Does Linux Offer Too Much Choice?

User choice is one of the hallmarks of the Linux world, and most seem to agree that it’s a good thing. One might even go so far as to say it’s a big part of the reason so many of us embrace Linux.

Every once in a while, however, a naysayer pipes up with concern that the choice is too much, and that’s just what happened earlier this month.

“The trouble with Linux: there’s too much choice” was the title of the post that sparked the debate this time around, and quite a debate it has been.

‘Redundancy and Duplicated Effort’

“It’s often overwhelming, needlessly complicated and an easy excuse for change,” wrote Graham Morrison in the piece on TechRadar. “Choice goes hand-in-hand with redundancy and duplicated effort.”

Citing Fedora’s recent decision to drop photo manager F-Spot in favor of Shotwell, for example, “thousands of new Fedora users are going to think that the best photo management application on Linux has about as much functionality as Microsoft’s image preview,” Morrison wrote.

“If the wider community can’t decide for itself what a solution should look like, the power to make those decisions will be taken out of its hands,” he warned.


Such was the strength of the reaction to Morrison’s thesis that it has sparked at least two separate blog posts elsewhere, along with a virtual stampede of comments.

“I look forward to a day when there are as many Linux distributions as there are cities on Earth,” shot back Bradford White on the Eleven Is Louder blog, for example.

“Hogwash!” was the response from Caitlyn Martin in the O’Reilly Community, meanwhile.

‘Should We All Just Eat Corn Flakes?’

“I pose the following questions to Mr. Morrison and to all the others who share his views. Are you intimidated by the breakfast cereal aisle in [the] supermarket?” Martin added. “After all, there are so many choices. Isn’t it confusing? Should we all just eat corn flakes?”

The reader comments were just as sympathetic.

“This type of story is so typical that it’s revolting,” wrote olefowdie on LXer, for instance. “Linux is not Windows or OSX. The best part about Linux standards is that are so many from which to choose!”

Similar sentiments were to be found on a separate LXer thread as well, in addition to elsewhere in the blogosphere. Linux Girl knew she had another incendiary debate on her hands, so she headed down to the blogosphere’s Broken Windows Lounge for some cooling refreshment.

‘100% Fact-Free Zone’

“I feel sorry for this guy,” said Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by “Tom” on the site. “If the guy has been using linux for 12 years and still finds clicking on ‘Install Software’ confusing, someone must have given him a PC running Windows 3.1 and swapped the wallpaper. He just *thinks* he’s running linux.

“Either that, or maybe someone should, just to see if he notices the difference,” Hudson suggested.

In short, “this article could probably have benefited from a ‘100% Fact-Free Zone’ warning label,” she concluded.

‘I Have No Choice but to Disagree’

Similarly, “does Linux offer too much choice? I have no choice but to disagree with Graham,” Slashdot blogger yagu told Linux Girl over an icy Peppermint Penguin. “Thankfully, I have choice.”

Morrison’s thesis “flies in the face of ‘Open,’ as in ‘Source,'” yagu charged. “I encourage [him] to standardize in any way he sees fit, create his own Linux distro, and perhaps call it ‘Gnu-No-Choice Linux.’

“Fortunately, the Linux community grants him that choice,” yagu continued. “Try arguing his points in the Windows world, and good luck!”

‘Why Bother With Mac OS X?’

Taking Morrison’s argument to its logical end, however, “it really makes no sense for Linux to exist at all, since it’s simply one more inconvenient ‘choice’ from Windows,” yagu argued. “Linux is completely Windows-non-standard, and it simply muddies users’ waters when picking a computing platform.

“For that matter, why bother with Mac OS X?” he continued. “We already have a standard and it’s Windows.”

In other words, “see where things go when we stifle choice?” yagu concluded.

‘Nothing to Do With Choice’

It’s not actually clear what point Morrison is trying to make, “because it really seems like his issues have nothing to do with what he is ranting about,” Montreal consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined.

For example, “dropping a package because of possible legal issues has nothing to do with choice,” Mack explained. “I’m also not sure what point he is trying to make about Android having its own app store, since apps designed for small screens would be a lot different from apps designed for a PC.”

‘The Right Way to Make Choices’

“Too much choice?” began blogger Robert Pogson. “Choose a distro suited to your purpose/style of IT; stick with it, and you should have a simple way of searching repositories and finding what you want semi-automatically. That is not too much choice; it is the right way to make choices.”

Most distros have “nearly the same kernel, so you can do anything you want with almost any distro,” Pogson added. “I like Debian GNU /Linux because I can find what I want in seconds and install it in seconds.”

‘One of the Biggest Reasons to Use Linux’

Linux doesn’t offer too much choice, “but it may not organize its choices well enough,” Slashdot blogger David Masover offered. “Trivial example: Ubuntu removes the ‘Gnome or KDE?’ choice, but I can still run Kubuntu or Xubuntu, or go down to Ubuntu-minimal if I want.”

