RMS's Mostly Slax: Bad choices in a good cause

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Feb 11, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Free distributions -- ones that contain only free and open source software, and remove proprietary blobs from the kernel -- are a rarity. In fact, the GNU Project lists only nine.

For that reason, I was immediately interested in the announcement of RMS's Mostly Slax, a project dedicated to putting a free distribution on a USB pendrive.

Unfortunately, while focusing on freedom, the project defeats its own purpose, because it doesn't bother to make that freedom very attractive, especially for new users.

The title of the distribution explains its origins: RMS's Mostly Slax is named for Richard M. Stallman, and is based on Slax, one of the oldest and most popular derivatives of Slackware. The distro is currently available as a zipped file that you can use to create a bootable USB pendrive on which you can save files, or as an .ISO image that you can use as a Live CD to explore the distribution. Either choice works without problems, and quickly boots you to a desktop whose default wallpaper shows a herd of gnus.

The choice of Slax

Contributors to RMS's Mostly Slax, of course, have the right to make any development choices they want. However, right from the start, the project seems to have made no effort to make sure that the result is convenient or creates a favorable impression of free software.

In many ways, Slax is an ideal distribution for experienced users. Moreover, like many Slackware derivatives, it is much speedier than major distributions such as Fedora or Ubuntu, which means that users will hardly notice the slightly slower response times of a pendrive.

However, Slax is not exactly the first name that comes to mind if you are asked to recommend a distro for anyone new to free software. In particular, its module manager, differs strikingly from the online repositories of either .RPM or .DEB-based distributions, starting with the fact that you have to download modules before installing them. And, so far, RMS's Mostly Slax contains only a handful of modules, almost of them programming languages.

True, the Slax site includes detailed instructions for building customized versions, but a free distribution like gNewSense would have been not only a more user-friendly choice, but a more developer-friendly choice as well, since most of the work of removing proprietary blobs would have already been done. To say the least, the choice of Slax as a base seems eccentric.

Eccentric Software Choices

Another eccentric choice is the use of KDE 3.5.10 for the desktop. I can understand that the developers would not want to use GNOME, because it contains Mono-based applications, which many regard as unfree, or at least something to regard cautiously. But I know of no similar problem with the KDE 4 series, and Slax's modules do include ones for KDE 4.3.4 -- until earlier this week, a current release.

Moreover, for all that some users stubbornly cling to the KDE 3 series, it has not been the focus of development for two years and reflects a desktop sensibility that is now long out of date. To a modern user, it looks clunky and old-fashioned. Just as importantly, the choice of KDE 3 has a ripple effect, making RMS's Mostly Slax unable to use KOffice 2.0, Amarok 2.2, or many of KDE's other leading programs.

For that matter, where are the other desktop standards, such as OpenOffice.org or The GIMP? According to the announcement, the distro is also supposed to include Icecat, a version of Firefox, but it is also missing.

By excluding such applications, RMS's Mostly Slax miss the chance to showcase the best that free software has to offer, or to give users the most advanced tools available. The software selection also risks conversion problems, since the implementation of Open Document Format in the version of KOffice supplied is not quite identical to that found in applications like AbiWord or OpenOffice.org that users might use elsewhere.

Unnecessary Sacrifices

Is it unfair to criticize RMS's Mostly Slax for its choices? After all, if you are dedicated to free software, shouldn't you be willing to make a few sacrifices?

If necessary, I suspect that few free software supporters would object to some sacrifices. Just by using free software, they cut themselves off from most of the gaming world. Nor are they likely to object to minor hardships, such as RMS's Mostly Slax using a 2.6.27 kernel -- the latest available from the Linux Libre project (http://www.fsf.org/blogs/community/rms-mostly-slax). Most will never notice the difference. Similarly, while Adobe Acrobat may be the most fully-featured PDF reader, KPDF is adequate most of the time.

You might even argue that, unless users are prepared to make some sacrifices, a completely free desktop will either be delayed or never arrive. Instead, users will fall back on proprietary freeware where necessary.

However, what I question is the wisdom of asking for unnecessary sacrifices from users. Granted, a pendrive may have limited space, and software has to be wisely selected. Yet other distributions such as Fedora manage the trick without handicapping users or making free software seem out of date. So why can't RMS's Mostly Slax do the same?

I wanted to like RMS's Mostly Slax -- I really did. But I can't. The cause may be worthy, but the implementation imposes too many unnecessary obstacles.


