Installing Software on Linux Doesn't Need to be Terrible: A Photo Essay

Sunday October 19, 2008
Installing third-party software, especially end-user GUI software, on Linux is frequently a disaster.  This is frequently taken (especially by pundits) as some kind of inherent limitation of the platform, an indictment of its design and core principles, but it isn't.  In fact, the platform has had solutions to this problem for a long time, but it seems like the people who need the solutions the most, i.e. the people packaging commercial software, don't know about them.

I love to complain about this problem.  I'll take this opportunity to do so, as a matter of fact.  Installing the vmware-server management console is a typical commercial-software-on-linux experience: you download an archive, start up a terminal, run a shar executable (as root!) to install their crappy package which doesn't fucking work, you play with obscure tools that a real "end user" is never going to figure out, like ldd and ltrace, and eventually the damn thing starts up.  (Their solution to this problem?  A web-based management console which is uglier, less usable, and still doesn't fucking work.)

I love vmware - well, vmware-server 1.0, at least.  I really like the fact that the management console uses GTK, fits right into my desktop, and seems to behave like an actual application on linux.  (If the gross web UI is some kind of trick to get me to buy Workstation instead of continuing to use Server... well, it might work.)  The packaging of the software, though, is a masterful example of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  It's bad enough that every time I have to set up a new vmware installation I spend a few hours surveying the virtualization options on linux to see if anything might ease the pain.

The point of this little write-up isn't to stare unblinking into the gut-wrenching horror of a vmware install on Ubuntu, though.  The various ubuntu forums do that well enough.  Thank goodness for that, too, or I probably wouldn't have figured out how to use it.  No, my purpose here is to show what happens when you do it right.  Installing software on Ubuntu can be as nice as on a Mac.

I've been telling people for a long time to make Debian packages of their software, when they release builds for Linux, but I don't know if I've really communicated why having a package is better than anything else.  Thankfully, Ubuntu has now set up everything so that there is a really obvious reason why you should build a package: it's about a million times more user-friendly than doing the opposite.

Inform 7 has managed to provide an excellent example of how an installation on Linux should go, for an end user.  It just so happens that inform 7 is not open source.  I installed the whole thing using only the mouse, except for typing my administrator password.  The story begins on their Download page.
Notice how this page is clear about which thing I should click on, even if I can't read.  I just need to identify the little penguin, and the little three-hugging-people logo.  It would be pretty weird for an illiterate person to install Inform, but nevertheless, it saves us from reading lots of extra stuff.

So I click on the download link, and Firefox prompts me to decide what to do with this.
In fact I would like the package installer!  I click OK (after waiting for it to activate, since firefox has helpfully prevented me from clicking that by accident...).  Now I wait for it to download...
Done!  I don't even need to do anything before the Package Installer window helpfully pops up to help me install this package:
Now, I click "Install Package", and my keyboard gets involved in this process for the first time:
I'm pretty sure I do in fact want to install Inform 7, so I type it in, and the package installer does its magic...
Yay!  It's done!  I just need to look in my Applications menu to find it.

And there you have it:

This is what I want installing third-party and proprietary GUI software to be like on Linux.

Please do not use a shar archive.  I don't want to have to tell nautilus that yes I actually want to run this file which may be an executable text file, and I definitely don't want its EULA prompt on the console to be lost.

Please do not use a zip file.  Id on't want to have to drag files out of archive manager or open a terminal.

I just want to click a button and have the whole thing work.  The work required to make this happen is seriously not that substantial.  You even can pay me to do it, but chances are if you've already built an application for linux, you have enough experienced people on staff to do this yourself.

Notice that with very little additional work you could also provide a similar experience on Fedora; I haven't done it myself, but I have to assume that clicking on the little blue icon on a fedora machine would be a better experience than a bunch of shell commands.