Why 'Real Linux' users should support Linspire & Freespire, the Trojan Horse Distros.
I guess the majority of people browsing Linux Forums are interested in computers, we like to know what makes them tick, we like to tweak them so they tick faster, and we especially like that ours tick differently to other people's. But there are a billion users out there who frankly don't give a damn. They want their computer to do stuff for them, just like they want their car (automobile for US readers) to fetch groceries and take the kids to school, they want their PC to do on-line shopping and banking, send and receive mail, help the kids with their school work and provide a little entertainment.
These are all things they are prepared to pay for and are used to paying for, you buy a computer with Windows installed (or a Mac if you work in the media) and it does this stuff for you. Sure it's not perfect, but then everyone's computer crashes sometime just like your car breaks down and the washing machine springs a leak, it's just the way things are. Conventional Linux distribution patterns don't reach these people at all, they don't visit www.linuxforums.org they don't read computer magazines; they see advertising from Microsoft on TV and a heap of Windows PCs on special offer in every supermarket. With Linux distributed by hundreds of different organisations, many of them small and short of cash, out-marketing Microsoft is a challenge, especially if you are giving your product away free of charge and with no restrictions on copying and re-distributing it.
Then if you look critically at the average distro's site it isn't even trying to appeal to Joe Public. The big corporate distros sites like SuSE and Red Hat are designed to appeal to corporate suits and CIOs. Debian is pure and ascetic as befits its philosophy. If you know you want Debian, it's a very simple site to navigate with clear links to downloads, documentation, support pages and news items. If you've never heard of Debian and have no idea what it is and why you might want it, then Debian is content to leave it at that. Probably the best site for Joe to stumble across is Ubuntu, the page is friendly, there are smiling faces and happy children, the links are separated out as menus rather than left as plain old text links in the body of the page. And there is a buzz around Ubuntu in the 'Linux Community', but it hasn't made many waves outside that closed world, there are no Ubuntu ads on TV, no Ubuntu PCs in Asda, Lidl or Walmart.
You do find Linspire PCs in Walmart, and K Mart and Sears and half a dozen other US retailers**, places where Mr &Mrs Joe Public can see one, compare it with other products and decide it represents good value for money. That's the only way Linux PCs will ever make it into the mainstream.
Michael Robertson founded Lindows* five years ago, with the intention of creating an unashamedly commercial Linux distribution for family and small business use. He had made a lot of money from MP3.com by challenging the business patterns of the established music industry, now he had an even more powerful, monolithic industry in his sights, Microsoft. Most distros thrive, or survive, on a mixture of charity, corporate backing and sales of boxed sets. Linspire is different, Robertson invested a lot of cash from the sale of MP3.com, but it's not a charity, after losing around $10M each year it is on target to break even this year, and most of the revenue is from deals with PC retailers.
This naked commercialism has upset many Linux purists, and Linspire's modified KDE desktop that apes Windows is often mocked, but we shouldn't carp. Linspire has to look like Windows and pretty much behave like Windows, minus the crashing and viruses and activation hassles, so that Windows users will be tempted to try it. If they like it then they might wonder, 'Hey where did this come from?' 'Are there any other alternatives?' And then maybe they'll consider a different distro on their next PC. Or maybe Linspire will go on improving and become the natural choice for home and SME users, would that be so bad?
GETTING LINSPIRE or FREESPIRE
(If you didn't get it installed on your new PC)
The first thing you notice is the Linspire site (www.linspire.com) looks like a conventional software company site. Many Linux sites are heavy on the text and weblinks and jargon, but Linspire looks like the sort of place where you might spend money, which of course is the point. Linspire makes no bones about the fact that it is a commercial operation, they take open source software tweak it and add commercial offerings such as Real Player and proprietary hardware drivers to produce a Linux distro aimed at users that want a simple to use, stable operating system and a wide range of software. For their target customers the site has to look familiar with tabs rather than text links and clear pricing. You might mock but Linspire's marketing people know what they are doing.
The choices are, a downloadable version for $49.95, a boxed set for $59.95 or follow the links to Freespire the free 'community' version. Then there is the Click'n'Run Warehouse where you can download software. Until recently a standard subscription was $19.95, but since August 30th it is free though there is still the option of a Gold subscription for $49.95 which offers various benefits such as update notification.
