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Some see things as they are, and ask "Why?"   I dream things that never were, and ask "Why Not".  
Robert F. Kennedy

“Impossible” is only found in the dictionary of a fool.  
Old Chinese Proverb

Friday, March 16, 2012

A First Look at openSUSE 12.01
Stay Away - Stay Far Far Away

Just this last week my friend Pat, his girlfriend and I went to the Trenton Computer Fair where there was some really interesting stuff to see.  The embedded micro-controllers were especially interesting and - even a week later - I am still drooling over what I saw there.

One of the tables was hosted by a couple of guys from openSUSE who were handing out free CD's of their - New and Improved! - 12.10 distribution.  (You know, SUSE.  Like GICO.  They both have green lizards as mascots.)

It was wonderful!  Balloons!  Confetti!  A Heavenly Choir!  Promises of the Wonderfully Open Vistas of Open Source Computing!  All it needed was the presence of Richard Stallman of FSF/GNU fame to make it a Truly Religious Experience.

I was particularly interested in the new release of openSUSE since the SUSE reps mentioned that much work had been done to move the current release firmly into the 21st Century.  So, I'm thinking - hey!  It's free, why not!  So, I grabbed a couple, planning to give one to my friend Pat.

One of the SUSE reps asked me if I had tried openSUSE before, and if I had - what did I think of it.  I told them yes, I had tried earlier versions; and on my rankings of things I like to do, I rated it just below the flu and just above intestinal diarrhea.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that these earlier versions were hideously abysmal, but any distribution in the late '90's or early 2000's that required a boot floppy to launch, even after installation, was not high on my list of bleeding-edge distributions.  Or even functionally usable distributions for that matter.  And judged by that standard of excellence - requiring a boot floppy to start - the rest of the distribution did not disappoint either.  These earlier distributions were crufty and their install a BEAR with a capitol GROWL!

After polite laughs all around at my tactful description of the merits of the earlier versions of openSUSE, they suggested that I try their newest one.  For one thing, it no longer required a boot floppy.  Miracle of miracles, it would actually boot from the hard drive!  Additionally, the 12.10 release was even a, (gasp!), live CD!!  (Oooh!  I bet the early versions of Knoppix are just burning with jealousy. . .)  They were brimming with pride at the technological advancements in this, their newest release.

All sarcasm aside, I did want to see what they had actually done, I grabbed a couple of CD's and proceeded to try to install it on one of the machines I had.

The installation CD itself is a "flippy" disk with the 32 bit version on one side and the 64 bit version on the other.  Now I don't know if that saves them money - but it is convenient in a way - you don't need two disks.

However, the religious aura began to fade when I noticed that, not only was the CD housed in a rough cardboard sleeve with no liner, (Can you say "scratches"?), the "32 bit" and "64 bit" designations on the flippy disk were both upside down and backwards.

"Ahh!  Mere trivia!"  I thought, so I proceeded with the installation.

The first thing you notice is that the install is reminiscent of an early Red-Hat or Fedora install.  Which, in a way, makes sense as openSUSE is yet another RH/Fedora clone.  Unfortunately, the one thing sadly lacking in the installation process is any kind of serious usability testing.

Now I will admit that, maybe, the ease and simplicity of a typical Ubuntu install has me spoiled; but I think that by now - in 2012 - any distribution's installation should be more polished than this one was.  Though it had a GUI of sorts, there was a strong deja-vu kind of flash-back to the times when I tried to install text based Red Hat 5.n releases.

"It's all about choices!" - and there are choices aplenty in this distribution.  Which is good.  Unfortunately there is very little help to guide the person installing the distribution as to which choice they might want to choose, and why they might wish to choose it.  Which is bad.  Even a seasoned installer is calmly guided into choices that - if not watched carefully - will end up doing things to the system that Shouldn't Happen to a Dog.

In a sense it reminds me of a line I read in a Sci-Fi novel a while ago:  "It's like handling a live grenade; you have to REALLY PAY ATTENTION."  And they're not kidding!!

OpenSUSE's Kindergarten Report Card:
Listens and Follows Instructions - "F"
Plays Well With Others - "F"

Case in point:
OpenSUSE appears to be totally oblivious to the presence of any other operating systems installed with the exception of Windows.  "Oooh!  You have Ubuntu, Slackware, Minix, or even Tiny Core installed?  Hah!  You don't need those stinkin' wannabees now - you have openSUSE!"  And it goes to great lengths to take over the entirety of your hard disk - exclusive of Windows - and doesn't tell you if it sees anything else there.  If you're not paying attention during the partitioning phase, say syonara! to your carefully crafted disk partitions.

If you are careful, (or lucky), and notice that openSUSE is about to clobber everything else on your disk, you can select "manual partitioning" to force it to do what you want.  Sort-of.

OpenSUSE wants to create a bunch of "LVM" - logical volume manager partition sets - like it or not - and getting it to change it's mind is like pulling teeth.

