Wanted: More than a simple Add/Remove.

There are some flawed assumptions about Windows vs Linux debate and one of them is, “It’s easier to install applications on Windows than it is on a Linux distro”. A few weeks back I was attending a seminar on some rather uninteresting technical presentations. That’s besides the point, what really is the point is, in one presentations the speaker actually stresses on the fact that Linux is difficult for mass adoption because it is very awkward for a new user to install applications on Linux. That’s laughable, because it’s clear the speaker has not done his homework nor has he any experience with any modern Liunx distro. This archaic argument has it’s roots at the time when you had to compile almost everything under Linux to get it to work. Although *NIX veterans may still do the same, for most of us times have changed. On the contrary I have to argue otherwise. Installation on Linux is slowly becoming easier, in fact in some cases it’s almost trivial. Unfortunately the presentation did not offer a Q&A session (strange I know), else I had some “really good questions” for that particular speaker. Anyways, I have my blog to rant about them 😀 .

After using Ubuntu for about 9 months now, I have grown to be extremely fond of the Synaptic package manager. While there are other package managers under other distros, (and I don’t want to belittle any of those) what would really be interesting to see is something similar on other operating systems, maybe Windows too. For those who have little clue as to what Synaptic does, and for the windows (only) users; Synaptic is Add/Remove Windows feature on steroids. It takes a step further in installation features and combines some very crucial functionality that is not present in the normal Add/Remove. Contrary to what was said and is popularly believed, Synaptic is so much more than a simple add/remove. It manages download, setup  and a full install of an application including the automatic setting up of dependencies of an application or a library with a click of a button. It’s almost a no brainer. All available applications are listed and categorized on distro servers and you can use synaptic to query and search them as required.

Synaptic package manager.

One of the greatest strength of Synaptic is probably the categories and filters it allows on installed and installable packages. It allows the user to browse through all packages in a particular category, thus enabling him to see a variety of similar or related packages, before he decides to install or remove a particular application or library. To a veteran debian and/or Ubuntu user this may seem trivial, but it is not. When you consider other platforms like windows where such facility is unavailable, hunting down applications often means a trip to Google. Now there is nothing wrong with that. However very rarely does Google results throw up exactly what is required, unless of course you are an “absolute nerd” at search-engine queries or, you are extremely lucky. Often times it’s through a lot of query refinement do you get down to results you require. Queries like “comparison of paint applications”, “best photo editing software”, “list of  best mp3 players” are all to common. This however doesn’t always give you what you are looking for and may not provide you with the best possible alternative out there. For example, a query “best photo editing software” returns link to reviews, and it’s only after some refinement do you really get to software download. Under Synaptic, it’s just a matter of simple search. I did a “C++ IDE” search under synaptic and it returned me a list of IDEs available in a snap. Everything from Code::Blocks, Eclipse, Anjuta were listed. All I had to do was right-click install on the one I wanted and Synaptic took care of all the dependencies and every other headache.

Synaptic is interesting but like most problems with Linux, it is distro specific. You will find Synaptic on most Debian based distros. Ubuntu takes it a step further and also features an interactive separate Add/Remove feature where the user can browse entire categories of applications with a brief explanation on each of them. (I am not too sure if other distros support Synaptic or how far it will work with other packaging systems like yum and others). However there is an interesting project in the works called PackageKit. While it looks very much like Ubuntu’s Add/Remove feature it also works on other distros, and infact works towards “providing a common set of abstractions that can be used by standard GUI and text mode package managers”.

There are a lot of software applications out there. So many in fact that you would probably miss out on most of them. You would never know they existed because you never go out and look for them and even if you did, you would probably miss out on most. Which is exactly why applications like Synaptic and PakageKit go a long way in advertising these apps. I would say that such functionality is probably an feather in the cap of distros like Ubuntu and Debian. It actually expands the distros by giving them a reach beyond a normal CD/DVD install and frees the user from the shackles of “using only what the OS provides”.

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