Thursday, 19 November 2009

To be or not to be?

On the 28th November Vinux will be one year old! We have made it through the most difficult period as many projects fail within the first 3 to 6 months. I think we have made reasonable progress in this time although there is still a long way to go before we have a stable, easy to use product. However, as always I like to evaluate everything I do and try to identify strengths and weaknesses, in order to improve things. The first few releases of Vinux (Vibuntu) were very easy to install and configure, but the speech was unstable and unresponsive. When we moved to Debian the stablility and responsiveness of the speech improved but at the cost of less hardware compatibility and a more complex installation process. More recently the release of a CLI editon brought even more stability and responsiveness in the form of speakup, although this was aimed more at intermediate and advanced users. I am hoping that the switch to Debian live-helper from remastersys will bring us improvements to the installation process and the performance of the live CD in the near future. So for me this is a time to step back from the development process and try to get an overview of what we have achieved and where we are going.

The first question has to be is there really a need for Vinux, and if so how well does Vinux meet those needs in comparison with other solutions? So do we really need a distribution aimed at visually impaired users, or should we be encouraging the big developers to make their distributions accessible to all? I personally think that it would be better for everyone if the big distributions like Ubuntu, Fedora and OpenSuse did take the accessibility issues more seriously, but the reality is that like their commercial counterparts their main market is the sighted mainsteam user. So at least in the short term it seems a Vinux type distribution is required especially for new users. I suspect when and if Linux gets into the education system, then they will be forced to cater for students with a variety of disabilities and the support contracts will make it worth their while to meet these needs. Of course the strongest argument for an open source solution is the extortionate price of accessibility software for a group who are generally economically disadvantaged, even more so in the third world.

So assuming that a specialist open source distribution is needed at least in the short term, then how does Vinux compare with other solutions. Well there aren't really many distributions that are targeted at VI users, the only active project that springs to mind is Adrianne Knoppix, the Oralux project was abandoned although there are one or two localised distributions for example 'Blindbuntu' which is a Czech language distribution. However Adrianne Knoppix takes a very different approach to Vinux. The last time I checked it provided a menu driven console interface, a little bit like INX and GRML. This provides a series of choices for sending e-mails, editing text or surfing the internet. In fact I think the LinuxSpeaks project takes a similar approach. I have tried to avoid this approach with the CLI edition because although I want it to be as easy as possible to use, I want users to learn to use the console by typing commands and navigating ncurses interfaces etc, Similarly in the GUI edition I want everything to work out of the box, but I want the user to learn how to use Linux in the process. Once they are confident with how Vinux works, ideally they should be able to move onto any Gnome based distribution and configure it to their tastes. So I expect Vinux users to be tourists who will use Vinux to get their feet wet, and open the doors to the wider Linux world.

So now comes the difficult question: Just how many people have tried Vinux and how many people are actually using it? It seems that quite a lot of people have tried Vinux if the web statistics are to be believed. There have been approaching 4000 downloads of Vinux through the Softpedia portal and several thousand through the officail website. However many of these downloads will be the same people downloading the new versions as they are released. So for the sake of argument let's say that at least 1000 people have tried Vinux. Of those many, say 50% will find it too difficult to use and go back to Windows. Lets say another 25% manage to get it working but wouldn't consider installing it to their hard drive, but maybe use it as a live CD or USB recovery stick etc occasionally. Of the remaining 25% I imagine half of them (12.5%) tried to install it but ran into problems of some sort - either difficultly partitioning the drive(s) or hardware incompatibility e.g. unsupported wifi chipset.

This leaves us with 12.5% who might have been able to install it to their computers without any difficultly or hardware problems. Of which I imagine at least half would only see it as a backup system or novelty learning tool, not a primary working system. So there may be 6.25% who do consider Vinux to be a serious working as an alternate or additional tool, of which maybe a fifth may actually ditch Windows and use Vinux and/or Linux as their primary operating system, in other words about 1.25% of the original estimated 1000 users: Twelve and a half people in the world actually using Vinux as their main OS. (This only makes sense of course if we assume one of these users is either a midget or extremely fat). Ironically I am both short and fat, so perhaps that accounts for the mathematical anomaly. Which only leaves eleven.

So based on those purely theoretical and fairly conservative estimates is it worth while me putting in all of the energy and time it takes to make Vinux? Sometimes I feel like I am doing this for an imaginary audience, and no one is really interested in Vinux or Linux for that matter. In the UK and the USA it seems that Microsoft rules supreme and no-one outside of a Star Trek convention has ever heard of Linux let alone tried it. I also get frustrated at my own lack of knowledge and skills: I am self-taught, as you can probably tell and make progress by just trying things and seeing if they work. More often that not it doesn't but when it does I get a great sense of achievement. However, because of my lack of knowledge I can't solve the really big problems like the stability of speech-dispatcher or the inaccessibility of some applications etc. So sometimes I get very frustrated when I just can't seem to make any progress. It is at times like this that I sometimes question why I am doing this. My life would be a lot simpler and more relaxing if I didn't make Vinux. I could just use whichever distro I fancied, or make my own customised distro for myself, or even a mainstream distribution for sighted users - that would be so easy to do, because putting together a distribution without having to take account of accessibility would be a walk in the park! On the other hand then it would just be another distribution amongst many and there is no reason why mine would be any more attractive than anyone elses. Of course I could get really lazy and just use a distro out of the box, install what ever applications I wanted and configure it and leave it at that, but I do like to twiddle, and it was frustration at having to reconfigure a system everytime you upgraded or tried a new distribution that got me into making remasters in the first place. The first remaster ever made was a bumper edition of Ubuntu using the Ubuntu Customisation Kit, and the first one I released to the public was DingoPlus, a version of Puppy Linux 4.0 modified for use on the Asus Eeepc 701 - which I am still using today!

So it is over to you - how many people are actually using Vinux as a serious operating system? Am I wasting my time? Do we really need Vinux? What is the best alternative currently? How does Vinux compare to Windows and Mac? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life and was there a third shooter on the grassy knoll? I am planning to have a break from Vinux development this weekend and have a play with lots of different distributions and then write a review of their pros and cons from both a sighted and VI perspective. A penny for your thoughts!