Saturday, November 7, 2009

All hail Synaptic.

A software repository is a collection of ready-to-go programs that sit on servers, managed by the Linux distribution's maintainers. A user can select any program, and the repository knows which other programs will be required. Within minutes, the program, and all its dependencies, are downloaded from the repository, installed to the computer, all with almost zero interaction from the user.

Allow me to illustrate this by way of example. In Windows, the procedure for getting new programs goes a little something like this.

  1. Search Google for words related to the program you want. Say you want a DVD player -- you'd google "dvd player".
  2. Check the first page of result summaries to see if any of them look like what you need.
  3. Pick one, go to the website, and try to find the download link. Check to see if what you're getting is usable, and not some crippled trial version, adware, spyware, or other garbage you don't want on your computer.
  4. Download the installer.
  5. Run the installer. Agree to various Terms of Service and EULAs you aren't reading.
  6. Answer questions about where to put files you've never heard of. Usually the defaults work here, but sometimes not.
  7. Click a few more "Yes", "I Agree", "Continue", "Next" buttons.
  8. Hopefully the program is now installed.
  9. Now go back and clean up all the shortcuts, system tray icons, desktop icons, and other party favors it left behind.
  10. Your new program is somewhere in the Start menu. It might be under the program's name, or maybe the name of the company that made it, or maybe the parent company. There's no real rhyme or reason to any of it; you'll just have to remember where it is. There's a good chance it will move around anyway.
  11. Enjoy your new program.

It's a hassle. It's unsafe. Downloading and running random things is one of the most common ways people get infected with viruses, trojans, and other stuff. It's difficult to manage and keep track of everything. It is, frankly, annoying as all get out. And yet this is the expected way of doing things in Windows.

Let's look at how you'd do this in Ubuntu. Ubuntu uses a repository containing over twenty three thousand programs (called "packages") -- all free for the taking. Here's how it works.

  1. Click "System" in your menu, and go to "Administration" and "Synaptic Package Manager".
  2. Click "Search" and type in a few keywords. Say, "dvd player".
  3. Results come up, with brief descriptions about what they are.
  4. Pick one. Put a checkbox next to it and click "Apply".
  5. Wait a minute. Your new programs is downloading and installing.
  6. Your new program is now installed, and can be found in a logical category in your Applications menu. You're done!

No sifting Google results. No worrying about whether these programs are safe -- they have all been vetted and verified. No cleaning up inane taskbar items, system tray icons, shortcuts, and toolbars. And it's absolutely one hundred percent free.

Kind of makes the Windows way look silly, doesn't it?

As an added bonus, you may have noticed that in Windows, programs are constantly throwing notifications in your face. They all run their own little updaters that need to connect and update and refresh and restart and they all have to tell you this RIGHT NOW no matter how much you don't care.

With Ubuntu, Synaptic takes care of that. All the programs, and all of the system components, are managed through the repository. When updates are available for anything, it will quietly notify you -- not shove windows in your face -- and you can update them all at once. No hassle, no annoyances, just a few clicks of the mouse when you're ready, not when the machine decides you're ready.

Package managers like Synaptic are the future, Microsoft just hasn't realised it. All hail Synaptic.

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