Why Having 500+ Distros is a Good Thing

I just browsed back across some old bookmarks I had made on subjects to blog about. I’ve been playing catch up for the last few days as some of my projects I’ve been working on are slowing down. During this browsing session, I happened upon a blog entry titled “So Many Distros, So Little Time” which originally jumped across the RSS reader during January of this year. I gave it an honest read and was disgusted with the article quite a bit. Let me go point for point on this:

1. “We don’t need to keep reinventing Linux, creating distributions that put critical bits in interesting and inventive if unusual places.”

This couldn’t be more wrong. We DO need to keep reinventing Linux and creating distributions that put critical bits in interesting and inventive if unusual places. Without these multiple distributions and their drive to do what isn’t “normal” or “business as usual” innovation would be left up to a small number of distros and developers. Innovation thrives in the current environment…we have seen how desktop Linux has lept & bounded during the past 3-4 years. This statement is not only false, but it shows how much people (even industry consultants/analysts/journalists with over 25 years in the business) totally miss the mark when it comes to Linux and Open Source Software.

I assume you’d prefer a ‘unified distro’ or at least fewer to choose from…one where everyone can stop spinning their wheels developing for that small time distro and all join hands and work on that larger distro and make it 1000% better right? That’s something that won’t happen and shouldn’t happen.

Perhaps you think new users will be scared of all of these choices? I bet these same new users walk around in circles when picking out a new shirt or shopping for a pair of pants…there is just too many of them isn’t there? Using this as a reason for justification of having fewer distros is silly and stupid.

2. “An application written for Linux should be relatively simple to install on any Linux distribution. It ain’t so.”

Perhaps the author is referring to source based installs here. Well, I’d have to slightly agree…there a bit daunting for new users. But think of this also…someone for that program you installed on your Windows PC packaged up that .exe or .msi for you to install on your computer. So when you go to install something in Linux…don’t compare source based installs where you’re compiling the program to double click exe or msi installs…because it is logically unsound. Instead, compare the compiling of the code into an exe/msi for install on Windows. Apples v. Apples and Oranges v. Oranges. Comparing a .exe to a .deb or .rpm would be closer to being logically sound in this instance and when doing this installing software is the same as in Windows.

3. “Do we really need hundreds of general purpose distributions, all with diffferent tools, different filesystem layouts, variations on three major software package management schemes and a host of oddball ones, and so on? Do we need yet more to crop up?”

Yes…we do need them. Without them, your XFS filesystem wouldn’t have been tested and tried true. Your various hardware configurations wouldn’t have been run as many times agaisnt different kernel modules because Linux would appeal LESS to people. With more choice, you can find a Linux that is right for you. Without them, new ways of doing things wouldn’t be adopted and integrated by others. Think about if rpm was still the same because .deb’s never came around? We’d probably still have rpm dependency resolution hell in many distros. Deb packages made rpm packagers and devs rethink how they did business and they adopted many practices in spec files because of it. Without this variety and innovation, it wouldn’t have happened.

They say that variety is the spice of life and I have to agree. Imagine if everyone in the United States had a limited choice of vehicle…only the most popular car could be driven and subsequently everyone would have a Toyota Camry. Think of all the manufacturers of truck parts that would fold up shop and leave. Think of how less and less people would think ‘outside of the box’ (box being a Camry in this instance). Think of all the farmers and ranchers who would be livid about having to drive a Camry on their farm/ranchstead. Choice is simple. Choice is innovative. Choice is needed.

Remember that choice for end users also means choice for developers. Devs can come in and look at where they fit in for communities and for programming languages, for community projects inside of each Linux community and for that feeling they get when they’ve arrived at the distro they should be developing for. Less distros means more developers with less territory to fit in on. If we had 12 distros and all the developers of the other 500 distros had to find new places to fit in…do you think everyone would get along? It would be mass chaos and many developers probably would just stop developing all together…and their contribution to free software and Linux would be lost.

4. “Linux has reached somewhere between 30% and 40% of the server market (depending on whose figures you believe) because the major distributions just plain work on most server hardware from major manufacturers like IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Dell. We need to convince enterprise customers who buy servers to demand hardware that can use Open Source drivers.”

No business in their right mind is going to demand that a piece of hardware that works currently needs to have it’s proprietary driver replaced by one that is open source. That’s an unrealistic want/desire that will never be fulfilled.

Many people mistakenly think that the Server is the only place that Linux can make progress into people’s lives. I’d say they’re short sighted. Saying things like this is often a mistake that people make…and it gives implication of a ‘no confidence’ vote for Linux on the desktop whether the person saying it wants to or not. The server is not the last frontier for Linux…it was the first frontier.

5. “Until that day arrives proprietary drivers remain a necessary evil in a Linux distribution.”