Most distros have a simple graphical installer, but Linspire is concious fewWindows users will have installed an operating system before so there is no point displaying confusing messages about checking, probing, loading, configuring. Boot the Linspire CD and you see a nice simple screen and a timer bar, enough to let you know something is happening without bothering you with the details. Then there's welcome screen and the option to update an existing installation or perform a full installation. Opt for Full and the next screen gives you the choice of 'Take over an entire hard disk' or 'Advanced', which allows manual partitioning.
Next you are asked to give the computer a name and to select and 'Administrator' password. Of course old Linux hands will know this as 'root', but again it is designed to look familiar to Windows refugees. Then there's a final 'Are you sure?' before installation commences. During installation, which takes about fifteen minutes, you are treated to an introductory slide show outlining the delights to come.
In due course you are prompted to remove the CD and reboot. First boot takes a while while a lot of configuration stuff happens, but once again the user doesn't get to see what's going on, just a reassuring timer bar. After a couple of minutes you can log in as Administrator and go through the set up procedure. Rather disappointingly you are not encouraged to set up regular users, and I guess many people migrating from Windows will not do so. Not good security. If you do want to create users then Linspire uses KDE's 'KUser', which of course follows normal Linux terminology and calls root root. I would have thought it was simpler to stick to this right from the start, possibly adding an explanatory note to the screen where you set a root password during installation.
USING LINSPIRE & FREESPIRE
Compared with, say, Kubuntu which starts with a completely empty desktop, the first thing you notice with Linspire is that there's a lot going on. There are desktop icons for the Click'n'Run (CNR) warehouse and a selection of 'How To' tutorials in Flash video, plus your various disk drives, printer, network, web browser, email and instant messaging. Of course many of the applications need setting up before you can use them, but Linspire has linked the desktop icons to the setup tools rather than expecting new users to find them for themselves. Once the applications are set up the icons perform as you'd expect. Freespire is basically the same, minus the Flash videos.
The KDE Panel is equally busy, fully loaded with applets and buttons. The customised Kmenu can be launched with the 'Winkey' or a 'Launch' icon placed where newcomers would expect to find the Start button. The menu is nicely structured and each category has a helpful 'CNR More' link.
The selection of packages supplied is different to the average distro, OpenOffice is included, but not the Gimp. Go to Audio > MP3 and rather than any of the standard music players you get Lsongs and MP3tunes, Linspire's answer to iTunes. However you can still use Kplayer via the Multimedia & Design menu. Whereas most distros provide Kmail and Konqueror, Evolution and Opera, Thunderbird and Firefox, from Linspire you get the Linspire Internet Suite which like all the others is based on Mozilla and looks like them too. Similarly there is Linspire Instant Messenger, based on Gaim, instead of Gaim or Kopete, and Lphoto instead of Kalbum. This is actually one of the beauties of Open Source Software, it's customisable; what Linspire have done is add their own brand identity to a heap of standard OSS applications.
Linspire excells in providing simple software for families that the more heavyweight corporate network style distros miss. SurfSafe for example is a filtering system designed for parents that are worried about their offspring investigating the less pleasant corners of the web, open source equivalents such as Squid are just too much hassle for a home user. VirusSafe is perhaps less useful since Linux viruses are rarer than hens' teeth, though it does prevent you passing on Windows viruses if you forward a dodgy attachment to a Windows user.
CNR is based on Debian's Apt-Get system and works like Synaptic or Adept, but in a more 'average user' friendly fashion. For users with a lifetime's experience of Microsoft and Windows based applications CNR is excellent, it's quicker than shopping around different sites and the automatic installation is slicker than MSI or InstallShield – a real selling point.
It is also possible to use apt-get to install new packages, but if doesn't offer any advantage.
There are two versions of Freespire, one containing free but not open source software such as Real Player and proprietary drivers, and one OSS-only version. The former is so close to Linspire it suggests that the company has actually given up on selling boxed sets and is relying on pre-install sales and CNR Gold subscriptions for revenue. It remains to be seen whether Freespire gets real 'community' support and helps to drive forward the Linspire product.
Linspire/Freespire is real Linux, and if you are hoping to convert someone loaning them a Linspire PC might be the way to do it. If you are a regular Linux user, you don't need it, but it makes a great set of training wheels.
*The original name from Linux and windows (that's a lower-case 'w' as used by the X windowing system, and numerous computer desktop environments and nothing to do with Windows®) was too much for Microsoft who set their lawyers to work and forced a name change. Linspire was chosen to suggest 'Inspirational Linux').