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The Curious Case of the Disappearing Distros

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 22, 2014 6:26 PM PT

Well the holidays are pretty much upon us at last here in the Linux blogosphere, and there's nowhere left to hide. The next two weeks or so promise little more than a blur of forced social occasions and too-large meals, punctuated only -- for the luckier ones among us -- by occasional respite down at the Broken Windows Lounge.

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Distros

Perhaps that's why Linux bloggers seized with such glee upon the good old-fashioned mystery that came up recently -- delivered in the nick of time, as if on cue.

"Why is the Number of Linux Distros Declining?" is the question posed over at Datamation, and it's just the distraction so many FOSS fans have been needing.

"Until about 2011, the number of active distributions slowly increased by a few each year," wrote author Bruce Byfield. "By contrast, the last three years have seen a 12 percent decline -- a decrease too high to be likely to be coincidence.

"So what's happening?" Byfield wondered.

It would be difficult to imagine a more thought-provoking question with which to spend the Northern hemisphere's shortest days.

'There Are Too Many Distros'

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"That's an easy question," began blogger Robert Pogson. "There are too many distros."

After all, "if a fanatic like me can enjoy life having sampled only a dozen distros, why have any more?" Pogson explained. "If someone has a concept different from the dozen or so most common distros, that concept can likely be demonstrated by documenting the tweaks and package-lists and, perhaps, some code."

Trying to compete with some 40,000 package repositories like Debian's, however, is "just silly," he said.

"No startup can compete with such a distro," Pogson asserted. "Why try? Just use it to do what you want and tell the world about it."

'I Don't Distro-Hop Anymore'

The major existing distros are doing a good job, so "we don't need so many derivative works," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien agreed.

"I know I don't 'distro-hop' anymore, and my focus is on using my computer to get work done," O'Brien added.

"If my apps run fine every day, that is all that I need," he said. "Right now I am sticking with Ubuntu LTS 14.04, and probably will until 2016."

'The More Distros, the Better'

It stands to reason that "as distros get better, there will be less reasons to roll your own," concurred Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.

"I think the modern Linux distros cover the bases of a larger portion of the Linux-using crowd, so fewer and fewer people are starting their own distribution to compensate for something that the others aren't satisfying," he explained. "Add to that the fact that corporations are more heavily involved in the development of Linux now than they ever have been, and they're going to focus their resources."

So, the decline isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it only points to the strength of the current offerings, he asserted.

At the same time, "I do think there are some negative consequences as well," Stone added. "Variation in the distros is a way that Linux grows and evolves, and with a narrower field, we're seeing less opportunity to put new ideas out there. In my mind, the more distros, the better -- hopefully the trend reverses soon."

'I Hope Some Diversity Survives'

Indeed, "the era of novelty and experimentation is over," Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. told Linux Girl.

"Linux is 20+ years old and got professional," he noted. "There is always room for experimentation, but the top 20 are here since more than a decade ago.

"Godspeed GNU/Linux," he added. "I hope some diversity survives -- especially distros without Systemd; on the other hand, some standards are reached through consensus."

A Question of Package Managers

There are two trends at work here, suggested consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack.

First, "there are fewer reasons to start a new distro," he said. "The basic nuts and bolts are mostly done, installation is pretty easy across most distros, and it's not difficult on most hardware to get a working system without having to resort to using the command line."

The second thing is that "we are seeing a reduction of distros with inferior package managers," Mack suggested. "It is clear that .deb-based distros had fewer losses and ended up with a larger overall share."

Survival of the Fittest

It's like survival of the fittest, suggested consultant Rodolfo Saenz, who is certified in Linux, IBM Tivoli Storage Manager and Microsoft Active Directory.

"I prefer to see a strong Linux with less distros," Saenz added. "Too many distros dilutes development efforts and can confuse potential future users."

Fewer distros, on the other hand, "focuses development efforts into the stronger distros and also attracts new potential users with clear choices for their needs," he said.

All About the Money

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol also saw survival of the fittest at play, but he took a darker view.

"Linux is a big game now, with billions of dollars of profit, and it's the best thing since sliced bread," Ebersol began. "But corporations are taking control, and slowly but systematically, community distros are being killed."

It's difficult for community distros to keep pace with the ever-changing field, and cash is a necessity, he conceded.

Still, "Linux is slowly becoming just like BSD, where companies use and abuse it and give very little in return," Ebersol said. "It saddens me, but GNU/Linux's best days were 10 years ago, circa 2002 to 2004. Now, it's the survival of the fittest -- and of course, the ones with more money will prevail."

'Fewer Devs Care'

SoylentNews blogger hairyfeet focused on today's altered computing landscape.

"The reason there are fewer distros is simple: With everybody moving to the Google Playwall of Android, and Windows 10 looking to be the next XP, fewer devs care," hairyfeet said.

"Why should they?" he went on. "The desktop wars are over, MSFT won, and the mobile wars are gonna be proprietary Google, proprietary Apple and proprietary MSFT. The money is in apps and services, and with a slow economy, there just isn't time for pulling a Taco Bell and rerolling yet another distro.

"For the few that care about Linux desktops you have Ubuntu, Mint and Cent, and that is plenty," hairyfeet said.

'No Less Diversity'

Last but not least, Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, took an optimistic view.

"Ever since I have been around Linux, there have been a few main families -- SuSE, Red Hat, Debian, Gentoo, Slackware -- and a number of forks of these," Travers said. "The number of major families of distros has been declining for some time -- Mandrake and Connectiva merging, for example, Caldera disappearing -- but each of these families is ending up with fewer members as well.

"I think this is a good thing," he concluded.

"The big community distros -- Debian, Slackware, Gentoo, Fedora -- are going strong and picking up a lot of the niche users that other distros catered to," he pointed out. "Many of these distros are making it easier to come up with customized variants for niche markets. So what you have is a greater connectedness within the big distros, and no less diversity."

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist 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+.

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