One thing that annoys me with Debian and Linux distributions in general, is that there is a great package management system with the ability to automatically install software packages by downloading them from the distribution mirrors, but no way to get it to automatically install the packages I need to use the hardware I plug into my machine. Even if the package to use it is easily available from the Linux distribution. When I plug in a LEGO Mindstorms NXT, it could suggest to automatically install the python-nxt, nbc and t2n packages I need to talk to it. When I plug in a Yubikey, it could propose the yubikey-personalization package. The information required to do this is available, but no-one have pulled all the pieces together.
Some years ago, I proposed to use the discover subsystem to implement this. The idea is fairly simple:
- Add a desktop entry in /usr/share/autostart/ pointing to a program starting when a user log in.
- Set this program up to listen for kernel events emitted when new hardware is inserted into the computer.
- When new hardware is inserted, look up the hardware ID in a database mapping to packages, and take note of any non-installed packages.
- Show a message to the user proposing to install the discovered package, and make it easy to install it.
I am not sure what the best way to implement this is, but my initial idea was to use dbus events to discover new hardware, the discover database to find packages and PackageKit to install packages.
Yesterday, I found time to try to implement this idea, and the draft package is now checked into the Debian Edu subversion repository. In the process, I updated the discover-data package to map the USB ids of LEGO Mindstorms and Yubikey devices to the relevant packages in Debian, and uploaded a new version 2.2013.01.09 to unstable. I also discovered that the current discover package in Debian no longer discovered any USB devices, because /proc/bus/usb/devices is no longer present. I ported it to use libusb as a fall back option to get it working. The fixed package version 2.1.2-6 is now in experimental (didn't upload it to unstable because of the freeze).
With this prototype in place, I can insert my Yubikey, and get this desktop notification to show up (only once, the first time it is inserted):
For this prototype to be really useful, some way to automatically install the proposed packages by pressing the "Please install program(s)" button should to be implemented.
If this idea seem useful to you, and you want to help make it happen, please help me update the discover-data database with mappings from hardware to Debian packages. Check if 'discover-pkginstall -l' list the package you would like to have installed when a given hardware device is inserted into your computer, and report bugs using reportbug if it isn't. Or, if you know of a better way to provide such mapping, please let me know.
This prototype need more work, and there are several questions that should be considered before it is ready for production use. Is dbus the correct way to detect new hardware? At the moment I look for HAL dbus events on the system bus, because that is the events I could see on my Debian Squeeze KDE desktop. Are there better events to use? How should the user be notified? Is the desktop notification mechanism the best option, or should the background daemon raise a popup instead? How should packages be installed? When should they not be installed?
If you want to help getting such feature implemented in Debian, please send me an email. :)