Same place, slightly different way

I have been slack in updating this page in the past couple of days, for a couple of reasons. Mostly because real life commitments pounced on me on Friday, but also because I have been lately thinking about something a tiny bit distressing.

It started when I heard about elementary OS, the sort of new-kid-on-the-block Ubuntu knockoff. Dutifully, I gave it a try.

Nice startup screen. Has a clean look about it. Keeps to “lighter” software, although it might as well tuck in to things like Firefox and OpenOffice, so long as it’s going to ride at around 185Mb for a live environment.

Nothing distressing there, really. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to ask myself: What’s so different about this that sets it apart from, say, Xubuntu, or Lubuntu, or Peppermint OS, or even something I put together myself?

Not that there’s anything wrong with elementary OS itself, although I find the home page uncomfortably lacking in fundamental information — what the goal is, what machines it’s intended for, what sets it apart from other distros.

And I’m not sure why I would want to “order” it, unless that means I get a pressed CD for my efforts.

What is bothering me here — and one of the reasons I haven’t distro-hopped much lately — is that unless the core elements are changed, there’s not much that’s different between any two distros.

The same software, the same arrangement, the same “claims” in most cases (lighter! faster! revives old hardware!), and short of using one package manager or another, not much tangibly distinct.

Honestly, you or I could probably put together a pixel-perfect rendition of elementary OS, or any other distro, using any other distro, in about an hour.

That’s the distressing part, and I’ll thank you in advance for suggesting distro X in reply, and I hope in advance that it really did astonish you and convert you to The Happy Land of Linus.

And my point here is not that there should be less distros, only that there isn’t much difference between Fedora or Ubuntu or Fuduntu, until you scrape through all the frills and doodads and get down to the core software that manages it.

I suppose, in a brief way, that’s a good thing though. Despite all those frills and doodads, everyone is more or less on the same page.

We all get to the same place, we just get there is slightly different ways. No harm in that. :|

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17 Responses to “Same place, slightly different way”

  1. 1 Grundoko 2011/04/04 at 7:51 AM

    elementary OS Jupiter is just the beginning. It really isn’t anything revolutionary, it’s just the first foothold in a mountain to come. The thing that sets elementary OS apart from all the other Ubuntu based distros which are really just remasters, is that the elementary team is actively writing their own simpler, and more lightweight alternatives for software. They’ve replaced Evolution with their own Postler, and they’ve replaced the default dictionary (The name of which is escaping me) with Purple.

    The thing I’m looking forward to in elementary, are the things that aren’t quite ready yet, that will be released in the next version, or maybe the release after that. They’re working on Beatbox (A media player which is to be like a mix between Rhythmbox and Banshee), Wingpanel (A new panel, which is very simple and slick, with integration for Slingshot or Cardapio), Slingshot (A menu they’re developing which hooks into Wingpanel. It resembles the home screen on an iOS device, with all the application icons, but also has a search bar), Plank (I don’t think the elementary team is actually developing Plank, but very few people other than elementary are using it right now. Plank is like Docky. I don’t know much about it at the moment as it’s in early development). And then there’s Marlin, their replacement for Nautilus, however Marlin only works in GTK 3. They didn’t support GTK 2, because they knew it would just end up creating ghost code later when everyone moved on to GTK 3.

    Anyway, I really just wanted to say that elementary OS is much more than meets the eye at the moment. It’s not just an Ubuntu remaster with some different programs installed by default, like PinguyOS for example.

  2. 2 Moose 2011/04/04 at 2:32 PM

    I realized the same thing a while back. It seems to me that the only difference between distros are the preinstalled programs and the themes. Personally, I just take Ubuntu, install KDE and LXDE, install Pidgin, update Firefox and remove a ton of stuff. I would love it if some of these Ubuntu derevitives would actually do something more original.