The instructions down at the bottom of the manual partitioning page tell you to "select the partition you want to change."  So you select one and click "change".  It pops up a dialog telling you that the partition you selected is part of a managed logical volume and cannot be changed because of this.

So, wanting to get rid of the managed logical volume itself, you select it and click "change".  Zzzzzt!  You get a dialog telling you that the managed logical volume contains managed partitions so you cannot change it.

Are you noticing a pattern here?

After trying several things and rapidly becoming convinced that, just possibly, what needs to be changed is the distribution itself - you stumble on the fact that you need to select the sub-sub-sub item within the managed logical volume for it to allow you to, finally, make the changes you desire.  Not that this is at all obvious, mind you.

After - gleefully! - deleting every #&*%@&ing!!! managed partition, AND the managed logical volume itself, you can then - try - to partition the disk some other way.

OpenSUSE's tenacity is absolutely amazing!  It goes to great lengths to insist that you create managed logical volumes; like them, want them, need them, or not.

Now, I am sure that there are real advantages to having managed logical volume sets, whatever those advantages might be.  And I am equally sure that they are the Wave of the Future.  However my installation is comparatively simple and a single primary partition is all I need.  And I'd really appreciate the distribution respecting my choice to do as I will.  Even the choice to make horribly destructive mistakes - after being duly warned of my potential stupidity - if that is what I choose to do.

Eventually. . . .  I convinced openSUSE to make the ONE STINKIN' PRIMARY PARTITION I wanted, format it as EXT4, mount it as root, and use the existing swap partition as it's swap space.

Frankly, I don't remember what I did to get to that point.  Black magic?  Blood sacrifice?  Hefty bribes?  I don't remember and I am convinced that this may well be a case of selective amnesia.

On with the show!  Finally satisfied, (actually scared silly that it will ignore my carefully laid plans), I proceed to install the distribution.

With regard to the installation - I will give it credit for one thing. . . . .

Unlike both Windows and Ubuntu, openSUSE avoids the professional dogmatism and hoopla telling you how wonderful this operating system is, and how lucky you will be having installed it.  There could be a couple of reasons for this:  Maybe, just maybe, they finally got something in the UI right - or, as is likely - they really didn't have that much to crow about.

The installation is done and you reboot into your shiny new operating system, eager to see what the openSUSE 12.10 release is like.

When the desktop finally appears you are indeed struck by the Wonderfully Open Vistas of Open Source Computing.  Minimalist?  This takes sparse to a whole new level!  Not only is there eff-all on the desktop, there's darn little else on the peripheries to guide you either.

The two things you DO notice are the "favorites bar" on the left hand side - think "Macintosh's Dock" - and a series of boxes on the right hand side that are supposed to represent the various flippable desktops you can select.  It's not a bad idea, but the visual cues make you think that those boxes are placeholders for something or other.

Another gripe is that the Favorites Bar is BIG.  It takes up a vertical swath on the left-hand side that is easily 10 to 15% of the screen width - if not more.

The Macintosh experience is driven further by the fact that finding something to use - or do - is a pain if it's not located on the Dock - oops!  I meant "favorites bar"!  The only big difference between the favorites bar and the Dock - besides it being positioned on the left, which the Mac can do if you want - is the fact that the icons located there don't bounce when you select them.

After searching and finding something you want - like a terminal - you need to save it to the favorites bar if you plan to use it more than once or twice a year.  (Or, alternatively, you can try to remember where it's hidden.)

Like Ubuntu, it does tell you if there are "restricted" drivers for your hardware.  Unlike Ubuntu, it doesn't make them easy to install.  After you locate the installer for these restricted drivers (!!) you are given a list of the drivers available - but you can only select and install one at a time.

So, you end up going through a process like this:
  • Find the installer.  (If it's not on the Dock.)
  • Update the installer
  • Pick and install a restricted driver.
  • Reboot.
  • Jump back to step 1 until you either run out of drivers to install, or patience with all this horse-hooey.

Some of the other utilities are also models of intuitive usability.

One good example is the package installer.  It's called Yast, (an incredibly intuitive name in itself), and it has an icon that looks like either an anteater or aardvark with a schnoz to match.  Maybe you are supposed to get the idea of "vacuuming up" the various packages off the floor?  Or maybe the available packages rate right up there with termites or other insect vermin?  Dunno.  They didn't tell me.

Fair is fair.  I haven't used a RH/Fedora distribution in several years so it is possible that the desktop paradigm has become foreign to me.  And it is also true that within the realm of Open Source, anyone can take whatever distribution they want, bend it in all kinds of different ways, and nobody can say "Boo!"

So, despite my opinions of the openSUSE distribution, it is their distro - and they can do with it whatever they darn well please.  Like it or not.

In my opinion the current openSUSE distribution is, most definitely, NOT for the uninitiated.  And even if you are a Seasoned Veteran - with the Battle Scars to prove it - you might just want to think two or three times before messing with the 12.10 distribution of openSUSE.

What say ye?

Jim (JR)