Does your distro have a plan for the future?

There's lot of options when it comes to desktop linuxes. You might be looking for which one has the best desktop or window manager you like, or some cool feature you can't get anywhere else, or maybe the people you hang out with are experts in one and it makes sense for you to learn from them.

Here's an important, critical question that is not being asked enough when people are talking about choosing your desktop linux:

"What are your plans on providing atomic upgrades and a zero-trust application model?"

There's a bunch of possible answers, I've looked at what's out there today and have tossed them into some top level buckets:

  1. They have an ISO you can try and use today

Alright! That means they've put some thought into it. You can go try one. Something like EndlessOS, Fedora Silverblue, openSUSE MicroOS, or NixOS (there's more, but this is a good start). Kick tyres, file issues, do the linux thing, it's fun!

2. They have acknowledged that there's a problem, they're just resource limited.

Most distros fall in this boat – Identifying the problem is one thing, it was identified long ago and lots of things had to happen to where we are at today, tooling needs to be put in place, software needs to mature, and so on.

There's also no "one true way" – some choose to do this at the filesystem level, some do it via ostree, some use flatpaks, some don't, etc. I don't think this is a bad thing, orgs will prototype and try stuff, and most of the ones I mentioned in point #1 already show significant improvements over the old model, but also haven't reached the maturity of what most linux desktop users are using today.

However its useful to look at the current state of a distro and see where it wants to go. Here's my personal list of things I look for after I've done the usual due diligence (yours might be different):

  • What's the "core loop" look like, is the thing fire and forget autoupdating or am I clicking something? Which parts? What knobs do you give me to control this? Let's say I get a bad kernel upgrade, what's the process look like to roll back? Can I rollback the system and applications packages separately?
  • How well maintained are the podman/docker packages? Do they offer toolbox and distrobox? What's the state of the images that I'll be using as my userspace?
  • If they're using flatpaks is it configured properly? What's the UX look like if I want to use it? Are you backporting fixes to the core packages to your long term releases? Decoupling the apps from the OS brings benefits, but having this part of the stack up to date in older distros is critical.
  • If they're using something else what does that UX look like?
  • What about the traditional distro – I might still need it for something, especially since it's my userspace in my toolbox! ... the mature orgs are slipstreaming in those images as part of their release process. If I use this new thing can I reuse all the existing resources the traditional distro is using? How are you taking me from there to here? Advanced users might want to know what the CI/CD pipe looks like and how all the artifacts are made.
  • What happens if I need to color outside the lines? What's the composability look like, if I wanted to swap out a thing for another how annoying is it? How do I bring this shitty old unmaintained closed source app that I have to use for a client with me? What's the safety scaffolding look like?
  • Even if they decide to use or not use something, is it clear to their community where the thing is going?  

Lots of questions! Many won't have answers yet, but that's not what I'm looking for when I'm choosing what I put on my laptop – I just want to be able to know that the people making it are talking about it and what their plan is untie the knot, even if that answer is "we don't exactly know yet ". There's only one red flag to watch out for and it's "everything is fine, no plans."

It would be unreasonable to expect any one distro to have this perfect linux desktop today, we're still at the point where the economic realities of the desktop don't line up with the amount of work needed to get to where we need to go. So it's not like a bunch of commandments as much as it is looking for markers to ensure that the people I am trusting with root on my computer have a plan for keeping me reliable and safe.

Is progress being made, is my installation better than it was a year ago? So far for me this has been a resounding yes, lots of work left to do though. (Exciting!)

3. They have no plans to move to this model and think everything is fine the way it is.

We live in a world where people can make and consume what they want. There are entire distros whose whole point is to stay in a certain mindset and not change. If that's meeting your needs then you're good to go, just don't ask me to fix your computer. :D

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