    • 3 andy 2011/04/04 at 3:35 PM

      Like other people I try new distros from time to time but seldom find anything to get excited about so I just continue to use Vector (which suits my requirements). The distros which feel really different are the ones built from scratch such as Puppy or Tinycore, and I do enjoy playing with these from time to time.

      • 4 Moose 2011/04/04 at 5:05 PM

        Distros that aren’t based on anything else do seem to be the most worthwhile. Puppy is incredibly fast, Tinycore amazingly small. Generally I find Slackware derivatives such as Vector, Zenwalk or Salix worth while. Also worth while in my opinion are distros like Mint and Pclinuxos that do a significantly better or at least different job then their bases.

    • 5 tom 2011/04/04 at 10:22 PM

      I do the opposite – a server install of debian testing and add a desktop environment (awesome) and some applications.

  3. 6 Linuxbakkie 2011/04/04 at 4:16 PM

    Another ‘Ubuntu-light’ is Bodhilinux. That’s based on Ubuntu 10.4 and E17. It comes with almost nothing installed, just Midori, LXTerminal, PCManFM, Leafpad and Synaptic. I like the idea for not giving me tons of software that I don’t use. But I have my doubts about E17.

  4. 7 Armor Nick 2011/04/04 at 4:35 PM

    This is a good thing, and it’s actually what the big distros like Fedora and Ubuntu intended to do with their efforts creating Network Manager, etc. The best way to get people to adopt you is by making things easy. Things are not easy if you have a billion choices and every one of those works entirely differently.

  5. 8 Zach 2011/04/04 at 5:06 PM

    The only thing I can think of EOS’s defense is that they have authored a few programs for their distro, and the theme is theirs.

  6. 9 Cian 2011/04/04 at 5:29 PM

    Arch? Crux? Rolling release, different approaches to configuration and (in Crux’s case) compiling from source. These are hardly minor differences.

  7. 10 Mike Lockmoore 2011/04/04 at 10:42 PM

    Hi. I’m a TinyCore developer. As Grundoko claimed for elementary OS, we too are working on TinyCore to develop something unique. That mostly comes from building the core applications with the FLTK GUI toolkit, which has been rather rare among distributions not so long ago. However, elightenment is based on an extended version of FLTK, so Bohdi is giving FLTK some new noteriety.

    The TinyCore core team has developed a graphical package manager, a main control panel, and several other simple utilities. The Filemanager “Fluff” I wrote for TinyCore is about 120 KB with many of the features of big file managers. It’s included in the TinyCore base system. Some other optional apps I wrote are a collection of tray-type applets (battery monitor/clock/sound volume control), a kinda-calculator workpad app, and a picture viewer/slideshow app. And I’m working on a wireless networking management GUI.

    I know kmandla has tried TinyCore without much success on older machines. TinyCore uses a fairly modern kernel and build options, so it is not really optimal for hardware older than perhaps eight years or so. But if you can run it, it is extremely fast and quite light. You can keep it stripped down, or add as many apps as you like. Some people will think the FLTK-based apps are plain, if not ugly. But I really enjoy using it and also enjoy creating new things for it, to see how much I can get it to do while keeping it small, fast, and light.

  8. 11 Fewt 2011/04/04 at 11:17 PM

    I would agree that to a large degree most distributions contain the same parts. How they are configured may be different, and there may be some changes in the form of patches applied, but 90% is the same.

    It’s that final 10% that can really set them apart though, and this is where we at Fuduntu are largely (but not completely) focused.

  9. 12 Jose Catre-Vandis 2011/04/05 at 2:13 AM

    A timely post (for me anyway) as I am just in the middle of creating my amateurish effort of a remaster :) Much is about personal preference, I took one look at EOS and thought “that’s not for me, don’t use those programs, don’t like the DE.” So I’d have to reverse a lot of the work before I got it how I like it. One of your first comments is about how more or less anyone could create a “remaster” in a bout an hour rings true, but at least EOS is trying to develop its own stuff; but do we need another email client, media player, dictionary?

