June 4th, 2009
I remember when Ubuntu Christian Edition first came on the scene (don’t look for it any more—the project has since been discontinued). There was an uproar in the Ubuntu Linux community. Why are people bringing religion into software? Free software should be bringing people together, not separating them. And, of course, the objection of Why even bother? Can’t you just create a metapackage? Aren’t all these things in the software repositories? Users can just install GnomeSword and DansGuardian themselves.
Religion aside, there seemed to be (and sometimes continues to be) an objection to the very notion that you might take a Linux distribution, change the default packages and artwork in it, and then re-release it as a modified distribution (or “remix” as the Ubuntu folks like to call it, as per their trademark policy). Even now I still see people on the forums asking “Why? Why would you bother? Why can’t you install those packages yourself?”
To answer this question, let’s imagine Ubuntu stopped distributing itself the way it does now. Right now, the default Ubuntu comes as a CD that has a live session that runs off RAM, and if you want to install it to your hard drive, you can do so. Both the live session and the fresh install give you a set of applications—a web browser, an email client, a bittorrent client, a word processor, an image editor, etc. What if Ubuntu stopped doing that? What if they said “Eh. People can just install applications themselves. Let’s just give them a command prompt after installation”?
Well, I actually know some Ubuntu users would be thrilled with that. There is a reason, though, why the mini.iso is less popular than the Desktop CD .iso, and it’s not just because the Desktop CD is the main download on the Ubuntu website.
I can’t tell you how many Windows users I see with the taskbar on the bottom and a green rolling hill with a blue sky for the desktop wallpaper. People use Internet Explorer because it is the default web browser in Windows. A lot of Ubuntu users like Gnome because it has two panels instead of one. Guess what, people—Gnome can easily have one panel. Just delete the bottom panel (or the top one).
Have you ever taken a default installation and tweaked it to be exactly the way you want it? For some people, that can be just a couple of minutes. For others, it can take hours. I’m not kidding.
What if you felt the default Ubuntu packages weren’t a good way to introduce Ubuntu to folks interested in trying Linux? Would you carry around a live CD with you and then say “Hold on. Hold on. I’m going to boot this up, but it’ll take me about forty-five minutes to make this interface presentable and install a bunch of packages… oh, which may not fit in your 512 MB of RAM”? Wouldn’t it be far more effective to have a live CD with Ubuntu exactly the way you want it?
I recently created my own Ubuntu remix called the Ubuntu HP Mini Remix. Yes, you can do all those things in Ubuntu after installation (fix sound, make sound settings stick, have wireless resume more quickly after suspend, consolidate panels to make room for more vertical real estate), but it involves editing configuration text files and doing a lot of annoying little tweaks.
And some folks with HP Minis haven’t been able to get those tweaks working. Maybe it’d be good if I just gave them an .iso they could use right away that had those tweaks in them?
More importantly, though, what’s the harm? You don’t have to use my remix. No one does. In fact, if I were the only person using my remix, I’d still consider it worth the effort. It doesn’t take anything away from Ubuntu. I’m not a developer or programmer. I’m not a graphics artist. The time and energy I put into my remix would not benefit vanilla Ubuntu, since the tweaks I’m making are specifically for the HP Mini 1120nr. Yes, there are some bugs that could be fixed, but I’m not fixing bugs. I’m employing workarounds for those bugs.
Remixes are a good way to make easily available to a niche population a set of default packages that its members can install on multiple systems or demonstrate as live sessions on multiple systems without them having to make an hour’s worth of tweaks to get going.
Defaults matter. That’s why remixes matter.