Dozens and Dozens of Distros: Is It Too Much of a Good Thing?

Well it was another relatively quiet week here in the Linux blogosphere, despite the arrival of a certain Saucy Salamander in town.

Linux Girl and the other regulars down at the blogosphere’s Punchy Penguin Saloon had braced themselves for the worst as the Big Day approached, but the launch festivities appeared to be relatively subdued this time around. Perhaps more important, the tequila supplies held up nicely, so good cheer was easily maintained.

Linux Girl

It was actually another topic that generated some heated conversation over the course of the week — a perennial one, at that, picked up once again by a recent poll.

“Poll Says Too Many Distros” was the title of the piece that broke the news, which has been the topic of more than a few lively conversations since.

It’s one of those discussions that comes up again and again here in the Linux blogosphere, where “choice is good” is practically a mantra. Is that true in the world of distros as well, or can there be too much of a good thing?

Too Many Car Models?

“I don’t really see where the problem is,” consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl. “Most newbie linux users I’ve come across just end up asking someone else or checking to see what is popular.

“This argument is similar to complaining that there are too many car models to choose from,” Mack suggested. “I have yet to see someone complain about that.”

Indeed, “there is just no such thing as ‘Too Many Distributions,'” agreed Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone. “Due to Linux’s open source nature, distributions can only help Linux evolve into an even better version of itself.

“Not every idea will make it, but even if a distribution fades from view like so many have, the ideas that made that distribution unique can be carried on,” Stone explained. “I doubt that even many Linux users remember Eazel, but I’d wager there are a significant number that have heard of Nautilus.”

In fact, “far from their being too many, even more should be encouraged,” he opined. “They can only help Linux get better.”

‘There Can Never Be Too Many’

It may be true “in some abstract sense that there are too many distros, but I bet everyone who said there are too many believes that their own favorite is one of the ones that has to be kept,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien suggested. “Well, freedom means anyone can fork a project if they want to, and if they get enough support it will thrive.

“Otherwise, hands up everyone who is using MMC Interim Linux,” O’Brien added. “Anyone? Bueller?”

It’s important to “keep in mind that the industry is dominated by only a few distros, so smaller distros end up having to fill the small niches not well covered by the main players,” noted Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. “If the smaller distros solve problems the larger ones don’t want to, then there can never be too many distros.”

‘The Spectrum Is Wide’

Blogger Robert Pogson took a similar view.

“Of course there are not too many distros, just as there are not too many good ideas or too many pretty women,” Pogson told Linux Girl. “Choice is good. Not having choice is slavery. Thank goodness that’s going away.”

There are “billions of users with many thousands of use cases,” Pogson pointed out. “The spectrum is wide, from someone needing a little controller to make some device seem intelligent to the manager of a huge IT system needing thousands of computers to do the bidding of some large organization or to solve some huge problem.

“Most distros have some general-purpose outlook so they can be configured any way you like,” he added.

‘Some Standards to Be Followed’

The only thing to support the idea of “too many distros” is that “diversity makes it more difficult to distribute good software,” Pogson pointed out.

“Creators of distros need to keep that in mind and maintain reasonable standards,” he opined. “Creators of applications need to keep that in mind and follow those standards or ship everything in virtual machines… something that is feasible on current PCs but it certainly is not efficient.”

Similarly, “let’s make efforts to call people to collaborate massively on important issues,” suggested Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

In addition, to improve “the visibility and choice of GNU/Linux options by the industry, let some group (democratically) list some standards to be followed,” he added. “With this, we’ll help OEM machine vendors to sell machines with GNU/Linux as the main and only OS. They will have an easier task choosing, and so will the new users.”

‘A Truckload of Copycats’

Rather than “are there too many distros,” a better question might be, “Are there too few original distros?” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol offered.

“Yeah, one might go to distro watch and see 600 distros, but then, 90 percent of them are based on Ubuntu,” he explained. “So, no we don’t have too many distros. We have too few original distros and a truckload of derivative copycats.”

Ebersol would like to see more original distros, he told Linux Girl, “but then again, to create and maintain a distro is a laborious and hellish task,” he pointed out. “It’s not for everyone.”

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took an even darker view.

‘That Is Just a Mess’

“Too many distros? The answer is YES, but it’s even worse than too many, it’s what I call the ‘Taco Bell problem,'” hairyfeet began. “It’s the ILLUSION of too much choice when in reality you have no choice!

