ExtremeTech on Christian Ubuntu

December 27, 2006

Aneeditor at ExtremeTech went about reviewing Ubuntu 6.06 Christian Edition. Having worked on the problem(s) of putting together an Ubuntu installation appropriate for use in a masjid computer lab, I was excited by the headline. The main question the reviewer looked to answer was the obvious, “What makes it Christian?” His answer:not much. It appears that this is just Dapper with two programs pre-installed: a Bible-study program – GnomeSword (sounds like a role playing game); and a web content filter – Dans Guardian.
The reviewer’s response was more than a little surprising for ExtremeTech:

As I mentioned earlier, Id like to see more religious imagery included with the distribution that can be customized or changed to suit the tastes of Catholic or Protestant users. Despite some shortcomings, Id recommend this distribution for Christians to consider as an alternative to other versions of Linux or to Windows.

It’s not just that that’s kind of an odd tone for a tech site – why would you craft a whole distro around something as superficial as the desktop and maybe a few icons? (I can picture the Fire-and-brimstone-fox logo now.)
Which is not to say that I haven’t thought of rebranding a distro for similar purposes. Recently I thought of changing the name of DSL to “Blessedly Tiny.” But that is changing the name of the distro to solve a problem which can only be solved by changing the name: the name itself! If I want imagery or data of any kind, I can just package that in a theme or package to add on to the real Ubuntu. Personally, we have a library of Islamic imagery and clip art and an all ogg media collection which make up a major part of our installation.
What really might call for a rebranding like this is a richer set of add-on packages and changed defaults. In our case, though, it seems that what sets the unnamed masjid installation off from a default ubuntu install is not related so much to its Islamic nature as to the type of institution it’s deployed in.
The masjid system needs to:

  • Be administrable to a large extent by non-techies. Thus it should update itself at least for security and have all of the software it’s going to need already installed. Everything should be as stable as possible, and prefeence needs to go to programs with usable (G)UIs.
  • Be open to remote fixing and administration by those who know what they’re doing.
  • Be unadministrable by most users. There need to be no open seams as it were. Essentially, most users should be presented with a type of kiosk, with very limited choices, and power over nothing. In fact the system should be able to deal with several categories of user – administrators, trusted adults, untrusted adults, kids on their own, kids in lessons, and so on.
  • Give strictly controlled access to the internet. This is, of course, where the content filter comes in, but it’s more than that. It’s also setting up the browser without access to the address bar, and with bookmarks for allowed sites. Essentially, the browser has to be another kiosk within a kiosk. This is not about limiting access to information, it’s about appropriate usage. This is not designed as a public internet cafe. Rather it’s designed as an extension to the masjid’s library and educational programs. The kids can check their myspace at home or at the public library up the block.
  • Perhaps host, and at least be the main access point for the library catalog – which may mean having a web server, php, MySql, and so on.
  • Obviously, wherever possible we include software tools equivalent to GnomeSword – though more and more focus for this has shifted to the web. From our perspective, what’s important for accessing online Islamic texts, and for our users, is the proper display of Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, which means both the OS and the browser have to be ready for RTL languages and appropriate fonts need to be installed

All or some of this applies to churches, community centers, libraries, schools, etc. as well as to masajid. Ours is, like many ought to be, an LTSP set-up based on Edubuntu. If you take away some of the issues of scale, I’m sure there are many homes which could use a very similar set-up. I’ve written elsewhere about setting up children’s interfaces on Linux desktops. I’m sure mothers and fathers everywhere have their own set of hacks and tricks for making systems attractiveand kid-proof at the same time. It would be nice to see some community effort behind this, so that there could be a Family Edition of Ubuntu. I’m surprised at how little this has figured into the work behind Edubuntu, Debian Junior, and the various child-centric Knoppices.

To give the reviewer some credit, he did talk about the possible valuein a distribution which provides a more wholesome default environment. He was unfairly attacked in the comments for implying a Christian version was better than a non-Christian version and for not identifying his own faith. It doesn’t seem he anywhere said anything more than “This is good for people who want it.” The focus on imagery was disappointing not because it was evangelistic, but because it was superficial and irrelevant.

To give the CE people some credit – or at least the reviewer some blame – it seems that all the information in the review could have been gathered by visiting the front page of the Ubuntu CE website. The reviewer nowhere provided a link to their homepage – in fact he implies that Christian Edition is actually put out by Canonical, rather than by JB Enterprises. There’s not that much more to it, but they also include GnuCash, Scribus, and Nvu by default to provide a fuller set of homeproductivity software than standard Ubuntu. Automatix2 is included as well, which I guess is an almost adequate solution to one of the mainissues confronting Linux as a home desktop option for the average user. They seem to be teaming up with someone to offer “what may be the first Christian PC.” I wonder if all the proprietary codecs and plugins come pre-installed or they expect end users to use Automatix? They’ve also got a nice CafePress business going on – which is their right, and presumably offsets costs of some sort. (I’m sure there are plenty of Christian geeks – as the site calls them – who are more interested in the Jesus fish plus ubuntu circle gear than in the actual distro.) There’s also a Daily Bible Verse app, and a Christian theme for Firefox. (I was just kidding above, but this actually turns your “Home” icon into a little church, and “Reload” into a little halo, as well as putting another verse on a toolbar for you.)
There’s no clear reason why the would have reviewed Dapper rather than Edgy, and why he failed to notice that their release numbering is different than Canonical Ubuntu’s. It’s odd that hegave half a page and a screenshot to the normal Add/Remove Programs app, but didn’t mention the issue of Automatix. He did notice one oddity in that GIMP is not included. I personally find GIMP a pain to use, but indispensible nonetheless. They seemed to have dispensed with it. ExtremeTech comment writers speculated it was due to some racy graphics. The CE site gives no details.


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