Linux Distributions - Why Choice Is A Good Thing

One of the most common criticisms of Linux is that there are "too many versions", and that makes it confusing. Here are a few thoughts and examples related to that.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

One of the most common criticisms of Linux is that there are "too many versions", and that makes it confusing. Here are a few thoughts and examples related to that.

- "Too many versions"? Yes, probably so, in the same way that there are too many different kinds of breakfast cereal, or laundry soap, or wrist watches. Here's an example straight out of current markets. From what I have seen and heard, Toyota has been having some problems with quite a lot of their cars. How many of us would like to be in the position of having Toyota be the ONLY car? Continuing on this speculation... what if Toyota were now to fix the problem (or problems, if there turned out to be more than one), but once that fix was complete and they were producing cars that worked properly again, they announced that they were not going to give owners of their existing defective cars any consideration at all in the purchase of one of the new "fixed" models. Vehicle owners would not be happy, but there would be nothing they could do about it because Toyota was the only supplier! Not a situation that I think anyone would want with their car, so why should we want it with our computers?

- Let's pretend, for purposes of discussion, that there were only one operating system available, perhaps called "Doors". Everything is just going along tickety-boo until one day the supplier of "Doors" comes out with a new version, called "Panorama", that turns out to be such a stinking pile of garbage that it is essentially unusable. Even worse, the suppliers of "Doors" are so greedy and so determined to force the world to do what they obviously know is best that they decide to cut off sales of the older "Doors" version, and force suppliers to only sell the new "Panorama" version. Unfortunately, the computer users of the world have no alternative, because "Doors" is the only operating system! So they have to pay for "Panorama" on any new computers they purchase, and then they have to wait patiently and quietly until the supplier of "Doors" (hopefully) manages to fix the problems and come out with a new version. Then they get the really bad news, the supplier of "Doors" has decided that the people who bought "Panorama" were just stupid and they are out of luck, they are going to have to shell out again to for the new "View9". At this point, choice and alternatives are starting to look like a pretty good thing...

- A couple of examples from the current Linux distributions. Mandriva has been one of the most popular distributions for quite some time. There has been some speculation that they might not survive whatever problems they are having. If that were to happen, what would that mean for current Mandriva users? Not much. They could choose a Mandriva derivative, such as PCLinuxOS, or a completely different distribution such as openSuSE, and keep going with very little disruption. They could have the same desktop, the same user interface and the same applications. Another, less severe example straight from the last round of distributions: Ubuntu has probably become the single most popular Linux distribution over the past couple of years. They made some very significant changes in the 10.04 (Lucid Lynx) distribution, which a lot of users were not happy with. But those users had a CHOICE. They could switch to another distribution, whether it be an Ubuntu derivative such as Linux Mint, which had not adopted the changes, or a completely different distribution, such as Fedora which would give them the look and feel (desktop, interface and applications) that they were accustomed to and wanted to keep.

- Competition. Here I'm thinking more of "pride" and "achievement" than commercial types of competition. Ubuntu announces that they are going to reduce boot time to less than 30 seconds, and before long that has become a state goal for nearly all of the major distributions. Without variety and choice, the "one true operating system" could decide that they are happy with a boot time that allows you to turn on the computer and then go get a shower and a cup of coffee before it is ready to use, and there would be nothing you could do about it.

- Cooperation and cross-pollination. Some the big distributions have sufficient resources to work on areas that the smaller ones could never do. Ubuntu, Red Hat / Fedora and SuSE are the obvious examples of this. But whatever they do eventually ends up benefiting the entire Linux community. Conversely, some of the smaller distributions will pay attention to things that the larger distributions consider "background noise", but those modifications, fixes, updates and new developments add up to significant improvements over time. On a large scale, the Ubuntu "One Hundred Paper Cuts" project typifies this, but I think of the same thing being spread across a lot of different distributions as well.

- Innovation and variety. So far I have only mentioned a few of the largest "mainstream" distributions, but some of the most interesting and innovative development is going on with the smaller distributions. Completely different desktops and user interfaces, support for different kinds of computers ranging from the very small to the very large, real-time and embedded systems, and of course distributions in different languages.

My point is, choice is a good thing in Linux distributions, just as it is in everything else. Don't whinge about it, and don't try to paint it as somehow "a bad thing". Stop and think about what the alternative would be.

jw 12/7/2010

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