested that X11 was a default, but after digging some more, I discovered that it merely was a default option. Indeed, pkg info showed me "X11: off." I decided to run make config and there I could see it was not checked. So I checked it, did a make deinstall and a make reinstall and it was recompiled with X11 support.

However, I was still having issues with gtk. it failed to compile because of some test that required working with a PNG. It complained to not recognize the format, even though file had no problem recognizing it. Google produced no truly applicable results, but there was some mention among MacPorts/Homebrew folks about glib2 and gdk-pixbuf2. Checking the config of the latter, I discovered it was lacking PNG support, so I checked it, reinstalled the two, and finally, I got everything done.

One might be inclined to believe that since this is all on the command line, such problems are to be expected. I would, in fact, suggest the otherwise. As a general rule, graphical tools are front ends to command line interfaces. Ubuntu's Synaptic Package Manager is a great example of this. It's just apt under the hood. If the backend did not have a predicable, reliable interface, where one did not have to interpret, research, and intuit in order to figure out problems, then the frontend would suffer the same problems. That being said, the potential graphical interface to the FreeBSD package management system(s) are bound to be equally flawed.

That being said, desktop Unix is not here yet. Frankly, I'm not convinced it ever will be. Unix is a tool that was originally targeted at institutional use and to this day is employed largely by system administrators and hardware hackers. It tends to be fairly conservative (I like to call it "stable to a fault", which is to say you don't get the latest and greatest googaws). It's oriented towards the command line and towards users that are familiar enough with compiling to be able to deal with issues. Granted, it's a lot easier than grabbing a tarball and figuring out all your dependencies. But desktop Linux it's not.

To be clear, this it not meant to be a bash on Unix (actually, bash is not a standard part of the install!). BSD is excellent where stability and security are required at the expense of anything else. Having the ability to sort of create your own system from scratch the easy way sure is nice. A few make configs and you can have your system locked down to only do what you want. That includes your kernel, too. I'm sure this is part of the reason why OS X uses it (well that, and its precursor, NeXTSTEP, was derived from BSD).

I'm just pointing out that just because it's been out for much longer than Ubuntu, BSD and Unix in general, has not been able to really capture the attention of desktop users while still retaining the flexibility inherient in a standard system. In that sense, it's actually pretty amazing what Linux has been able to accomplish. Call me biased, but I give special credit to Ubuntu as it has moved beyond the neckbeards and actually drawn the attention of your average Joe, not just through its wonderful user interface, but through business partnerships and outreach. That is the herald of a great desktop operating system.

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