The number of Linux distros – A strength or weakness?

There are lots and lots of Linux distros out there. In fact, if there is one thing that frustrates potential Linux users, then it is the abundance of choice. However, being a an end user myself, I sometimes wonder if the abundance of choice is really a strength or weakness.
In the comment section of a recent post about Element OS, it looked as if people are actually divided on the answer to the above question. Is the abundance of choice a strength or a weakness of the Linux desktop?
Both Helge and Maxx were of the view that there is no need to keep spinning off new distros that only replicate the functions of existing ones. WP however, did not agree with them. He wrote
“I disagree, Helge. I’ve been using Ubuntu and relatives since 2005 (Fedora before that). Every six months, I spend two evenings installing and re-customizing my OS and software, because Ubuntu / Kubuntu / Xubuntu / Mint is highly-polished, but the default software selection is not very useful.
“If I wanted a media-centric computer, for example, why should I spend the time installing and customizing apps, plus removing unneed ones? If Element OS does this well, then it deserves the time and attention it gets.”
The above views are in reality different explanations to the view which I hold about Linux distros and their numbers. I hold the opinion that people be allowed to ‘cook’ as many distros as they want. The only deciding factor of their survival will be the need of end users that they satisfy.
In other words, as long as the distro adds some value to the life of end users, then it is worth being in existence. If however, it is just a waste of code and time, not doing anything in particular for end users, then it will slowly wilt away into oblivion.
Citing a distro like Linux Mint, it is an Ubuntu clone but has also established itself in the lives of those who want instant multimedia gratification out of the box, that is, generally speaking. There were hundreds of distros before its advent but it has survived based on what it does to end users.
So to sum it up, I don’t agree per se that the number of Linux distros is either a good thing or a bad one. It is just a matter of available choices to satisfy different needs of different people from different parts of the globe. What do you think? Are you overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available? Talkback.

11 Replies to “The number of Linux distros – A strength or weakness?”

  1. I would agree that it is a weakness. It makes the life of a no techie more difficult. Each flavour has its way of doing things. Changing distributions means spend a lot of time learning again how to manage and install software. It is more difficult to get help. You run OpenSuse and your friend runs Ubuntu. Probably he won't able to help you.

    Developers also have a hard time. You develop a software, now you have to test it against all flavours. They don't have the time for it. Check Dropboz, for example, and see how many flavours they actually support.

    WP, without noticing, mentions another great weakness of a big number of distributions: the six month release.

    He writes: "Every six months, I spend two evenings installing and re-customazing my OS." Two evenings! Who wants to waste his time like that? Only geeks. And, by the way, new versions usually bring new bugs, you spend much more time fixing your OS than 2 evenings. That's my personal experience.

  2. Agree with Carlos regarding the number of releases.

    Regarding the six months release cycle:

    I assume WP is re-installing every six months of worry dist upgrade will break the system. This is a problem with the dist-upgrade process and not the release-schedule in itself.

    Ideally we would like get updates whenever there is new release of Ubuntu software, a bug has been fixed, a feature added etc. However, this would lead to regressions and broken software because there is no way to test the entire system properly every time something changes. It is better to perform fewer "major" upgrades and test them properly. Six months should be enough time to test and produce a stable system, however no one seems to have gotten it quite right yet.

    If you prefer not dist upgrading that often I would recommend the LTS (Long Time Support) releases of Ubuntu with backports enabled. LTS releases will be supported for up to 3 years.

  3. Hi Carlos, I agree with you on the point of interoperability of the various apps.

    However, I don't think I agree that changing distros means having to learn a lot, or having any serious learning curve.

    Since all the distros are built on the same template ie a centralized software center, you just have to apply your knowledge of the template to your new distro.

    With regards to WP, I cannot explain what he means by spending nights customizing his installation.

    I wonder if he builds his own spin of Ubuntu. Besides you are under no obligation to upgrade ever six months.

    But the point of his comment is what I was talking about in the post- if the disto satisfies a need or desire of users, then it is worth being around.

  4. Minor distributions aren't all bad, in many cases they are the only way you have to run Linux on a particular hardware or tu solve a particular problem. But in other cases they are only big ready-to-run software collections.

    I agree that, at last, natural selection will decide.

    Anyway, as I already said, this is the price of freedom. Would you give up the freedom to choose only because you could do the wrong choice?

  5. Still not convinced.

    You are think of a distro as a tool in itself, something which it is not.

    If that was the case you would have different distros for different tasks. This would need separate computers or at least a virtual machine just to do multitasking…

    Think of a distro as the Swiss army knife. A compact multi-purpose tool capable of solving a wide range of tasks all in one. From this point of view it makes more sense to focus efforts on a few selected distros.

  6. You know I have seen this argument for years. Nothing new.

    If Linux Distros were automobile models would people be complaining? I think not. Like anything else in life, the top 10 distros have the majority of the market.

    But there is one other factor. Think of distros as evolution. An offshoot of Fedora might have some extension that takes fire. Other members do not, so they fade. The evolution model moves Linux forward.

  7. Hi, Tucanae, I get your point, they are totally valid and I agree that distros like Fedora push Linux forward. It's just that me, as a non tech user of Linux, would trade a bit of cutting edge technology for a larger market share, so that would be easy to get help from friends and the like. Non tech users usually look for help from friends not forums or Google. Right now I don't have a single friend running Linux. Even if I had one, probably, due to the big number of flavours, he would be running another distro and we wouldn't be able to help each other. I use forums and Google to fix problems, but I can't recommend Linux for most of my friends because I know they wouldn't be able to do that.

    Hi Helge. I don't know, sometimes it seems 6 months is too short. I think developers deserve more time to do things in a quieter pace.

    Sinaisix. I am not sure if I would agree. It seems to me that each distro has its way doing things. You need to learn about their depositories, package managers, how to fix a broken audio, etc. Can you apply a fix you have encountered on a Fedora forum on a Suse box? I believe not, you need to do your homework again. For a techie guy that could be easy, for an average user, that would be harder.

  8. Well Carlos, I think it's that difficult to adapt to a different distro once you are accustomed to one.

    For instance, will it be so super hard that an average Joe cannot use Puppy Linux after he has used Ubuntu or Fedora for some time?

  9. Besides you are speaking on the assumption that there is a problem, I am assuming all things being equal, you get a smooth sailing, which fairly speaking is the case with most distros. Things just work more often than not.

  10. I think having more choices is a good thing in general. It is a little intimidating to new users like me, but the ability to try out most distros on liveCDs makes it practical. Besides, almost all current distros are based on earlier ones. Where can you draw that line?

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