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FOSS: How Did 2009 Shape Up?

Another year goes by without the "Year of the Linux Desktop" (whatever that means) but that doesn't mean that Free software is standing still. What highlights have there been over the last year and what is still holding us back?

Another year goes by without the “Year of the Linux Desktop” (whatever that means) but that doesn’t mean that Free software is standing still.

What highlights have there been over the last year and what is still holding us back?

A Look At Distro Land

Free software marches along at a rapid pace, developing new and better software. Distributions are often contributing along the way and are hot on the heels of these projects to package it all up for us lowly end users.

The much anticipated Debian 5.0 ‘Lenny’ release was expected to be released in 2008, but actually arrived in February this year. The project also announced an official GNU/kFreeBSD port, which is due next year. Ubuntu continued down their path of improving the user experience by introducing their one hundred paper cuts project.

In light of some layoffs at Novell, board Members Pascal Bleser and Bryen Yunashko released a joint statement on the future of openSUSE. Later the project also opened up their development to the community and Novell dedicated a team of 10 employees to the work.

openSUSE also went through many other core changes this past year, including the switch to an unusual 8 month release schedule. Their recent 11.2 release has been well received and their earlier 11.1 release was the first to be built entirely using their online build service. The distro also gained the ability to upgrade between distributions using the Zypper package manager.

Fedora managed to successfully create their most ambitious release yet, version 11 codenamed Leonidas. Their latest release, Constantine, continued this and has also been well received. A new default feature in the release was the presto plug in for the Yum package manager which downloads deltas to rebuild packages, rather than the full updated binary which saves on download volumes.

Elsewhere, Slackware got their first official 64bit and ARM ports, Mandriva set up their “Linux Assembly” to improve relationship with the community, TinyCore released a desktop version at just 10MB, The Linux Foundation took control of Moblin and desperate CentOS developers released an open letter to the original founder.

While each distribution has a specific goal and philosophy, these days much of the core components to make life easier are included in most distros and are well tested. Many distributions can now automatically detect and install required codecs and proprietary drivers. Issues of closed data formats and non-GPL drivers aside, this is a very useful tool for those switching from other operating systems.

Generally speaking, the distribution landscape is looking very healthy.

Advancements In The Kernel

A major release of the Linux kernel happens every three months, which means this year has seen four new versions. Of course, not all of these will see major circulation as most distros only release every six months. Typically every second or third release makes it into the major distributions. Version 2.6.32 was released just two weeks ago, but it won’t actually make it to most distros. Nevertheless, most of the major features do make it onto the desktop, eventually.

This past year has seen some amazing new work enter the kernel. Perhaps the most work centered around file systems with the introduction of Btrfs, SquashFS, FUSE, EXOFS and NILFS2 into mainline. For the majority of distributions, the new Ext4 file system has become the default (although it was not without its problems).

Graphics architecture was re-worked which caused no end of issues for most machines with an Intel graphics card. Kernel-based mode setting (KMS) was introduced including support for Intel and Radeon cards. With 2.6.33 on the way the Nouveau driver for NVIDIA cards has just been merged into the mainline staging tree. Linux was also the first kernel to gain support for USB 3.0, although there are no consumer devices widely available yet.

Aside from new features, plenty has gotten a work over. Power management, as well as the suspend and resume architecture both got a revamp (and now work much more reliably), as did rfkill and the wireless stack. The 2.6.29 release also introduced faster start up times thanks to the ability to asynchronously initialize subsystems. Software RAID arrays can now migrate between various level such as 5 and 6. Of course there are thousands of other features and improvements, both major and minor.

Last but not least, Tux took a break for the first time ever while Tuz (the Tasmanian Devil) took over for kernel 2.6.29.

Still a problem are proprietary drivers. The two biggest culprits are the AMD and NVIDIA video card drivers, for which there is still no solid open source driver. The Nouveau project has made a great amount of progress, which will hopefully increase now that it has been merged. While AMD released specifications for a number of their graphics cards, their own driver still remains closed source.

Considering that the majority of desktops in the world ship one of these two pieces of hardware, that’s a serious blow to the Linux desktop. Unfortunately, there appears to be nothing to pressure these companies to release their current drivers under a compatible license.

What Happened in User Space

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