The death of the Linux distro

The distro is dead, long live the platform.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

The Linux distro is dying, but that's not a bad thing. Instead of thinking in distros, the platform (or the environment) is rapidly becoming the differentiator when it comes to different flavors of the free OS, and this will give Linux the much-deserved boost it deserves.

The argument was made succinctly by Brian Proffitt over on ITWorld:

Distributions are becoming less important, period. This has been articulated before, but I'll say it again: there is a lot more importance being placed on the desktop environment running on top of the given Linux distribution in question than the distro itself. Haven't you noticed?

More and more, it's no longer about "I run Fedora" or "openSUSE rocks"… now the conversations have shifted to things like how much better Cinnamon is than Unity, or how Trinity kicks mainline KDE's butt.

I've always had a bit of a problem with Linux when it came to using a distros as the differentiator between different flavors of Linux. It never seemed logical to me to categorize different Linux builds in such an arbitrary way, especially given how many options and choices there were available. Some Linux advocates claim that choice is a good thing, and that the more distros the better, but given the fact that there's always been highly dominant Linux distros (such as Ubuntu, or nowadays Mint), the users themselves have blown this argument out of the water.

Choice is good, but too much choice leads to endless confusion. And when it came to creating confusion, Linux distros were good at doing just that. Unless you carried out careful research, you really didn't know what made one distro different to another. Sure, if you knew what you were doing you could customize and configure and eventually roll-your-own bespoke version of Linux, but if that was the Linux advantage, why didn't everyone do that and eliminate the need for distros altogether? People are more interested in what the OS can do rather than what it's called or who made it.

This has already happened in the mobile space. Take a look at how Android has become the dominant Linux distro on mobile platforms. People don't care (and many times don't even know) about the Linux connection, instead they choose a platform that works for them, be that tablets versus smartphone, one brand versus another, or one skin on top of Android versus another. Fragmentation in this sector would have been deadly because each distro (despite the fact that they shared a single origin) would be fighting it out among each other rather than uniting and putting pressure on the competition. Android has become the powerhouse that it is because it's presented a unified front to the competition.

Android may be enjoying considerable success, but that's not stopping other players from trying to break into the game. Take Mozilla's new 'Boot to Gecko' project:

A truly Web-based OS for mobile phones and tablets would enable the ultimate in user choice and developer opportunity, both from a technology and an ecosystem point of view. Boot to Gecko is a project to build a OS that runs HTML5, JavaScript and CSS directly on device hardware without the need for an intermediate OS layer. The system will include a rich user experience, new APIs that expose the power of modern mobile phones through simple JavaScript interfaces; a privilege model to safely and consistently deliver these capabilities to websites and apps with the user in control. Boot to Gecko leverages BrowserID, the Open Web app ecosystem and an identity and apps model that puts users and developers in control.

Mozilla is also being clear that 'Boot to Gecko' isn't Android:

Is B2G based on Android?

No. B2G uses some of the same low-level building blocks used in Android (Linux kernel, libusb, etc) in order to reduce the burden on ODMs/OEMs to bring up B2G on new hardware. However, B2G is not based on Android, and will not be compatible with the Android stack (in particular B2G will not run Android applications).

So again, while B2G is essentially a Linux distro, people will come to this via a specific platform device as opposed to downloading a distro and installing it on existing hardware. The platform will drive adoption, rather than loyalty to a specific distro.

Another reason that the distro is dying is our slow but inevitable move to a post-PC world. Yes, the PC continue to be dominant and very important, but more personal devices such as tablets and smartphones are increasingly taking out attention away from that 'big box with the TV thing attached to it' that sit on our desks. PCs in their various shape and sizes (desktops, notebooks, netbooks, ultabooks ...) are essentially a reworking of the same idea, and as such each variation became yet another platform for OEMs run load Windows onto. Post-PC devices are different, and there's plenty of differentiation between between the various devices. While Android is currently the distro of the day on smartphone and tablets, this is likely to change as different classes of devices emerge.

As distros become a thing of the past, Linux will flourish on a myriad of platforms, both PC and post-PC. In fact, that 'year of the Linux' that fanboys have been talking about for over a decade now might actually come true.

Long live Linux.

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