  • Review

    The article didn't seem balanced(Honestly I'm not either, being an rms dev) but I do like it, it tells me exactly what I need to help with in the next rms release. I don't really see us going to kde4 personally, for the reasons people pointed out(mainly the size and performance.) I think I'll be compiling either an xfce or lxde module for use instead, though I need to run it by the other devs. I also don't consider the current release a real one, we're still in the 1.x area and trying to work out problems and bugs.

    note: I have nothing against GNOME. actually I'm using it right now, the main reason we have kde 3(that I'm aware of at least) is that it came with slax.

  • About choices

    I just read this review and I felt like claryfing something.
    I included KDE 3.5 in RMS because we are based on Slax 6.1.2 and that's what they are using. I was using KDE 3.5 in gNewSense until yesterday (you just caught me in the middle of my migration).
    I used Linux-libre and not something newer because the linux-live patches are for the 2.6.27 branch. The choice of modules was similar to the choice of default modules that Slax has, minus GNU IceCat (that is offered as a module on our site) because 3.6 had a broken firefox.js and we didn't want to wait for the release.
    The rest of the modules are programming languages because that's what we use. I wanted Python, Tekk wanted Perl, etc. We have filtered the nonfree packages from the Slax modules and we are going to upload them soon, but we don't get paid to do this, we can't dedicate our full time to this project.

    Our main goal is to make a free Slax distro and to keep it lightweight, that's why version 1.3 comes without KOffice as a default module (I honestly don't like KOffice, even though I'm a big KDE fan, but I don't like office suites in general, much less OO.o which I find disgustingly ugly). Tekk still wanted to include bsdgames and gnugo in 1.3 and they are lightweight enough, so that's okay. Hackers like nethack!

    If you think that basing RMS on Slax was a bad choice, then I don't see why you say that you wanted to like RMS, after all we're just Slax, but free.

    When Slax 7 gets released, which should be soon enough, now that squashfs got included in Linux along with lzm (I'm sure it already made it there, or it should be happening soon enough), RMS 2 will be released as well. It will have KDE 4, just like Slax 7, and a newer kernel.

    Also, mentioning Adobe Acrobat in an article about a fully free distro? Talk about bad choices...
  • what the?

    this review is totally unfair, or written from ignorance. there are many kinds of distro- there's distros that are nearly useless unless installed, and ones that are nearly pointless to install. there are distros that focus on the console, distros that focus on security, distros that focus on development, and distros that are created "just for fun." (although i would steer clear of those myself, most of the time."

    the distro that most people seem to want is the "kitchen sink" class, where it comes with everything or has everything in the repos. ubuntu is one of the most famous examples of this class. its live cd is nearly useless, except as a demo and installer. but it does what it's designed to do- this is something bruce byfield obviously hasn't considered.

    rmsgnulinux is NOT a "kitchen sink" distro, that should be easy to tell from its minimalist package management. it's a much lighter distro. even more odd is the idea that you'd be excited to try something that's made from a distro you think is a poor design choice to start with. if you already think slax is a poor choice, why expect better from rms'mostlyslax?

    there are literally hundreds of kitchen sinks out there, and i'm much more interested in lighter weight distros- distros made to be run live. rms is such a distro, and in my fairly diverse experience of lighter distros (as i said, they're more what i'm interested in) it's a very high quality, friendly distro- all things being relative. this review of rms is bunk- nothing more, nothing less. and i also use trisquel and gnewsense- rms was refreshingly different- if you wanted the same, you should have looked for something more similar. not everyone has the same preferences, bruce.

  • Why Mono is so bad

    Yes, Mono is under the LGPL. Unfortunately, Microsoft are trying to lay claim to patents all over anything that they think looks like their .NOT technology. And while Microsoft would never dare take on IBM in a patent suit (IBM would "pwn" the entire Microsoft Corporation in such a suit), Microsoft have made it very clear that they will happily sue the little guys. A patent lawsuit will bankrupt most of them. TomTom rolled over because they couldn't afford the legal fees.

    That is the danger of Mono. Miguel de Icaza is insistent on implementing Microsoft's (claimed) patented technology and trying to get a major Free Software desktop dependent on this patent trap called Mono. And that is why the FSF eschews it.

    More info here.


  • Different Strokes for Different Folks

    Brian; this article is disappointing. You criticize RMS for using KDE 3.5 instead of KDE 4.3 and for not making the distribution user friendly enough for beginners. But every distribution doesn't have to be for beginners and I'm glad that there are some distributions still using KDE 3.5 and making security fixes.

