Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Whatever Happened to Zenwalk Linux?

In the world of Linux distributions new ones are springing up all the time. Some wither away and go stale or disappear completely. Fuduntu and Kongoni are examples of distributions that have either officially folded or in the case of the latter have not had a release for over two years and is pretty much abandoned, at least for now. Many of these are mainly one man shows. Zenwalk seems to be on the way to abandonment as well, slowly fading into glorious history.

Zenwalk was at some point number 13 in the default six months ranking in the Distrowatch charts of popularity. Now it's fallen to 100, just scraping the barrel of oblivion, dropping off the radar completely except for people who go out and consciously look for it. It was once the Xubuntu of its day, lighter and just as easy to use, utterly reliable due to its Slackware roots and good quality control from a wide user base that contributed many testers. Around 2006/7 it was more modern than Slackware though, with a default 2.6 kernel and the new Xfce 4.4 still in eternal beta but already present here. It was a distribution with a niche, one that was obviously appreciated if not strictly needed. It was streamlined and only came with Xfce in a small under CD size download, with exactly one application for every job and no more.

Zenwalk even spawned its own derivatives - Zenserver/SLAMPP and Zencafe. Then it seems the distro overextended. To the minimal core version, the live image and the default edition ZenEdu was added, a GNOME 2 spin and an Openbox spin. All added very little, repeated the same philosophy, used the same toolkit, looked the same, even panel arrangement was identical. A true Fluxbox or Openbox edition or a KDE edition might have been more interesting, but it all takes resources and a possible lesson is not to split a relatively small community into vanity projects that only differ by the window manager they're using. Then they tried to be politically correct and switched from Firefox to Iceweasel. Soon other philosophical differences led to developers leaving to form their own project based on Slackware.

But surely there must be other reasons, such as the rise of new distributions and challengers for the crown of 'easy', Mint and Netrunner for instance and a whole slew of other Debian based projects. Arch has climbed steadily and spins based on it like ArchBang, Bridge or Manjaro seem very popular. Puppy has also risen quite a bit in popularity and accounts with its many offshoots for a large use segment, and many, like myself for a while, use it as a complete copy-to-disk and forget OS, easily replaced by the next point upgrade. The Slackware base has been slowly but steadily declining in n00b's favor. Here's a link to a decent article on this observation by Bruce Byfield. He concludes that the number of distributions is declining and Debian rules the roost. So the oft proclaimed inevitable consolidation has begun.

Today the distribution is but a shadow of its former self. No 64-bit and an absence of official widescreen wallpapers are giving the impression of a project years behind. Just looking at the forum is quite telling. At the moment there are four users online, all of them guests. Normally this is more like two, although a total membership of almost 15,000 is respectable, but that were the old days. Posts are going unanswered for months. Searching recently active topics in the last month turns up exactly... nothing. It's difficult to join the project as a packager and there are posts on the board where people have given up trying to contribute although contributors is exactly what's missing to make the community grow again. In almost all threads the last post was some time in 2011 or before. The website looks ok superficially, until one discovers an array of bad links and outdated screenshots (there's no wiki, but the manuals seem to be linked correctly again). Zenwalk 7.2 is getting old but there may be a new one based on Slackware 14.1 soon. Also: The main server apparently crashed a few days ago and the only and last known good backup was from 2011 so the site just went back in time, however that proves the point about lack of care even more and all points re. the forum remain valid as I'd checked it several times prior to that event.

A couple of people must still be using Zenwalk. I still don't really understand how such a promising light weight distro could fall so deep, but I hope it will pick up again. Surviving is not good enough, that's what it's doing right now. A good start would be better testing for the next release as QA seems to have slipped. Zenwalk used to release frequently every few months, now releases are less than once a year on par with Slackware. Of course that needs testers and contributors, a functioning website, wiki and approachable maintainers. And maybe a new vision. Another good step would be to abandon Netpkg, a package manager that was uncalled for but served to distinguish the distribution in the old days. However, its syntax is cryptic and nobody bothers learning such a niche product. Just use slackpkg and slapt-get, don't reinvent the wheel and make a useful, stable release that has something unique to offer. The artwork, color scheme and hint of Buddhism are part of that but not quite enough. Defining a new unique purpose for Zenwalk would be a good start.


  1. Only thing that keeps me from using Zenwalk is lack of 64bit architecture.
    The number of i386 and i486 users is diminishing IMHO.

  2. I think many of the developers moved to Salix:, which as you can see is active:

  3. That's right, a lot of people went back to the roots and are now using Slackware and/or SalixOS. I still find that Zenwalk is booting *a lot* faster than either of them, unless you trim down Slack's startup yourself, and the Xfce desktop in SalixOS appears somewhat heavier and not as responsive. These are the little differences and I'ld like to see ZW continue just for that.

  4. The main problem for Zenwalk is the lack of active contributors, and the fact that the main developer is lacking time for project management. Some devs moved to Salix, but not many.

    Zenwalk is still more optimized than Salix, and recent packaging mods bring it back to 100% Slack compliant.

    What Zenwalk need : more packagers, more forum mods
    Zenwalk will probably be 64bit in 2014.


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