For thousands, they aren’t a necessary evil. Having them or not having them makes no difference to these users. When something is a neccessity, it means you can’t live without it. Proprietary drivers are not food, water, and shelter for Linux. They’re a performance enhancer that people can and do live without. Making statements like this tries to portray Linux as being at the mercy of proprietary software and totally inept to tackle the problem…so inept that we need to DEMAND that open source drivers be made. Sure, it would be nice…but Linux is as Linux does…and for many, Linux does just fine. As for if it does fine in the server room…you have less support there than you do for Linux on the desktop I’m afraid.

6. “That’s just as true on the desktop as it is in the server room. Nobody will migrate from Windows to an OS that doesn’t work for them on the hardware they have.”

Let’s revisit what you were talking about earlier and then we’ll move on to adress this line. According to points #1 through #3…we don’t need more than a few Linux distros out there right? Having more is just plain stupid for sh!7sake right? If some piece of hardware doesn’t fully work in Linux…then having fewer distributions around won’t help us out at all…it will stifle the number of drivers being developed and the amount of software being written to configure these devices. So what is it that you want? You want to get rid of most of the distros and increase the amount of hardware supported…all without being detrimental to Linux. In fact, you think it would be better right? It won’t. It isn’t. It never will be.

7. “The laptop I’m writing this on doesn’t need any proprietary software to work as it should.”

Wait a second…didn’t you just say in the previous paragraph that proprietary drivers were a necessary evil? Oh for crying out loud, will you make up your mind? Are you TRYING to be appealing to both sides of the fence as to not step on toes?

I honestly don’t know what the author of this blog post was thinking when they wrote it. It doesn’t flow, it draws conclusions it shouldn’t, and it assumes everyone is of the same mind as the writer. Sure, it’s opinion. But when you offer opinions you open yourself up to good criticism and bad. In this case, I’m disagreeing with the sentiment portrayed in this blog. Perhaps next time the author might think about what they’re saying…because limiting the number of distros out there is absolutely NOT the way to go to accomplish anything other than limiting innovation.

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  • elibnotlibc

    Market forces [b]will[/b] end up reducing this number of 500plus Linux distros anyway. Just take a look at the number of registered open source projects listed at [url=http://www.SourceForge.net]SourceForge.net [/url] and [url=http://freshmeat.net/browse/18/]freshmeat.net[/url] that are actively being maintained versus those that have been listed unmaintained (to eventually be weeded out?) Similar thing for the 500plus Linux distros happening now and in the future.

    There is a good Dr. Dobbs’ Journal online article entitled [url=http://www.ddj.com/dept/opensource/197003071?pgno=1]‘How To Tell The Open Source Winners From The Losers’[/url] that goes through in some technical detail, the key reasons why open source projects on SourceForge.net will succeed or fail over the next five years. The same reasoning can be applied for [i]some[/i] of the currently existing 500plus Linux distros and even applied for those distros yet to be released.

    Even as this comment is being written, I am looking at a writeup of an up-and-coming commercial Linux distro-variant called rPath that has an innovative build system for creating and deploying software appliances based on Linux. This write-up is entitled [url=http://www.itjungle.com/tlb/tlb020607-story05.html]‘The Linux Distro rPath Gets Venture Backing’[/url] by Timothy Prickett Morgan, the same author of the intriguing [url=http://www.itjungle.com/tlb/tlb041806-story01.html]‘Can There Be Only Two Linuxes?’[/url]

    Just goes to show you how things are changing even as we think.

  • http://www.waatti.org J. Waatti

    Funny, not so long ago I wrote [url=http://www.waatti.org/article/are-there-too-many-linux-distros]a blog entry about the same thing[/url]. :-) IMO, it can be a good and a bad thing to have so many distros. It is a good thing because of freedom of choice and development issues, but it can be seen as a bad thing, too. Mainly because a new person trying Linux might get confused and lost in the world of different distros.

    (Sorry, I’ve got to run now… I might get back to this later on.)

  • terry

    J.Waatti is a dolt:

    “My point is that Linux isn’t yet as easy to pick up as it probably should be to gain more ground.”

    have you tried Linux these past 2-3 years?

    Ive put about 3 dozen retired people on Linux these past 12 months (Ubuntu, Mandriva, and a smattering of others)
    About half never used a computer and had no problems and the ones who were on Windows also had no problems.

    Sorry but if 85 year old granny can pick it up, then its easy.

    >Mainly because a new person trying >Linux might get confused

    Theyre almost all the same is the first thing poeple tell me when I give them Live CD’s. Sure there are a few desktop environment but KDE, Gnome are the main ones.

    How confused can you get putting in a Live CD in your computer and testing it out and then doing the same with another distro a few mins later?
    Is the menu at the fast food place confusing? Video stores you go to have only 2 movies?
    How do people in democratic countries where they have dozens if not hundreds of parties make up their mind? Isnt it better to have our two party/one choice system?

    Yes, there are some feeble minded people
    but those have about 6-7 Vista versions to choose from?
    Is 6-7 Linux distros too much for you?
    Go to Mac.
    One software and one option for hardware: that will be more to your liking.