The superiority of the distro

Shawn wrote a nice piece pointing out why developers (in particular for embedded systems) are better off running Linux than Windows. In summary, it’s all about the tools that ship with it. If we’re nitpicking then, what we’re actually talking about here is not Linux proper (the kernel), and not GNU/Linux (the operating system), but rather the distribution (whichever one that is). It’s the software stack as a whole that’s making the difference.

This is exactly what I usually tell people who ask why I’m running “this Linux thing”. It’s better suited to my needs on every level of the software stack. Of course, that’s usually way too vague to compel someone who had to ask to begin with. Examples please? My new favourite example is a security thing.

The other week I was catching up with a few long-overdue admin tasks on my parents’ PCs, mostly security updates. They’re (still) on MS Windows, and you should have seen the number of pop-ups when I logged on as admin: I don’t know how many apps, all reporting they’d like permission to fetch and install updates. Compare that to the elegance of the little warning star in the Gnome menu, or the output of a quick “aptitude upgrade”.

Big deal? I think so. I’m quite sure that that single interface to all software updates is not just more elegant, but that it’s also directly keeping systems more secure. Quoting from an old eWeek item:

For example, for the nine highest-profile Windows malicious code incidents as of March 2003, Microsofts patches predated major outbreaks by an average of 305 days, yet most firms hadnt applied the patches.

That is not a statement about Windows, or Linux. It’s a statement about human nature.

Here’s another item, from Ars:

Secunia cited data from Microsoft showing that third-party software vulnerabilities are the ones that are most frequently exploited, and said that its own data showed that users simply don’t update as frequently as they should.

Having a clear, simple, and non-crappy upgrade manager vastly diminishes these problems, because all people are lame, and the number of people that will not apply updates promptly will go up at least quadratically with the number of steps the update takes (and that’s a conservative estimate). That’s why distros will win from bare operating systems with apps dropped on top of them. It’s also why I’m going to press mom and dad to please let me replace their systems…

Is this benefit intrinsically tied to free software? In theory, no. I actually tried to pitch this idea to the Ideastorm crowd at some point. But maybe it would not work so well in practice: if MS would try to turn Windows into a distro, or would try to press other vendors into using their update manager, the anti-monopolistic regulators would be all over them in no time. So in practice, one might say this is a benefit of free software. Yay.


4 Responses to “The superiority of the distro”

  1. 1 Silvery Corgan 11 May 2009 at 7:12

    Nice post.

    I have the same thought about Windoze.

    I forced my parents into using Ubuntu because I was tired of disinfecting that rig of viruses.

    May The Source Be With You!

    • 2 yungchin 25 May 2009 at 17:17

      Thanks! To be honest, though, I don’t think we really do have the same thoughts about Windows – note the spelling ;). I’ve never had to disinfect my parents’ machines in about 14 years of acting as their amateur admin, and they are pretty active users. Also, I’m actually somewhat pleased how easy it still is to find my way around in Windows configuration utilities, considering that I never use Windows myself to “stay in practice”.

      But these days I have very little time to manage their boxes. As suggested in the above, that makes me the liability, not Windows. My hopes to move to Linux would compensate for this, because then I could just ssh in and run aptitude, which I would obviously do much, much more often…

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