Automatix. Caveat emptor.

Ever since I made the switch from Mandriva Linux to Ubuntu GNU/Linux as my primary desktop OS a few years back, I’ve used a program called Automatix to install various useful programs that, usually due to licensing incompatibilities, are not included in the official Ubuntu distributions. This includes things like Google Earth, Google Picasa, Skype, various audio and video codecs, as well as bits of ‘sexy’ peer-to-peer filesharing and DVD ripping software that all the cool kids have gotta have these days. All these programs don’t require Automatix to install them, but Automatix has always made it simple – a no brainer. Well, turns out despite being simple from a users perspective, Automatix may not be the best thing if you value system stability.

Just now, I’ve discovered an analysis of the Automatix code by Matthew Garrett that makes me a little wary of using Automatix in the future. While many of the criticisms are cosmetic, there are also a lot of nasty hacks in there that are likely to break your system if you are unlucky. While I haven’t personally had any serious issues after using Automatix, lines like “killall -9 dpkg” don’t inspire me with confidence. One of Matthews conclusions is that the Automatix team should focus their efforts on running a package repository with properly packaged Ubuntu software (debs), rather than reinventing the wheel and using their own ‘package manager’. I can’t agree more.

Back when I used Mandriva/Mandrake day-to-day, a project called the Penguin Liberation Front (PLF) filled a similar role to that which Automatix fills in the Ubuntu world. The PLF even started an Ubuntu packaging project for a while, but sadly it was quickly shut down again due to lack of maintainers. The PLF site now points Ubuntu users to a similar project, Medibuntu, but so far that doesn’t really provide the same rich array of ‘third party’ software that PLF provides for Mandriva. In addition, if people really want an alternate ‘apt-get frontend’ to install all the unofficial jazz, there is even an Automatix-like program called EasyUbuntu which uses the Medibuntu repositories, and is reportedly better written. Unfortunately EasyUbuntu hasn’t moved past alpha and doesn’t support Feisty.

I find it hard to believe that the large and enthusiastic Ubuntu community hasn’t jumped to resurrect the PLF Ubuntu project, or made Medibuntu more comprehensive. One of these days when I learn to package properly …..

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