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4/15/2004
03:28 PM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: Linux's Achilles' Heel

New Linux distros still fail a task that Windows 95 -- yes, 95! -- easily handles, namely working with mainstream sound cards. That sends the cost of commercial, paid versions of Linux dramatically higher.

In the movies, they call it a "backstory," the plot behind the plot; the history and circumstances that led up to the current plot.

Linux was the backstory for my recent coverage of virtual PC technology. Although that article stands by itself, the story behind the story reveals both how far Linux has come--and how far it has to go.

I'll name names later, but the problem I'm discussing isn't specific to one distribution--it's far more widespread than that. So, for now, let's just say I was trying distribution "XYZ," a polished commercial Linux that seeks to go toe to toe with Microsoft Windows. Distro "XYZ" even costs roughly as much as a Windows XP upgrade, which suggests to me that it should be judged by the same standards, and not be granted the leniency that Linux sometimes merits when it's distributed for free or at very low cost. Full commercial price means full commercial expectations.

I really liked distro XYZ at first. Its interface is one of the most well thought out of any I've seen in Linux, and its installation was extremely easy and automated. The developers of XYZ also clearly recognize that it's a Windows world out there; for their distribution to succeed, it must be accessible to Windows users. So, they've made XYZ especially Windows-user-friendly, with built-in support for some Windows executables and with naming conventions that instantly make XYZ's system components and add-ons familiar. You can even make your system look so much like Windows--if that's what you want--that you'd fool passers-by. Of course, if you prefer something as far from the Redmondian look as possible, you can do that, too.

Despite my very positive first impressions, I couldn't get XYZ to work with my sound card at all, even though I was testing XYZ on a brand new PC from a major vendor. The system was based on an utterly mainstream Intel motherboard with an on-board Intel sound system. This isn't some weird, off-brand system using unknown components: It's about as mainstream as it gets.

And let me mention in passing, for now, that normal retail versions of XP (not tweaked OEM versions, but off-the-shelf retail CDs) had no problems at all with the sound system. With XP (Pro and Home), everything on the PC worked right away, with no special drivers or manual intervention required.

When XYZ's built-in setup routines failed to get the sound working, I decided to try ALSA, the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, which is supposed to provide more or less standardized sound support for Linux, and to get around the need for many different sound drivers.

Oddly, I got that to work--but only until I rebooted. Then the sound went away again, and nothing I could do (including reinstalling ALSA) would get it to work. But the fact that the sound briefly worked told me this was a software issue, and not a problem with the sound card per se.

I reinstalled the whole operating system, from scratch, four times! I poked. I prodded. I tweaked. I FAQed. I How-To-ed. I searched Usenet. Nothing solved the problem.

So I contacted XYZ's paid tech support--remember, this was a commercial Linux that cost as much as a Windows XP upgrade, and tech support is built into the price.

The support staff asked for some log files and diagnostic dumps. I sent them. They then had me manually set some software switches and edit other settings, but that made things worse--the system then lost all graphics modes. I could login only in text mode; otherwise, the system was unusable.

Things rapidly went downhill from there, but this column isn't about XYZ's weaknesses in tech support, but rather about a general Linux problem. I can say that because I later duplicated the failure with eight other versions and separate distributions of Linux before I gave up. Not one could get the sound working for more than brief periods.

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