    It seems to be really hard for you to understand but some people prefer KDE 3.5 over KDE 4.3. And other people, even though they might like to use KDE 4.3, won't use it because their system doesn't have a lot of resources and KDE 4.3 takes much more resources than KDE 3.5. People in that situation could either continue using KDE 3.5 or switch to something else like Gnome, XFCE or a windows manager. Yes, even Gnome 2.28 takes much less resources than KDE 4.3.
  • Slax is a great start

    I can tell you why Slax was chosen. It is drop dead easy to remaster. Need a program that is not in Slax or on their website. Easy, just find a Slackware 11 or 12 package and convert from tgz2lzm. Use a CD editor and drop the lzm file you just created into the "extra" folder and burn the CD image back out. This is much easier than loading something like Ubuntu and stripping out 300 or 400 packages and then trying to verify everything that is left still works. gNewSense may not have any proprietary bits in it, but it still needs to be strpped down if you want a smaller install and if you wanted to add more to it, gNewSense is still harder to remaster than Slax is.

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I Have been using Linux for 11 years and almost always run bleeding edge software. I have used KDE 4.4 and 4.3, I have used E17, E16, Fluxbox, etc. KDE 3.5 is not bad, ugly or clunky. It does not have the look of Windows 7 (heavily lifted from KDE 4), but is more like XP, not as good looking as Vista but is better than running Vista.

    Since Slax comes with KDE 3.5 it is an obvious choice to use it. Koffice 2.0 may be better than Koffice 1.5, but Amarok 2.2 is still no where as good as Amarok 1.4. Which is to say not all programs have benefited in the transition from KDE 3.5 to KDE 4.3.

    I think you are being unfair to both Slax and KDE 3.5. It is a great base for building whatever you want to build from it.

    On the other hand you are correct wondering why some other great open-source software is NOT included in this distro, because anything that runs in slackware 11 or 12 would be easy to include.

    Perhaps you could create a list of software that would have been the good to include, I would find it very interesting. Because there is a lot of great free software out there that I am sure I dont know about.
  • New users?

    >Unfortunately, while focusing on freedom, the project defeats its own purpose, because it doesn't bother to >make that freedom very attractive, especially for new users.

    Bruce, you remind of the guy who goes to a strip joint and then complains that his dancer is a communist, youre forgetting why you are there.

    Slackware isnt usually for people who just discovered Ubuntu, the bestest OS ever!!

    My mom uses Mandriva/KDE4.3. I wouldnt give her my precious Gentoo.

    I still think we need a few good free software only like Mandriva offer and Ubuntu used to but I believe gave up or folded it into Gnusense. I think they are an important part of what our goal should be.
    Give me a good free operating system that is pleasant and funtional as a reference point and then let me add Skype and Opera if I feel like but at the base of it all, we should be able to have .

    What RMS is doing, isnt what you want.

    You want Mandriva Linux Free which is:

    Mandriva Linux Free is a 'traditional' distribution (i.e. one that comes with a dedicated installer,[6] named DrakX, which is first used to install the distribution to the hard disk of the computer before it is run). It is 'free' in both senses: it consists entirely of free and open-source software, and it is made available for public download at no charge. It is usually available in CD (three or four discs) and DVD editions for x86 32- and 64-bit CPU architectures. It is aimed at users to whom software freedom is important, and also at users who prefer a traditional installer to the installable live CD system used by One. The package selection is tailored towards regular desktop use. It consists of a subset of packages from the 'main' and 'contrib' sections of the master tree.

    I dont go out of the way to use the free software only distro I have installed but its a great way to gauge how much we have left to do and how far we have travelled.
    Its only a few years now that weve had decent video, audio,webcam,wifi drivers but there is always room for improvement..

    There are over 500 distros out there (my friend has his own that students at his school work on) and thousands more than were not aware because of small size or use) so I dont see how this one will in any way come within sniffing distance of Joe User who wants to try that Linux Ubuntu he's heard about.
    And that's good too.

    I know that many hate choice and would love to somehow limit people's rights to start their own but we cant. The code is free (libre), you can do with it what you want (and if you want to distribute it, then you have to follow the rules). I might find the Ubuntu Satanic version to be childishly moronic but if people out there want to do it, knock yourself out.

    I think that's the way to go.
    And if you want a user friendly and free software only Gnu-Linux distro, the try Mandrake Free or some of the other ones.

    I love Amarok but on a pendrive there are much smaller audio players out there. Great tool but wrong for this use.
  • Non-free?

    "I can understand that the developers would not want to use GNOME, because it contains Mono-based applications, which remain unfree."

    I'm confused, aren't gnome and mono two totally different things? Also, isn't mono under a normal license scheme LGPL) so how is it unfree?
  • Nice article

    A nice and balanced article, and a good read thanks
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