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Will Debian 6 be Easier to Install?

A new and improved Debian installer awaits for Debian 6.0, but is it better than what's gone before? We take a tour of Squeeze's installer beta and find out.

A new Debian release is coming… someday. One of the key components of the Debian 6.0 release, also known as “Squeeze,” is the Debian Installer, which entered beta at the end of October. Debian’s installer has improved, but still needs a bit of work before it can be considered user-friendly.

Long before there was an Ubuntu, or even a Stormix, I was a devout Slackware user and kept hearing wonderful things about Debian. But almost every person I talked to cautioned that the installation was painful. As it turns out, it wasn’t that bad — at least, I didn’t find it any harder to install than Slackware and I was quickly sold on APT.

About 10 years later, Slackware and Debian are still kicking — and with a fairly similar installation experience that reminds me of the 90s.

The Install Experience

The good news is that Debian’s installer is fully GUI. The bad news can be summed up in two words: Needless complexity.

While Ubuntu, Fedora, openSUSE, and others have streamlined the install to a handful of questions, Debian takes more than 20 separate steps to put on a machine. What’s scarier? That’s the normal install. The installer also offers an “expert” install. The expert install seems very similar, but offers logging options and the ability to execute a shell during the install procedure. Perhaps it has more to it, but I felt the regular install was “expert” enough that I didn’t stick with the expert procedure to the end.

The installer has separate steps for providing a user’s full name, their username, and then the password. You’re required to pick the closest Debian mirror for packages, and have three confirmation prompts for partitioning. Users are asked their language, location, keymap preferences, and timezone separately. Surely the installer could group some of these steps and do away altogether with others. Is the alternate-keymap contingent so large that they need a separate step during installation?

For the particularly picky and experienced users, the Debian installer is perfect. For friends I’d want to use Linux, it’s a maze of barely decipherable options. As an experienced Linux user, I don’t find the installer difficult — but I do find it tedious. The GUI aspect of the installer is really no advantage, except that it will look a tiny bit less foreign to users who aren’t accustomed to text-based software.

That said, I do like a couple of things about the installer. I like that the installer gives a couple of partitioning layout choices (choose from all-in-one, a separate /home partition, or separate /home, /var, /usr, and /tmp partitions). I still like picking the hostnames of my machines rather than the random names assigned by many installers these days — but it’s likely to be a point of confusion for many users. (Should I have a domain? What’s a hostname? Etc.)

Challenges

There is a reason that the installer isn’t simplicity itself after all these years. Debian does have a few challenges with respect to the installer, compared to other distributions, some are technical and some are cultural.

On the technical side, Debian supports a ridiculous number of platforms. It can’t be easy to create a useful, usable installer that has to work equally well with “commodity” x86/amd64 hardware and crusty old MIPS machines. Even more difficult, Debian even supports a BSD kernel now — so the challenges abound in terms of creating suitable installer for all the platforms and kernels supported by Debian. (I don’t see a Hurd offering around, so I’m not sure if that port works with the installer or not.)

The cultural challenges are that, simply, most Debian contributors seem unbothered by the gulf between Debian’s level of usability and the technical skills of the average user. If you mention that installing Debian could be simpler, many Debian folks will respond with “but you only have to install it once” in reference to the famed dist-upgrade feature. What that ignores is that many users fail to get (or lose interest in getting) to that point.

Culturally, there’s some hope for change. The recent resolution that allows non-developers to become members (“Debian Developers”) with voting privileges might mean more user-centric folks will be attracted to the project. They might push for a more user-friendly installer.

The Final Verdict

The Debian Project produces a wonderful Linux distribution, sort of like a good buffet with really bad layout on the outskirts of town. The quality and selection are fantastic, but getting to them can be a chore, and you’re pretty much on your own to find what’s available and how to get it. Also the restaurant staff keep pushing the liver and onions, hide the desserts, and keep asking if you want regular cutlery or chopsticks to eat your steak with.

The installer will work well for experienced Debian users, infuriate users that are used to simpler installers, and totally befuddle most newbies. I’ve tested it on a few systems and it works well enough, but I’m disappointed that the Squeeze installer has not increased the usability of Debian in any significant way. Maybe with Debian 7.0? In the meantime, there’s always Linux Mint’s Debian Edition.

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