Could Mepis have been Ubuntu?

Monday Nov 10th 2008 by Matt Hartley
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As Ubuntu becomes more bug filled and users look for alternatives, they might consider SimplyMepis, which once had a chance to be the top Linux distro.

Linux has been a part of my life for a number of years now. In one period I leaned heavily on live CDs loaded with Knoppix for my notebook use, along with a trusty Prism PCMCIA card for connectivity. But once I discovered SimplyMepis (also known as Mepis), I found that Knoppix was simply too time consuming. I enjoyed Mepis for a while, though I ended up moving to Ubuntu due to stagnation in Mepis development.

Over time one thing led to another, and the Mepis project tried an Ubuntu code base for a while, which did not work out so well. Later on, the project coordinator moved Mepis back to its Debian base as Ubuntu's proved to be problematic. Unfortunately by the time this had happened, too much time had passed without any real new clear benefit from the Mepis camp and many users appeared to have jumped ship for other distributions.

Despite the fact that today SimplyMepis is back and in full swing with a beta available of SimplyMepis 8, most people would never know this due to the incredible lack of media coverage. After all, Linux is never spoken of these days without the name Ubuntu accompanying it. With any luck, this article will work to change this.

Mepis has some great things to offer, despite its shaky history of its maintainer going for a few months without a word.

Putting the past behind us

In the past, I have been hard on the SimplyMepis project. Not due to its not keeping up, rather the fact that at the time, I felt like it had turned into abandonment-ware.

Yet today as I stare at a very promising SimplyMepis 8, I cannot help but wonder: could SimplyMepis have been the better "Ubuntu-like" distribution had things not gone south after its developer took some time off?

Considering that SimplyMepis is faster and more stable, I feel like even if the project lost its traction to Ubuntu, it may very well come back swinging. As Ubuntu (and even Kubuntu for that matter) become more bug filled, users are desperately looking for alternatives. This has driven some users to options like PCLInuxOS/Mandriva or even OpenSuSE. Unfortunately, none of these match SimplyMepis with regard to actually taking into account what users want, out of the box.

Quote: "By user request, fglrx driver 8.43.2-1 and gtk2-engines 2.12.2-1 are now in the MEPIS 7.0 pool."

Now I cannot speak for everyone, but when was the last time Ubuntu development gave a rats behind about what the users really wanted? I have a list of bug reports marked "unimportant" that will backup my ill feelings to that end. Remembering that the release schedule takes precedence over everything else in Ubuntu-land, it is no surprise that stability goes right out the window with most Ubuntu releases.

Yet even with all that Ubuntu has going against it, there are some things it does right. Unfortunately, these things are difficult to appreciate thanks to its insane release schedule that generally produces serious bugs that often go unresolved for months.

Ubuntu's success will benefit Mepis in the long run

Even though today's SimplyMepis project has opted to return to its Debian roots, the distribution still pulls some code from the Ubuntu sources. In my mind, this is wise on two fronts.

1. Take the time to see what Ubuntu does wrong with their latest release, watch for the bug reports creating the new issues. Then react accordingly.

2. The slower release schedule provides stability, while still keeping things moving forward enough to prevent the distribution from becoming stagnant.

In other words, Ubuntu becomes SimplyMepis' crash test dummy, despite the fact that most of the code is coming from Debian stable! It could over time prove to be a promising relationship even if the two distributions have no real interaction with one another.

Despite this rosy outlook, Mepis is not completely free and clear from its share of bugs. Some of them are relatively minor while others are outright ridiculous.

Show stoppers that must be fixed

I am really disappointed that Mepis still lacks the ability to mount USB Flash drives without hacking into the fstab file. The documentation claims that this is really not an issue, but my research and own experience dictate otherwise.

Even worse, this has never been an issue with any other distribution in recent memory outside of SimplyMepis. I'm sorry, but when Ubuntu easily mounts pretty much anything from external DVD drives to USB Flash drives, Mepis needs to get its act together if the goal is to attract new users. What's worse is that this is hardly a new problem! I have seen issues to this effect since 2006.

To be fair however, I must point out that this latest experience with the USB drive mounting problem is on both a beta release the Mepis Live CD. It is possible, be it unlikely, on an installed system this is not a problem any longer. The same applies to mounting a CD from an external DVD drive.

The other show stopper that must be addressed for a proper Mepis comeback is the "shotgun approach" to placing key menu items. Clearly, most of this insanity can be blamed on KDE and the desktop environment's approach to burying the user in way too many options, some of them redundant. But those for the sake of new users, how about desktop links to the Mepis only add-ons such as the Mepis networking assistant? The development team did such a great job with it, seems like a real waste to have the new user clicking on random icons to locate it?

SimplyMepis becoming User Friendly Distro v2?

It has been said that under different circumstances, SimplyMepis may have very well ended up where Ubuntu is today. A shining example of what desktop Linux aspires to be.

So even considering the fact that Ubuntu takes a stronger stance on multi-national cooperation thanks to the cash/time coming from Canonical, SimplyMepis has a lot going for it. And had its development not have been so stagnated just as Ubuntu was up and coming, I honestly have to wonder if SimplyMepis might have kept the super popular Ubuntu off of its Linux throne.

But who cares? So long as one desktop Linux distro is doing great, we all benefit, right? I disagree with this sentiment.

Despite my own frustrations with issues seen with Ubuntu 8.10, I use Ubuntu 8.04 on my main desktop PC. Thanks to the international acceptance of this distribution, we have cooperation unlike anyone has ever seen from the desktop Linux community. GetDeb.net for the very latest releases of popular software, Alberto's Envy installer for the very latest video drivers for NVIDIA or ATI users. And of course, the mighty Ubuntu community itself.

Yes, SimplyMepis was certainly among first truly newbie friendly desktop Linux distributions. And yes, there is no question that the Mepis approach provides a vastly more stable experience. This is good, as SimplyMepis is designed for the new user.

But I remain hopeful that my experience with the USB device mounting is simply a fluke, due to my running the distribution off of a Live CD only. Because if it is not, it will push people back to Ubuntu or onto other distributions altogether.

Three to four years ago, this might have been forgivable. But today users expect more. Their time is valuable, and hopefully SimplyMepis continues to keep its focus on this fact for the distro’s future benefit.

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