“You look at ‘all this choice’ and what do you see? Debian, Ubuntu, Red Hat — it’s the same guts over and over and OVER with all the same problems,” he asserted.

“Same DEs, same buggy WiFi, nothing really new or innovative,” he added. “Where is the distro that gives a new ‘never breaks’ networking stack? Where is the distro that offers a Windows level support cycle?”

In short, “if you threw out all the ‘it’s the same crud with a new theme and just enough changes to break compatibility,’ a good 90 percent of DistroWatch would disappear tomorrow!” hairyfeet concluded. “I’m all for innovation, I’m all for choice… what you have instead is wasted effort and reinventing the wheel so somebody can put out the same tired old junk with a new theme. That ain’t choice, that is just a mess.”

No Diminishing Effect

Not everyone saw it that way, however.

“We should probably remember that everything started somewhere, as an offshoot of something else, so what may begin life as a ‘child’ distro can someday become just as significant as the ‘parent’ distro in many ways — Ubuntu and Debian would be a perfect example,” Google+ blogger Brett Legree pointed out.

“Debian is in no way diminished by the existence of Ubuntu as far as I am concerned, and many people like Linux Mint, and so forth,” he added.

Still, “I am happy to stick with the main distributions for my own purposes,” Legree concluded, “and let everyone else have fun tinkering.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • "Ya wanna know why they hate and insult me? Because I’m their worst nightmare…yaddadayaddadayaddada".

    Before I get into seriously answering your question (and I assume you DO want an answer; after all, YOU DID ask the question), I have a serious observation:

    You seriously flatter yourself, sir.

    Now. "Ya wanna know why?"

    How about: because you’re a know-nothing, who pretends to know all about Linux, in a Linux venue. How about: because you’re a know-nothing who pretends to know all about Windows, in a Linux venue. How about: because ypu have nothing of substance whatever to contribute to any of the articles to whic you’re patronizingly asked to contribute.

    How about: you’re the ONLY one of Ms. Noyes’ group who thinks so much of their opinions that they feel it necessary to respond to readers’ comments?

    How about (not to put too fine a point on the last suggestion): you’re the only one of Ms. Noyes’ band of ( I was going to say experts, but I remembered to whom this is addressed) contributors who think SO MUCH of their own opinion whom I have EVER seen attack the opinion of ONE OF THEIT OWN GROUP in a return comment to a reader (be VERY careful, Twinkletoes; I keep EXTREMELY good records of all my transactions, particularly where obnoxious individuals are involved).

    Your extremely erudite response elicits two quotations, one of which I am obviously not heeding:

    "Never get into an argument with an idiot. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference."

    –Samuel Clements

    "I am not going to insult your intelligence by suggesting that you truly believe what you just said."

    –William F. Buckley

    • "How about letting only EXPERTS comment!"

      Leaving asside the issue who who qualifies as an "expert". Because the "Experts" in the community have done nothing but shat out the same broken mess for 20 years while the competition has steadily improved.

      If you’re HONESTLY looking for Linux to take over on the consumer desktop then outsiders are the people you need to listen to most. They are the people you need in order to succeed.

      People like Hairyfeet are small shop system builders. They can take the opinions of the masses and distill that information into a list of things you need for Linux to succeed. Companies spend tens of millions to find out what he is giving you for free. Yet what do you do with this valuable input? Mock it and continue down the 20 year path of failure. As I pointed out earlier, the day Microsoft gets reasonable with server licenses is the day major Linux R&D outside of Google ends. Even server companies don’t actually "like" Linux, it’s just easier to deal with than current Microsoft server licensing. Just like how everyone put up with Windows 95 because it was easier to deal with than DOS.

      Linux CAN succeed. Google did it with Android. The problem is that most in the Linux community are not interested in success. Success would mean different groups giving up power and having to work together towards a common goal, being considerate of the needs of other groups and accommodating those needs. It would mean some people having to give up on doing things one way and instead doing them another way. In other words, people would need to grow up and act like adults.

      • "How about: because you’re a know-nothing, who pretends to know all about Linux, in a Linux venue."

        I don’t think Hairyfeet claims to know all about Linux. However, he, like me, knows enough about it to be able to see that current desktop Linux, as far as the average consumer is concerned, can’t even compete with Windows 98, let alone Windows 7. Your operating system might give windows 95 a run for it’s money, as far as function at least, but that’s honestly about the best you can manage and the 1% market share shows it.