The ideal situation “is to provide sane defaults so that people aren’t forced to make choices,” Masover opined. “But if you remove choice, you remove one of the biggest reasons to use Linux in the first place.”


  • Choice is at the heart of Linux and there can’t be too much choice. Linux is about being an alternative and not about being popular. Being alternative necessitates choice.

    It is also our greatest strength. Because there is so much choice we cannot be taken over of eliminated. It makes us a hydra. If you cut off one head then we just grow two more. Take Oracle’s attempt to kill off openSolaris. Because it was open sourced then developers could keep it alive without Oracle’s help or blessing.

    People who complain about too much choice have a problem with being able to decide which is quite a different problem. Such people will always exist.

    Linux is successful without being popular. Our existence is a threat to the popular operating systems and because we have so much choice they can never get rid of us and that drives them mad.

    • Hello,

      When I overheard you say "linux aisle" my first thought was you were talking about but I was wrong.

      The variety of choices for Linux distributions is one of its greatest strengths and its greatest weakness. However I completely agree that Linux should have more components in common, especially the package manager/ application format. I think that if a single distro (or family of distros based on a single distro) can gain monopoly as the Linux desktop user’s choice, that the uniformity of availability of that distro’s applications will follow naturally and nothing need be done to push it forward. As evidence of this, take for instance the emergence of Ubuntu. I have seen a significant rise in the availability of .debs across the Web.

      Ubuntu’s problem is that it seems to focus too much on its server admins and less on its desktop users. I believe the day will come when one Linux distro will deliver a fantastic desktop experience; all the tools are already available.

  • Choice is indeed a good thing, but too much choice is not in my opinion. Also, trying to compare Linux to cereal is not a very helpful or useful comparison. To me, to more accurately portray Linux as items in the cereal aisle, you need to be talking more about the Linux cereal store, not just a single aisle. If we only had a Linux aisle to choose from that would be great!

    Further, to me the Linux community could do itself a favor by consolidating on more than just the basic kernel and a few utilities. While a Linux app configured to run on one distro can run on another with just a little "tweaking" this to me is wasted effort and most of where the confusion comes in from "unfamiliar parties".

    If all the distros could just get together and agree on a single application distribution mechanism most of the confusion and worries about the variety of Linux distros would go away. Windows, iPhone, Android, Mac all have one thing in common … you can buy/download an app for that platform and have a reasonable expectation it will run. Not so with Linux, not only do the distros have a different look-and-feel, which is not the problem, but different application install formats.

    Surely the open-source community can come up with one common, all encompassing application distribution mechanism?! Who really cares if that is an extended version of RPM, DEB, or something new, as long as all the distros could and would use it?

  • Choice can be confusing, but Linux has a pretty simple answer to that: install the top distro (Ubuntu) with its defaults.

    You’ll appreciate the other choices if you later find out you need them. If you don’t need them, you don’t have to worry about them.

    With Windows or OS X, you’re often simply stuck if things don’t work, or you end up paying a lot of money or buying new hardware to fix your problem, and that takes quite a lot of time and choice too.

  • I am new to Linux. I had a hard time being persuaded to install it, and one reason for that was the proliferation of distributions. The crisis of overchoice, which does turn off non-specialists. I was lucky to be guided by a friend who suggested Mint and provided me with an installation DVD. The range of distros is confusing to those of us who have already spent years, in effect, learning how to use Windows. It’s the same when shopping for clothes: I find the range in big cities daunting, and much prefer shopping where there’s less choice. There is perhaps an analogy with artificial languages, of which Esperanto is only one of many. We know that if we all spoke one of these artificial languages – it doesn’t matter which – the world would be a better place: we could all speak to each other, it would be easier to learn than any natural language etc etc. But there are too many to choose from and that’s partly why most people learn English as their second language, which is far less efficient and intuitive than any of the artificial languages.

    Now on the other side are those for whom computers are more than just something to use or play around with. For me, the equivalent is bookshops. I don’t care too much about clothes, but I do like books, so I actually prefer to have a wide range of books available.

  • When ever you fragment a user group you end up with no direction.

    This is the problem with Linux. Too much confusion creates bad vibes for any interest by basic users. It causes confusion. Just think if Apple offered multiple versions of OS X. Or the fact people complain about Microsoft’s multiple versions of Windows OS. This confusion comes from one company making multiple products. Now take that further by adding multiple developers of Linux and different ways of upgrading and supporting. Now you have a real mess!

  • Mr. Masover is correct in that what we need in a universal distro for the "average PC user" is sane defaults, or at least saner defaults than we currently have.

    Hence, I give you the Ubuntu-Saner-Defaults-Remix

    (Ubuntu is the closest thing we have to a universal or "average PC user" distro not only because of how it is geared for user friendliness and ease of use but also it large friendly community for support.)

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