The Curious Case of the Disappearing Distros

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.

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’

Linux Girl

“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+.


  • I strongly disagree with the writer. Why? I don’t think desktop wars happened at all, and i don’t think there will be no new solutions for desktop ui-s for the next decade. What i believe is the author didn’t speak any word about the abuse of Linux by google android, not a single word about why we don’t have linux os-es on smart phones and/or tablets? Why there are no KDE/gnome/etc uis for any of the new mobile devices yet? I believe linux is not just a software solution, its an idea of the open source community software developments. While new distro’s are not hard to appear, history will show us, innovative open source ideas will prevail.

    • Oh lord would you PLEASE stop with the "M$" stupidity, what are you 12?

      And you and the rest of the zealot squad can have your same boring articles claiming Linux is "winning" by gaining a whole one tenth of one percent, because the round table is over and I’m out of here, this will probably be my very last comment on this site.

      So have fun, and enjoy your articles that only tell you what you want to hear. Ironically if you’ll go back and look at some of the earlier posts I’m the only reason many of them got any comments at all, bet its not gonna be as fun to not have old hairy to argue with. Peace and bu bye!

    • Dang Poggie you STILL got Voldemort after all these years? Say it with me mike row soft, its really not that hard and I promise that it won’t make Billy gates jump out of your basement closet and kill you, promise.

      As for MSFT "rigging"? Get over it, you lost, move on. Would you like me to provide the current stats showing that Linux has a whole 1.11%, and "other" has 2.74%? BTW Windows XP, an OS that MSFT has abandoned is whupping your OS by over 16 percentage points! Kinda sad that folks would rather have an abandoned OS and take their chances with malware than take yours for free, don’t ya think? How does that fact figure into your "MSFT rigging" theory, hmmm? how about the fact that the last pirate figures show that more than 8 TIMES as many people would rather steal MSFT’s OS than take yours for free?

      The so called "rigging" occurred between 1993 and 1998, at that time Linux was a bad Minix clone, with a GUI that didn’t equal Windows 2…do you HONESTLY want to argue that Linux had a chance during this period? The only ones that had a prayer were OS/2, which IBM had poisoned the well by trying to burn the OEMs by charging $200 a copy, not to mention the MCA bus fiasco, and BeOS which at that time was PPC exclusive. More than 85% of the PPC chips were already called for by Apple, nobody was gonna spend $600+ on a Mac just to spend $99 on BeOS.

      So give it up, reality and stats are against you. Nobody stopping Linux now, yet the numbers have dropped this year by over half a percentage point. MSFT abandoned XP nearly a year ago and not only did Linux adoption not go up it went DOWN. So give it up Chuck, the desktop is over, you lost. You can’t try to move the goalposts it just won’t work.

      • hairyfeet mentioned 1.11% share for GNU/Linux.

        According to StatCounter, it’s 1.38% last quarter.

        I don’t put much reliance on either of those sources or numbers. StatCounter gives regional data as well and shows Uruguay with 18% share, well ahead of XP. In Ethiopia in June, GNU/Linux was well ahead of XP with 32% and even caught "7" a few days.

        The world is changing and M$ is not winning, they are losing share of installed base. For that to happen they must be losing share of shipments at a great rate. Hence the decline of the client division in SEC filings. Their client licensing revenue was down nearly 10% in the last year yet PCs shipments are nearly flat.

  • hairyfeet wrote, "The desktop wars are over, MSFT won".

    That’s not true, on several fronts:

    1) There never was a war. M$ set up an illegal monopoly and competition was stifled.

    2) The PC is not entirely dead, just severely slowed by small cheap computers, so the desktop war can now take place with competition being allowed.

    3) Winning is when the other guy is dead/gone/finished. There’s no sign of that. GNU/Linux gets more space on retail shelves every year and share of usage on the web keeps increasing globally and is growing rapidly in several regions: India, Europe, China, Russia, Africa and South America. Even USA, home of M$, still has growing share for GNU/Linux.

    There will be continuing need for keyboards, precise pointers and big screens and even local resources so the desktop will be around a while. The war isn’t over until it’s over. Now that consumers everywhere have a choice and many OEMs ship GNU/Linux, a lot can happen in just a few years. M$ cemented its monopoly when PCs cost a few $K. Now that usable machines cost ~$200 and really good machines just cost ~$300, the 350 million buyers per annum can be replaced by 300 million buyers of smaller cheaper computers any time now. Look at the NUC, thin clients running GNU/Linux, and desktops/notebooks running GNU/Linux that can be bought. They are no longer just at the low end. GNU/Linux is becoming mainstream on the desktop as it has on the server.

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