Linux distro spotlight: OS4 OpenDesktop

OS4's developers have worked to deliver an easy-to-use desktop operating system, with a focus on squarely on the Linux distribution's end users

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Desktop Linux has come a long way from the good old days when getting a window manager working required opening an XFree86 configuration file in vim and figuring out why the fsck X wouldn't load.

However, while modern Linux distributions may outshine their predecessors they still frequently leave much to be desired when it comes to usability, especially for non-technical people, says Roberto Dohnert. Since its creation in 2006, he has been working on OS4, a Linux distro squarely targeted at users who just want to know three things about an OS, according to Dohnert: "One: Does it work well? Two: Does it run the apps I need it to run? Three: Can I watch YouTube and listen to music?"

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OS4 is derived from Ubuntu. "We strip out everything and then start to recompile it adding multimedia codecs, device drivers and applications," explains Dohnert. "We also add support for devices not supported by vanilla Ubuntu, such as support for WebOS-based devices and, recently, support for the Barnes and Noble Nook-based devices and Amazon's Kindle Fire line."

The system offers a "complete compilation of what users want to do with their desktops," Dohnert says.

"We take all the elements that users want — Flash, Java and multimedia codecs — and roll them all into OS4, so this saves the user time of tracking it down and setting it up. Our desktop is set up so that everything is setup in a logical way, and in a way that respects the user's screen real estate." The team also renames links to commonly used apps to make things easier for tech novices. "Users don't know what Abiword is, they don't know what Banshee is, and they don't know what VLC is."

"Even with the desktop distributions out there, there was always something missing; the user would have to go find packages to set it up or they just didn't work very well," Dohnert says.

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"Then you had the choice [of desktop environment] to make — KDE or GNOME. So there was never a clear desktop choice and while you may have the same distribution, the user would have to retrain themselves on whatever desktop they were running.

"With OS4 you have a single consistent user experience; [but] if you want to add a different environment you can [the lightweight Xfce desktop environment is OS4's default interface — RP]. We try to make OS4 attractive to KDE users as well as GNOME users. We have a variety of users for OS4 from engineers all the way to retirees and it just works out of box for them."

Dohnert says along with simplicity, security is a selling point of the distribution. "Security is very important, even in the desktop space," he says. "We use only stable components with OS4. If you look at other distributions, they use a lot of alpha and beta software and tend to treat their users like endless beta testers.

"This makes OS4 a more capable and quality tested [distribution] for deployment in environments where you need users to do work rather than be on forums trying to figure out their systems or fix problems with the software. In this case we are very much competitive with CentOS, Red Hat Linux and Yellowdog Linux."

Another reason Dohnert feels OS4 is attractive for end users "is the amount of care that the developers take with OS4," he adds.

"While some may look at OS4 as a simple remaster of Ubuntu, it's so much more than that. We painstakingly, test, test and test to make sure the end product is of the highest quality. The OS4 team all use the distribution, so we do more than just 'dog food' it."

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