        "How about: because ypu have nothing of substance whatever to contribute to any of the articles to whic you’re patronizingly asked to contribute. "

        He says what anyone outside the cult of Linux would say, that the Linux community needs to leave the playground politics aside and actually compete with Windows and Apple and build something that works as well or better than them. Either compete and do what needs to be done to make Linux "just work" on the level of Microsoft or Apple or STFU about it ever being anything other than an OS for servers, routers, and supercomputers.

        "How about: you’re the ONLY one of Ms. Noyes’ group who thinks so much of their opinions that they feel it necessary to respond to readers’ comments?"

        You mean he’s the only one who actually takes the time to defend their view? Out in the real world of ideas, that’s considered a good thing. Running away from criticism typically means that you’re not prepared to or unable to defend those views.

        "How about (not to put too fine a point on the last suggestion): you’re the only one of Ms. Noyes’ band of ( I was going to say experts, but I remembered to whom this is addressed) contributors who think SO MUCH of their own opinion whom I have EVER seen attack the opinion of ONE OF THEIT OWN GROUP in a return comment to a reader"

        That’s because mature adults adults normally are not afraid to criticize people they normally agree with. People are not robots and don’t agree on everything. People can agree on 99% of a topic and be bitterly divided on 1%. That’s life and I don’t see what is unusual or unreasonable about it.

        You can mock people like Hairyfeet and I all you want, just remember that you are the guys who have been sitting at a 1% market share for 20 years.

  • "Slashdot blogger hairyfeet took an even darker view…"

    What do you think your main problem is, Noyes? Twinkletoes can be counted on to take a darker view of absolutely ANYTHING he knows nothing about, which just so happens to be EVERYTHING. He has passed–a looong time ago–the tiresome stage, and is an absolute flop at trolling.

    Try your column without Twinkletoes. Get someone who KNOWS LINUX instead. Watch your ratings soar.

    (Have you or your editors ever considered how laughable it is to have an absolute Linux KNOW-NOTHING try to compete with your extremely knowledgeable linux USERS and experts? It has been obvious for far too long that he "competes" by re-printing ‘sound-bites’ from other sources, and contributes nothing of substance.)

    • Like I said:

      "Different strokes for different folks."

      We have all the different makes and models of cars because it’s all about choice and preference. You have your right to yours.

      Desktop Linux works for me and I like having the many distros to choose from. Time will tell if the Linux desktop and its mobile user interface will succeed or not. I hope they succeed. If not, I’ll adapt and adopt.

      • Ya wanna know why they hate and insult me? Because I’m their worst nightmare…a retailer that speaks FOR THE USERS and as far as the users are concerned? Linux is a broken mess. Anybody who thinks different? Step right up and take the Hairyfeet Challenge!

        The challenge is VERY simple and acurate simulates what Joe and Jane user would experience with a typical PC lifecycle, in fact even though it tips the scales in several areas (no strange hardware,no USB wireless, half the Windows lifecycle) I have YET to see a single distro pass! Ready?

        Simply download the distro from FIVE years ago, if you want to use Ubuntu that would be 10.10, make sure all the drivers are working and in this you can use CLI since you are the retailer on install. Once that is done update to current using ONLY the GUI, no CLI allowed! What happens at the end? A broken mess. Sound toast, video often trashed, Wireless? Forget it, you won’t even get a connection, much less WPA 2.

        A wise man once said "Linux is only free if your time is worthless" and I agree 100%, all it takes is a single "update foo broke my drivers" for Linux to cost me MORE than a Windows license! THIS is why no B&M sell Linux, why Dell hides it on a back page and has to pay an entire dev team to produce their own Ubuntu fork, and the fact that the community would put up with such poor and shoddy work in 2013 just because its "free" is frankly shameful.

        A final note, I recently retired the old nettop at the shop for a new one, the Sempron had been running since 2003, it went from XP RTM to last months patches…know how many broken drivers I had for a decade of support? ZERO, zero broken drivers! And until we see THAT level of quality and support in a Linux desktop, to where I can hand it to a customer and know it WILL update/grade for the life of the hardware with ZERO driver failures? Then Linux will stay a Mickey Mouse also ran on the desktop. Win 8 is the most hated OS from MSFT since WinME, yet they got more users the first month than Linux has goten after 20+ years! If you can’t even beat a bad release when you give your product away? Then the problem is NOT the competition, its the poor quality of the product.

