It was brought to my attention that some people on the gentoo forums think that I'm the guy who posts some sort of anti-Gentoo threads on Slashdot. 1) No that's not me. 2) No, I don't know who that is. 3) Why in the world would someone think I'm that guy? Because I posted a page that happens to be somewhat critial of Gentoo? For what it's worth, on Slashdot I'm "greenfly" UID 40953, and I spend very little time posting on there (as you can see looking at my comments). I'm not here to troll or flame Gentoo, these are just some observations I've had about it -- specifically some theories I've had about why I've seen so many Mandrake to Gentoo converts.
I've never quite understood the popularity of the Gentoo distribution, let's get that out and in the open to start with. I've always figured that if you want to run Linux "from scratch" you actually use the Linux From Scratch distribution; if you want automated updates, you use Debian. As someone who has used BSD systems with "real" ports, I never understood the concept of having a source-only distribution, and automating updates... it simply creates a lot of overhead if you want to have an up-to-date desktop system, and in the case of Gentoo, it causes you to run quite a bit of untested software (See, at least in the BSD system the ports tree is better tested, and you always have the option of pre-built packages, plus on a production server you aren't going to want to update much beyond patching as needed.)
I've debated these points and more with Gentoo users I have come across, because I simply couldn't understand why anyone with any lengthy experience with Linux or Unix, would think this was a good idea. I expected them to realize that for the most part, recompiling from source doesn't magically make all programs faster.
Anyway, in talking with these people I started to notice a pattern or two, and discovered that a great many of them had switched to Gentoo from Mandrake. After I thought about this for awhile, I realized that this made quite a bit of sense, and explained a lot of the questions I had. I call the mentality behind switching to Gentoo from Mandrake "Mandrake Expatriate Syndrome" (MES) and here I will attempt to lay out some of the rationale behind it.
Now, this isn't the first time that "optimized packages" have been touted -- Mandrake Linux has made a big deal in the past that they had 586-optimized packages, and I remember hearing people at the time discuss, again, how it is "so much faster" that way. Of course, Mandrake likes to attract people who haven't had much experience with Linux, or even programming, so often they don't know any better than to believe that their 586 packages are substantially faster than the 386 packages everyone else is using. Also the Mandrake system typically doesn't encourage people to do a lot of compiling themselves, so they don't tend to learn this lesson from experience, either.
Now, why would anyone think this is "from scratch" or a "low level learning experience"? Well, if you are coming from a Mandrake background, where you have most things done for you, including compilation, system configuration, hardware detection, etc. watching gcc output might very well be "low level" to you, as well as editing config files without a GUI. Heck, running a package manager from the command line might appear to be "from scratch" if you were used to GUI Mandrake tools.
Now, what other distribution is known for its poor QA system? I remember that I used to recommend Mandrake to newbies wanting to try out Linux, because it walked them through the difficult parts, and generally was aimed at making things simple. The downside was that Mandrake also decided that it was best to run the very latest and greatest software possible, whether it was well-tested or not. As a result, once something broke, the newbie was high and dry, as broken Mandrake systems were not typically easy to fix (and especially not for a newbie) and as a result, you have a new Linux user thinking "Gee, this isn't any more stable than Windows." I mean, come on, the latest Mandrake release of a few months ago, 9.1, touts having the Linux 2.4.21 kernel which is not even released yet! I believe Mandrake uses some sort of time-traveling device to retrieve software from the future, then somehow manages to still not test it before packaging. Being introduced to Linux with this mentality means that when you are presented with Gentoo, which has about the same amount of testing, you don't think that anything is wrong.
Some Psychology -- Conclusion
My theory is this, that what happens is that you have a user to whom Mandrake is his first real distribution (he might have tried a few others and failed previously). While he appreciates the automation, and newbie-friendly programs, he also has gotten somewhat comfortable with Mandrake Linux, and is starting to feel confident about his Linux knowledge. This user might also have had to deal with some hostility and elitism on the part of users of other distributions, telling him how "Mandrake Sucks!" and possibly telling him to use a "real" distribution or some other taunt along those lines. That sort of outside pressure might often push someone who is feeling somewhat insecure about his "newbie" status, toward a distribution that might earn him more respect.
Enter Gentoo. This user hears that it is "from scratch" and is optimized, maybe even moreso than his optimized 586 Mandrake packages. Plus he hears that it compiles all its packages, which sounds impressive, but it automates it, which means hopefully it won't be that hard for him. Then, he sees that there are good easy docs that walk him through all the steps of setting it up, so even though it seems kinda complicated, and "from scratch" editing config files and actually compiling source code, all the automation and instructions make it bearable.
After a day or two, and all of his packages are compiled and installed, he feels better about himself, here he has this fairly "elite" distribution that he even compiled himself! Plus, he doesn't have to worry about being looked down upon as a newbie like he was when he used Mandrake. Plus his system just feels faster, and all of his Gentoo-using friends say theirs feels faster too, "Boy, those optimizations must really make a difference!" Plus as long as he doesn't need an upgraded package right away, he can just run that one command-line program he learned, and after his computer runs overnight, everything is all upgraded.
Makes sense, doesn't it? I mean, obviously you can't generalize about all users of any Linux distribution like this, but there are a certain subset of Gentoo users (and current Mandrake users) that fit this profile. Hey, next time you see a Gentoo user brag about the speed of his system, ask him if he used Mandrake before switching. Chances are, he will say "yes."
Addendum (Added June 4th, 2003)
In this section I will add links or quotes of comments that I find as I browse the web, that happen to support my point.
"I think the BEST thing about gentoo is the installation process. I finally learned how daemons get started, how to set up networking and NFS. All these things were either hidden from me behind GUI utilities or prevented from working properly by services that I didn't know about on more 'turnkey' distros."
"I have used Mandrake as my server OS, desktop, and laptop OS for years now (since 6.x if i rememeber correctly). I really like the some features that Mandrake has (the Control Center, drake, etc..). But I have started using Gentoo, and now i'm in love again. The last Mandrake install 8.2 was just.....to easy, everything worked off the bat. With Gentoo you have to work a lot at the beginning and have a lot more control."
"I've been using Mandrake for years and a few monthes ago I compiled Gentoo on my desktop out of curiosity.
"I have been using Mandrake in various flavors over the past few years mainly because Mandrake represents a 'sane' set of defaults I expect in a Linux desktop environment. Still, I make it a point to install and use other Linux distributions. The end results are I always learn something new and exciting, but usually find there is something(s) I do not like, so I'm never motivated to switch.
"i've been using mandrake for quite a while now but am installing gentoo on another computer as i write this :-).. i'm hoping it will let me easily tweak/modify the source code to apps before compiling them.. messing with SRPMS is a pain in the butt.
"I came from Mandrake 9, and while I was using it I never(not once) got their graphical RPM package manager to work. I could install rpm's at the command line, easily enough(if fishing all of the depencies, downloading them, and installing them manually, and in reverse order counts as *easy*). I also did some source compiles(gcc was fine on the system, at least), but still, I was manually downloading source tarballs, reading the README files to find out what dependencies I needed, etc."