Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Choices Choices Choices

In the beginning, there were a few different distributions. From a handful came hundreds. We are currently living with several hundreds. Many say that this is a bad thing. Many claim that the myriad offerings confuse people. Many claim that these distributions are often redundant. What's the deal? I have often talked about the lack of innovation in many distributions. The fact that people respin someone else's stuff and call it their own is somewhat unavoidable. It's going to happen. That aside, plurality is good.

For starters, a bug in one system doesn't bring the entire Linux ecosystem to a halt. It merely temporarily makes a small percentage of Linux users rather unhappy. So, if Ubuntu ships with a buggy VIA driver, Fedora is usually still ready to rock. The added benefit to this is also that should one Linux vendor go bust, there are already hundreds of distributions to take its place.

We have a good example of how plurality does not hurt you at all, but instead helps you. Microsoft's Windows. Right now, Microsoft is selling: Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 7 Professional, Windows 7 Ultimate, Windows Server 2008 Standard, Windows Server 2008 Enterprise, Windows Server 2008 Datacenter, Windows Web Server 2008, Windows HPC Server 2008, Windows Small Business Server 2008, Windows Essential Business Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 for Itanium-based Systems, Windows Server 2008 Foundation, and Windows CE 6 is still available to OEMs. You thought Linux was confusing? If I were not an IT professional, I would say that most of those sound the same. The differences between Windows versions is so slight that at a glance no differences can be discerned. You actually have to poke around quite a bit to notice that in Home Premium user management features are virtually nonexistent. You would have to try and download VirtualPC to notice that "XP Mode" is available only for Ultimate and Professional versions. You would have to try and install the UNIX subsystem for NT to notice that only Professional and Ultimate have that capability. With server versions, it may take you a little time to realize that Microsoft only wants you to use your server in one way, and that is the way that Microsoft specifies. To do more with one server, well, you will have to buy another license for a slightly different version of Windows.

So you still think that there are too many versions of Linux? Sure, we have hundreds. Has that stopped anyone? I don't think so. People will gravitate to those most popular of distributions. Ubuntu, Fedora, Mint, openSUSE, and Mandriva almost always get the majority share. Effectively, that means that in most people's minds there are only six versions of Linux. Whether or not people realize that there are more is irrelevant. When you go to those distribution's websites, most of them will present you with a quick link to there most popular version of their distribution, creating the illusion that "there is only one [insert distro name here]." You also have this overwhelmingly wonderful little thing happening in our community... it's called freedom. As users become accustomed to their distribution of choice they seek to make it their own. This leads to many little Ubuntu derivatives with small but loyal followings. Occasionally, these derivatives become powerful (Ubuntu/Debian, SuSE/Slackware, Mandrake/Red Hat). The most notable outside the examples I just listed is Blag. Blag started as a project to create a completely free version of Fedora. Blag is notable not for its following but for the Linux-libre kernel that was developed off of some Blag software scripts.

I look forward to a day when there are as many Linux distributions as there are cities on Earth.


kenholmes said...

Good read. How bloody petty this all becomes. If there are too many Linux distributions then there are too many writers and too many novels, too many actors and too many movies, to many performers, bands, songs and too many communities for all of them. Of course one doesn't have to think too hard to listen to most songs, nor most times to watch a movie; a bit more to read a novel. And Linux, well, thinking may be hazardous to ones health.

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