  • My exact thoughts that no one complains about too many car models. If not for the manufacturers world-wide and the many models and varieties, we would not see hybrids, plug-in hybrids or full-electric vehicles. The same goes for sun-powered vehicles and aeroplanes. Take, for example, one such manufacturer in India producing a tiny model for their local market and then watched it sky-rocket in popularity. Tell the big guys that this is the model to make and they’ll think you’re crazy.

    Tell that to the many people who tried to fly before the Wright brothers.

    My personal belief is that it’s these many distros that will drive true innovation. I am completely over the moon with, for example, Puppy Linux and Simplicity OS coming out using Ubuntu, giving me the huge repositories as well as functionality, lightness and speed as opposed to the heavier versions of Ubuntu. It’s like having different versions of the same car model – from gas-saving, family versions to the souped-up power versions.

    It’s the very openness of Linux that allows true freedom. People want to put out these distros. Why try to tell them not to? This is how civilisation developed and evolved, empires made and fell. It’s their labour of love and interest.

    C’mon, guys and gals, grandparents are not going to choose or drive the same cars as yuppies or teenagers or executives. The same goes for Linux distros.

    The many distros are a natural consequence of freedom of choice and freedom of expression. Don’t want to tinker? Great – your choice. Want to tinker? Great – your choice too.

    Strewn throughout history, it’s the many choices, experiments of varying degrees of success or failure and evolution that has brought us what we have today.

    Different strokes for different folks!

    • "My exact thoughts that no one complains about too many car models."

      That’s because all the car models "just work". Ford, Chevy, Honda, Toyota, it doesn’t really matter. You get in one and it’s going to work year after year. Sure they have their minor differences, the cruise control is here vs there, the stereo sucks in this one, but at the end of the day, all of them will get you from Point A to point B.

      The problem with Linux is that it does NOT "just work" like cars do today. Nobody cares how much choice you have when all the choices are broken. People will take "just works" over "choice" 8 days a week, which is why the only time Linux has gone anywhere in consumer personal computing is when Google took it away from Linus and Co and made it "just work" with Android.

      The fact is that mainstream PC Linux is a horrifically broken mess. To give ONE example; it’s 2013 and the Linux community still doesn’t have a sound system that doesn’t trip over itself. Do you want to know the last time I had such problems in Windows? Windows 3.1. Audio in Windows 95 could have issues when setting it up, but once it was setup it "just worked". When something went wrong, the system had the decency to just blue screen so I knew to just reboot and have working sound again.

      I am reminded of what one of my grandma-in-laws said when talking about the cars people had when she was young. She would talk about all sorts of things that she didn’t like about the Ford Model T, yet at one point half the cars in the world were Ford Model T’s. Why did people flock to the Model T? Well the first was price, but Ford only held that advantage for a few years. No, what made the Model T popular was that it "just worked". It had above average reliability, was stupid easy to drive vs other cars of the era, and it was stupid easy to repair. It was only after other manufactures matched the Model T in "It just works" that it’s popularity began to fade.

      The Linux community has the cart before the horse. The FIRST thing you do is build something that "just works", THEN and ONLY THEN do you start worrying about "choice".

      "My personal belief is that it’s these many distros that will drive true innovation."

      WHAT innovation are you talking about? Like Hairyfeet said, after 20 year all you’ve got is the exact same guts with the exact same problems with just enough tweaks to break compatibility. Your driver model is from the 1970’s, your graphical subsystem is a good decade obsolete vs Windows, as mentioned before, you STILL don’t have reliable sound.

      Google spent hundreds of millions of dollars fixing the monkey code to turn a shantytown OS (Which is what Linux is as far as consumer PCs are concerned, servers are a different matter of course.) into the most popular mobile phone OS in the world. That COULD BE desktop Linux, but unless the community does what it needs to do then it won’t happen.

      The scary thing is that Microsoft could effectively kill all major Linux development overnight if it got rid of server CALs and priced server licenses reasonably, which they could do any time they wanted to. The Linux community only gets any significant R&D funding because of Microsoft’s incompetence when it comes to server licenses.

      The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have a problem. I don’t care if I use Linux, BeOS, or Windows, but I DO care about having working drivers, working graphics, working sound, working Wi-Fi, and updates that don’t hose the system. This needs to happen from the day I buy it to the day it gets thrown in the trash. Windows can deliver that on a PC, Linux can’t.

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