    Having spent the last five years getting to grips with the basics of Ubuntu/Debian (still a newbie :) ) it’s hard to move away and learn a new set of rules and commands, although every now and then I have another go at Slitaz or Tinycore, but always end up coming back to a CLI install of Xubuntu and building from there.

    Anyway my distro is based upon that above, with openbox, and tint2 and wbar to help control the thing. I doubt I’ll get round to uploading it for the masses, but at least I won’t have to build it again :)

  10. 13 IsaacG 2011/04/05 at 10:58 PM

    I’ve been saying that for a while… Nothing new here.

    Re: The new FLTK applications: That’s wonderful to here. New software is always great. But is the software tied into the OS or can it be installed in any distro? If it can run in any distro, it may be a wonderful lightweight alternative suite – which is wonderful – but that is in a software suite, not a distro.

    • 14 Mike Lockmoore 2011/04/06 at 11:06 PM


      I assume you are replying to my posting about FLTK apps. The apps I wrote are not strictly tied to TinyCore Linux. In fact, I’ve compiled and run them acceptably in Fedora and I’ve heard some reports of people using them in others. As a mostly-solitary developer, I don’t invest a lot of time to make sure each app works perfectly on a wide variety of other distros, but I will try to address problems that people tell me, as long as doing so won’t impact my goal of being fast, light, and useful in the “home” distro of TinyCore.

      As far as uniqueness, TinyCore is the only popular distro I know that includes and emphasizes ultralight-weight FLTK apps (although Bodhi is built on somewhat bigger eFLTK software). In TinyCore, you can install GTK, or Qt apps if you want, and many users do, but FLTK is considered the “native” toolkit for apps. So I’d say TinyCore is different from a lot of the “me too” remasters or “like XYZ but even more IJK” variant distros out there, where IJK is “friendly” or “pretty” or “libre” or “secure” or “bleeding-edge” or whatever issue motivates a distro developer or team.

      • 15 IsaacG 2011/04/07 at 12:09 AM

        “TinyCore is the only popular distro I know that includes and emphasizes ultralight-weight FLTK apps”
        “FLTK is considered the “native” toolkit”

        TinyCore sounds cool and I may even download it to a LiveCD to check it out. But we’re still just discussing the default applications that the distro ships with. How does it “include and emphasize” FLTK? By shipping with them. How is FLTK the native toolkit? Because it ships with them. Can I install GTK in TinyCore? Yes. Can I use FLTK in Ubuntu? Yes. What makes TinyCore different from any other distro? The applications that come pre-installed.

        While the default application choices dramatically change the user experience of a new user, once someone is familiar with the package manager and finding software they like, all distros begin to blur and look the same when the only difference is the default applications.

        • 16 Mike Lockmoore 2011/04/07 at 5:28 AM

          @IsaacG: What would it take for a distro to seem different then? Totally different kernel (2.4 vs 2.6)? Different standard C library? Different graphic stack (X11 vs something else)?

          kmandla has explored many of the really exotic distros and documented them here, so kmandla’s threshold for interesting may be a lot higher than most people (and maybe you), but for most users, stock Ubuntu will feel totally different than TinyCore, as will openSuse, and CrunchBang, and Puppy, and many others. But even in the DistroWatch top 20 distros, there is a good bit of variety in the things like:

          WM / Desktop extras (menus, icons, launchers, “tray” applets)
          Preferred GUI toolkit
          Base software size
          Software package management (source/binary, repository structure, GUI for management)

          My point is that there are distros that don’t just stick to the mainstream Gnome or KDE, RPM or DEB paradigms, which can give them a fairly unique feel and potential benefits. Even if the “the core software that manages it” as kmandla puts it is mostly the same under the covers.

  1. 1 Links /4/2011: Mourning Mozilla Messaging, Celebrating Simple Java API for ODF | Techrights Trackback on 2011/04/06 at 8:46 AM

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May 6, 2011
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