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Why multiple Linux distributions are a good thing

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February 5, 2009

Ask anyboby that knows the Linux operating system and they will tell you that, nowadays, there are probably hundreds of different Linux distributions (or Linux flavors if you prefer) to choose from.

Some say that this allegedly puts potential users with a choice they are unable to make for themselves...

Compounding the problem even more, various Linux distributions are usually incompatible with one another, leading to a situation where you need to hunt down applications specifically packaged for your own distribution, or to some situations where a how-to applies to one distribution, but not to another.

Some observers think that's too much complexity and that the time has come to simplify things and make them more user friendly.

However, the inventor of the Linux operating system, Linus Torvalds, is pretty clear on the subject and dosen't agree with any of these negative comments. Let us copy his reply to this debate:

"I think multiple distributions aren't just a good thing, I think it's something absolutely required! We have over hundreds of various Linux distributions, and a lot of them are really for niche markets. And you need that, simply because different markets simply have different requirements, and no single distro will take care of them all."

"Of course, some Linux users will say -- well, do you need multiple distros for the same market -- when they actually think about the normal desktop market and just look at the whole issue of having openSUSE/Fedora/Ubuntu all in that same space. But it really isn't that different - you still have the distributions looking at and concentrating on specific issues, and you do want the competition - and letting the markets decide which issues are the ones that really dominate."

"In addition, having multiple players just keeps everybody honest, and allows you to compare them. It may all look a bit messy and complex, but I'd much rather have a multi-party system over a single-party one. Even if it's more complicated."

Some are inclined to agree a bit with Torvalds for a number of reasons. First, the market for desktop Linux has more or less settled on a relatively small number of distros, such as Fedora, openSUSE and even Ubuntu.

An additional problem with settling on one single distribution is the issue of desktop environment, probably the most important piece of software in a desktop Linux distribution. KDE, GNOME and Xfce all serve different types of people, and their respective applications tend to those different types of people as well.

Some of these have derivatives of course, but they are all compatible with one another, so you can't really claim that X-Ubuntu is a separate distribution from Ubuntu, for instance.

You would already need a number of different distributions to cater to these very different groups of people, but is that really what you want to do here? A KDE user generally doesn't like using GNOME, and vice versa, for example.

The industry competition argument Linus Torvalds puts forth is also not to be underestimated. It often happens that a single distributor takes it upon themselves to work on a specific element of the Linux desktop that needs work, and then this work gets adopted by other distributions. This is a direct result of different distributions targeting different user groups, and thus having different priorities.

If you standardise on a single distribution, this dynamic is killed off, seriously limiting some needed innovation.

But that is not to say that at a lower level, the Linux world wouldn't benefit from more standardisation. A few areas that come to my mind is installation locations, a stricter adherence file system layout specifications and the obvious hot iron package management.

Especially since on that very last one, it usually triggers heartfelt debates, but it's undeniable that a lot of energy is wasted on duplicate efforts, since all major distributions spend a lot of time packaging the same software over and over again in different package formats.

The majority of open source software developers thrive in a world of competition and freedom of choice. Imposing Windows-style and Apple-philosophy policies on FOSS developers isn't only pointless, it would only work to the detriment of the open source and Linux community.

Source: Linux

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