Arch Linux is a powerful, minimal operating system; it's the jackknife of the Linux community. Unlike a typical OS which releases a new version once a year, Arch is based on a "rolling-release" model, offering updates as soon as developers publish them. This makes it incredibly secure.

Arch purists are often called "elitist", and it's easy to see why: as a command-line system, it's the best. The installer is akin to a manual transmission; you do all the work, which gives you complete control of your system. And if that sounds difficult, it's not. Most of the installation involves two simple commands, pacstrap /mnt base and bootctl install. The included wifi-menu tool is on par with any graphical user interface (take note, Debian developers: installers without wifi firmware need to die in 2018) and the iptables firewall is installed by default.

In short, more people should use Arch Linux, but while developers love to tout their success with the OS, new users face unnecessary challenges.

Arch uses a tool called "pacman" (aka Package Manager) to install new software. But a majority of new and interesting packages reside in a walled garden called the Arch User Repository (AUR), and pacman can't install them; users are expected to build them. There are tools known as AUR Helpers but pacman can't install those either (in an episode of Frasier, he and his brother decide to buy a restaurant, and to make it exclusive, suggest no signs, no advertising, and an unlisted phone number - their father quips, "Don't stop there! Maybe you can post some guards on the roof who can shoot people as they try to get in!").

Arch also suffers from ecosystem fatigue: while developers have their heads down maintaining old packages, they miss new and exciting software. For example, Arch maintains the Chromium browser, the Linux fork of Google Chrome. But a much better, privacy-focused browser called UnGoogled Chromium has been released by independent developers. Arch has shelved it in the AUR, requiring a processor-intensive and lengthy manual build process, a huge turn-off for average users. Alternatively, one might try to download the binaries, but as users have pointed out,

"maybe it is because the binary is linked to debian's old libraries, saddly [sic], most of the required libraries doesn't exist in the aur ... sorry for any inconvenience ... I have no control over [them], all problems should go there."

But for many new users, the final straw lies in attempting to install a desktop environment (graphical user interface). Arch is known for maintaining a detailed knowledge base, but when it comes to desktop environments, relevant documentation is often missing or misleading, and what's left is written for Black Belt Developers. The result? Following the instructions to the letter leaves users with a half-built desktop.

Consider the Cinnamon desktop environment. It runs on the X Window System, which means users must first install, at a minimum: xorg, xorg-apps, and xorg-xinit packages. But the documentation for Cinnamon only says, "Cinnamon can be installed with the package cinnamon." Even the X Window System documentation fails to mention the xorg-xinit package. What fresh hell is this? Are new users expected to purchase a crystal ball?

Arch purists say the OS isn't meant to do #allthethings but at the end of the day, an operating system's value comes down to one question: can it be used as a daily computing environment? If the answer is no, then its features - simplicity, modernity, pragmatism, versatility - don't matter.

Let Pacman Run The Show

Pacman is already a versatile package manager, there's no need to reinvent the wheel with "helpers" like yaourt (in fact, let's retire the name "yaourt" and never speak of it again). In an ideal world, pacman would install packages from the AUR with a simple flag, pacman -a [package_name] and that's it. Leave the option for advanced users to compile packages from source, but for the rest of us, keep it simple.

Build It, And They Will Download

Arch developers pride themselves on doing things "the Arch way". Better. Faster. Efficient. So where's the official Arch desktop environment? It should be minimalist and easily installed from a single package group. The world is waiting, take the challenge and knock our socks off. Put Windows and MacOS to shame. Here's my ideal desktop environment:

Keyboard / Window Manager   xmodmap, xbindkeys, setxkbmap? Enough. Offer one tool to rule them all in a unified, editable configuration file. 2BWM is a great window manager, but it too needs an external settings file, no more recompiling config.h just to change a border color.

Terminal Emulator   Rxvt-unicode, using true semi-transparency by default, running SF Mono 12pt (which is beautiful in a terminal) or better yet, build a near-identical open source font and call it Arch Mono, use it for everything.

App Launcher   Rofi, running in fullscreen mode with true transparency by default. Use a massive font size to keep it easy to read. A single configuration file should allow users to add their own custom shortcuts to launch apps.

Browser   Ungoogled Chromium (of course). It should run incognito mode by default, and automatically clear cache / history / everything upon quit.

Pay It Forward

Those of us with money must step up and invest in developers who are creating the next generation of Unix applications. Give to Patrick Louis who created 2BWM, give to Matt DeVillier who works his ass off to provide upstream coreboot firmware, give to Eloston who builds the privacy-focused browser we all demanded, and give to all the designers on r/unixporn who showcase beautiful user interfaces of the future.

Published April 01, 2018

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