Corel Linux is on the right track but needs work
(IDG) -- Having great hopes for this new distribution, I took my beta copy of Corel Linux for a spin. Corel seems to understand exactly what is needed to make Linux palatable for the home user. And, based on the demonstrations at LinuxWorld Expo, it seemed like Corel was making remarkable progress.
Perhaps I had set my expectations too high, because I was sorely disappointed. But I still think Corel Linux is the distribution to watch. If Corel makes the right moves, the success could be overwhelming.
Corel has a unique opportunity, particularly because it has chosen to base its distribution on Debian. Debian is a terrific Linux distribution; among its many strengths are stability and ease of maintenance. But Debian also has two major problems: it is difficult to install, and it lags way behind other distributions when it comes to including the latest and greatest software.
Corel has a chance to rectify both problems, and has promised to fix at least one of them. Corel is intent upon making Debian easy to install. And, although the company hasn't explicitly stated it will make it a mission to keep Debian up with the times, it has the resources to do so.
The one thing Corel is doing well is making Linux resemble Windows in important ways. I know that many Linux aficionados will cringe at the thought, but there actually are a few features of Windows worth emulating. Not many, mind you, but a few. For example, it's a good thing to have a network browser, or to integrate network configuration into the KDE control panel.
But there are times when it should be a felony to emulate Windows, and Corel sometimes wanders too far into that dangerous territory. For example, you can install Windows 9x with practically no security at all (and believe it or not, it looks like this will hold true for Windows 2000 Professional as well). But that's no excuse for Corel to default to a system that gives you root access with no passwords -- which is exactly what it does.
To illustrate where Corel is (and isn't) with this distribution, I'll walk you through my experience installing and using Corel Linux. I installed the system by booting directly from the Corel Linux CD-ROM.
One thing I adore about the installation program is that it hardly requires any information. You give it the name of a user, pick the kind of installation you want, tell it where you want to install (it can take over your entire hard disk, or give you the option to partition your drive), and then off you go.
There are only two package options in the beta -- one for a typical desktop, and the other for a development desktop. I picked the latter. There were two other server options currently grayed out.
I first tried to install Corel Linux over an existing Linux partition on my SCSI-based system. The installation hung just as it began to format the partition. I tried deleting the existing partition and recreating it. Hung again. So I tried to install it on the second hard drive of an IDE-based system. This time, the installation hung before it reached the format phase. Then I tried to install it on an existing partition on the first drive. It hung yet again.
I tried one more time, this time allowing Corel Linux to take over the entire hard drive. The program finally got past the partition and format phase and began installing software. The installation completion gauge stayed at 1 percent for a few minutes, but the disk was very active so I figured it hadn't hung this time. Then it zipped up to 95 percent complete, and hovered there for several minutes. Suddenly, it was done.
A system reboot takes you to a graphical opening screen, where you have the option of booting normally, or to one of a few safe modes -- VGA, console, debug, or expert. I picked the normal boot. It took a few minutes to go through a one-time initial configuration, and then finally brought me to a graphical login screen.
The default login is root. No password. I switched to a text console and assigned a password to both root and my user account. While I was there, I noticed that Corel Linux doesn't use MD5 encryption or shadow passwords, and that it only wants a password between five and eight characters.
I went back to the graphical login screen and logged in as root. I noticed that it didn't recognize my graphics card, but installed VGA graphics by default instead. No problem, I thought, I'll just run one of the XFree86 setup programs. Surely Corel put a link to one on the KDE desktop or in the KDE menu tree, I thought. Well, as it turned out, it didn't.
So I switched to another console and ran XF86Setup. I looked for my Matrox G200 AGP card. It wasn't listed. What the...? The Matrox G200 isn't really that old, but it is practically obsolete by today's standards. How could it be missing from the list?
I checked the version of XFree86 only to find that Corel is still using version 3.3.2. That's the problem; XFree86 is currently up to version 3.3.5, the version which would have detected all my current graphics cards.
Fine, I thought, I'll download the latest XFree86 and upgrade. But first I had to get networking up and running. This time there was a way to configure the system from within KDE; you can do it from the KDE control center. Very nice -- that's the way it should be.
In fact, there are a number of enhancements to KDE that I really like, but they're not all unique to Corel Linux. There's a button to display your virtual desktops as, well, virtual desktops, instead of buttons with names on them. I didn't get a chance to try it, but Corel demonstrated a much improved file manager and a network browser that sifts through available Windows network drives, NFS mounts, and the like.
Anyway, when I got to the network configuration panel in the KDE control center, I noticed that Corel Linux had chosen an IP address for me -- the wrong one, naturally. (Don't laugh; Caldera 2.3 actually picked the right subnet, the right IP address for my gateway, and the right IP address for my name server.) It was easy enough to fix, though.
When I applied the changes, it told me that networking was reconfigured. But when I tried to ping another computer on the network, it failed.
So I ran ifconfig in a console and discovered that Corel Linux did not load the proper modules for either of my network cards. I loaded the module for my Linksys LNE100TX card manually, and ran ifconfig to configure eth0.
I downloaded the latest version of XFree86 and installed it. Next, I configured X11 and tried to start it up, but it complained about a missing library symbol.
I hadn't gotten X11 working with my video card yet, but at this point I made Corel behave enough like a normal Linux workstation to make real progress if only I wanted to put in the time and effort.
Some parsley advice
That leads me to give these bits of advice to Corel, in addition to the obvious need to clean up such loose ends as the network configuration, hard disk partitioning, and nonstandard installation.
First of all, I fully understand the need to dumb down Linux a little in order for it to compete with Windows as a home desktop operating system. But don't dumb it down so much that it becomes only marginally better than Windows.
For example, make passwords easy, but don't let Linux be criticized for being as lazy about security as Windows. Require the user to enter a root password. Alternatively, ask the user if his machine will dial into the Internet or be hooked up to a network, and require a root password for the latter configuration. And, unless you're going to require that the user do root-level configuration after the installation is over, use a user login, rather than root login, as the default setting.
Enable MD5 encryption and shadow passwords, too. If this makes your job as a Linux distributor more difficult because of how it affects things like Windows shares, too bad. I'm sorry to be unsympathetic, but it is your job as a Linux redistributor to solve these problems for the customer -- not to expect your customers to solve them.
This applies to all Linux distributions, by the way, not just Corel. But Corel is the company that is attempting to make it so easy to integrate Linux with Windows on the desktop, so Corel Linux is naturally going to be given more scrutiny regarding such issues.
Finally, make sure your distribution is based on the latest version of XFree86. Include and install by default the latest versions of the most important shared libraries.
Oh, and one more bit of advice -- perhaps the most important of all. Comdex is right around the corner, and I've heard that Corel is planning a Comdex release. But I urge you, Corel: Do not shove this distribution out the door before it is ready.
The Debian distribution is getting more respect than ever lately. I could be wrong, but I suspect that much of the Debian community is watching your distribution closely, because it could launch Debian into the limelight like never before. But if you release a half-baked distribution based on Debian, you'll not only disappoint a potential customer base, you'll risk damaging the reputation of Debian by association. That would be a hard position from which to recover.
With only a few exceptions, Corel has all the right ideas about how to make Linux one of the most attractive desktop operating systems available. The stakes are high. Our expectations are high. We'll be waiting.
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