Like many Linux users, I've been through the full range of operating systems and architectures over the years. A decade ago I was learning to use System 7 on the Mac and various creative applications from companies like Quark, Aldus and Adobe. Users took it for granted then that both the hardware and software were proprietary, with all that implied. But since these systems represented the gateway to the world of desktop media creation, we put up with it. The emerging field of Web design introduced people like me to Linux on the server, and with the release of applications like the Gimp, we began to use Linux on the desktop too.
Today, we have free software applications covering many of the creative disciplines, including 2D and 3D graphics, audio, video and publishing for the web or print. Unfortunately - despite the well-established concept of a printing press or recording studio on every desktop - media creation, when compared with media 'consumption', remains a niche activity. It seems that even Apple, supposedly the friend of artists and creative types everywhere, has decided to target the mass market with consumer electronics products instead.
This niche status is reflected in the fact that none of the mainstream
Linux distributions work particularly well 'out of the box' for media
creation - but to be fair, Windows XP or OS X also require many additional
packages to be installed before their users can realize the full creative
potential of their chosen platform.
Specialist Linux audio distributions do exist, including AGNULA/DeMuDi and
Studio to Go!, with a decent level of integration for music-making. But as
far as I'm aware, all of these audio distributions are x86-only so far, and
there are few specialist distributions in the other creative fields. Ratatouille, a Knoppix-based distribution designed for animation is one exception.
Typical desktop users, writing letters, following progress on eBay or checking their email are more than adequately served by existing 32-bit processors, and for these users CPU power consumption is probably the most important issue, due to its impact on notebook battery life and system noise. But when you're working with video, 3D, multiple tracks of audio, real time processing or rendering, you need to squeeze the most possible out of your hardware. It's my view that creative users will be in the vanguard of 64-bit desktop adoption, since it's a logical next step when a couple of gigabytes of RAM are just not enough.
Free software users have access to source code, so they can (in theory) build systems on any new architecture that comes along. Of course in practice, there have been few viable candidates for a successor to x86, and it has only been since the launch of the AMD Opteron, Athlon 64 and now Turion that we have been able to talk realistically about 64-bit on the desktop. The fact that Intel has embraced the 64-bit extensions to x86, together with Apple dropping Power, means that for the foreseeable future there is only one desktop architecture.
Ironically, it is the probably the fact that 32-bit Windows can run on these chips, making them commodity processors, which means that they are widely available for building the creative Linux desktop. Crucially, they are also affordable, which is a significant factor in this niche. Most creative people are either students or freelancers for at least some of the time, and so 64-bit on the desktop, Linux or otherwise, will probably only succeed if it doesn't cost significantly more than 32-bit computing.
Linux clearly has a head start on x86_64, and as LWN.net has related recently, you can choose from a number of natively compiled desktop distributions for the platform. Unfortunately for the creative user, all of these distributions are aimed at the general-purpose audience. It's impossible to be all things to all people, and what's good for the so-called consumer is rarely right for the content creator.
For example, typical distributions use Arts or ESD to share the sound card between applications, while many Linux musicians would want to use JACK - admittedly more complex, but far more powerful. Default selections of applications would be very different, and even gigantic distributions like Debian don't package all of the specialist tools needed for media creation.
A 64-bit Debian remix
is a new native x86_64 distribution with a selected set of creative tools and as much integration between them as possible. Most of the packages come from the Pure 64 port of Debian testing, with some from Ubuntu, some from DeMuDi and some custom built. Because we're sticking very closely to Debian with the 64 Studio design, it's our intention that users will be able to install any application that we don't include directly from a Pure 64 port mirror. This includes most of the well-known applications with the exception of OpenOffice.org, which just won't build natively on x86_64 yet.
Switching to native 64-bit software doesn't necessarily realize an instant
and obvious improvement in performance on the same hardware, but I believe
that if we create a native platform, then application developers can begin
to realize the benefits of 64-bit processor optimisation and an improved
memory architecture. Even in the short term, it makes more sense than
building i386 binaries to run on the latest hardware.
64 Studio version 0.2.0 alpha is available for download now as an .iso
image. Changes from stock Debian include X.org instead of XFree86, the
Gnome desktop installed by default, and a base selection of packages
including the Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, Blender, Audacity, Ardour, Jamin and
Kino. Version 0.3.0 will be out at the end of June with more packages and
enhancements, and the distribution is seamlessly upgradeable with apt-get
of course. We have a fully open development mailing list and a ticket
system for tracking bugs on http://64studio.com/.
We'd be more than pleased to hear your test reports and suggestions for the distribution. You can help us make free software the creative desktop of choice.
The 64 Studio company
Since specialist distributions have relatively few users, they usually end
up being maintained by a single person. External funding - whether from a
government agency or venture capitalists - is often unreliable in the long
term, and can sometimes steer the agenda of the distribution away from that
of the users. I believe maintaining a niche distribution is too much work
for a volunteer, so I have set up a company which is paying the lead
developer, Free Ekanayaka, to create and maintain the system using the
Custom Debian Distribution framework.
Perhaps it's because I come from a publishing background, but I envisage the ideal Linux distribution to work in a similar way to a magazine. The maintainers are fundamentally in an editorial role, selecting the most appropriate free software from the many thousands of packages available, and putting it into a convenient monthly snapshot. Since the software is free software, it would be churlish of us to demand that people pay us to do this, but if we provide something of value then it should be worth a reasonable annual subscription. It's my view that the Mandrake Club was a step in the right direction, but that company didn't originally intend to integrate club membership with support, so you paid to be a member and then had to shell out for per-incident support on top.
Community support often meets or exceeds the quality that proprietary software vendors provide, but people tell me that it's reassuring to have some paid-for support available as an option. Sometimes our questions are just too ordinary to interest people on a mailing list or forum, or at the other end of the scale they can require patience and time-consuming research to answer. It can sometimes be difficult to get the help you need when you're up against a project deadline.
I believe that by covering one kind of desktop user really well, the 64 Studio company can provide detailed support for the people that need it at a modest cost. For the people that don't need support, or are planning large deployments where per-seat licences would be prohibitive, it's still free software - and we're not going to lock people into support contracts in order for them to access updates either. There will also be commercial support available for OEMs who want to build products using 64 Studio as a base, or to bundle the distribution with hardware as an alternative to Windows XP x64 edition. One day, we might even be able to buy a 64-bit laptop with the software we want on it!
Biographical note: Daniel James is one of the founders of LinuxUser & Developer magazine, and served as the first director of the linuxaudio.org consortium.
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