Never Enough Distributions Revisited

On July 21st, 2012 an article written by yours truly was published on a site called RefuGeeks, which was founded by some guy I met on Google+. The title of that article was Never Enough Distributions. Now, exactly eight years later, I’m revisiting that post to see if my thoughts and feelings have changed.

I’ve been using Linux now for a pretty long time. I started in the mid-90s, and have been using it ever since. One of the most common criticisms I hear about Linux is that there’s just too many distributions.

It only takes a quick trip over to DistroWatch to see that there are a ton of distributions out there. The front page ranks the top 100 distributions according to their page hit ranking, which is often mistaken for distribution popularity. A quick query of the distributions with no filters brings up a list of 322 different distributions, and recently Todd Robinson, an Open Source entrepreneur and co-owner of Webpath Technologies and On-Disk.com, has said he’ll create a new distribution per day for 31 days. Some people are saying that enough is enough. We don’t need any more distributions.

I couldn’t disagree more.

There can never been “enough” distributions. Software evolves like everything else. 21 years ago, Linux was a dream in a Finnish kid’s head, but in 1993 that project mutated and Debian was born. That same year, Red Hat was founded and the following year Red Hat Linux arrived. Linux had already mutated into it’s first distributions.

Each distribution brings with it it’s author’s particular views, likes, and dislikes. Sometimes a distribution will be a minor change over the parent distribution, and sometimes it will be major. Sometimes what started out as something minor will transmute into something major.

With each distribution, Linux evolves.

New ideas are born, the strong ones survive and the weak ones fade into obscurity. Through this process, Linux gets better. Without this process, Linux would stagnate. New ideas would be limited to a select few individuals, and the creativity of the community would be stifled. Linux would become Windows: an OS with a family tree that never branches, getting uglier and more inbred with each generation. Prone to crashs, malware, and vulnerable to disease (viruses).

I truly believe that this would be the end for Linux. The Linux community needs to encourage new distributions, always be willing to try the new distro on the block. Play with new software and experience new ways of doing things. We can’t allow ourselves to become locked into our old habits. Sometimes, the new things we try won’t be as good as our old way of doing things, but that’s OK. We won’t know until we try.

Personally, I can’t wait to see what the next stage of evolution brings us.

When I wrote this article, I’d heard over and over how there were too many distributions, and if Linux wanted to succeed it needed to knock that stuff off and focus on a select few, or even one.

I disagreed then, I disagree now, and I think my reasoning is still pretty solid.

At the time, desktop Linux market share was less than 1%, and even Android hadn’t passed iOS until May when it finally attained 23.81% of the mobile market compared to iOS’s 22.95%. Today, Linux’s desktop market share hasn’t improved significantly over all, but it has more than doubled to 1.88% in July of this year.

The number of distos on DistroWatch hasn’t changed significantly since that time either. Distros have come distros have gone, but there are still more distros than you can shake a stick at, and Linux has managed to dominate pretty much every market it’s in other than the desktop space, and some of the distros that are very popular today didn’t even exist when I wrote the original article, such as Solus and Pop!_OS.

All in all, I still think that new distributions allow us to try new things. Things that work either propel those distributions to popularity or they get adopted by other distros. Things that don’t work fade into obscurity to be forgotten. In the last eight years, Linux has changed quite a bit, but other OSs have remained relatively stagnant. macOS looked virtually identical in 2012 as it did in did in 2001 as it does today. Windows was toying with a disastrous tile interface, but they’d pretty much go back to how it was before right after, making the Windows 8 thing more a blip. They’ve both got prettier themes, but not much else.

I hope Linux continues to inspire people to develop their own distributions, for changes both major and minor and I hope Linux users will continue to hop around and try new things to find the one or the many they like. Above all, I still think there can never be enough distributions.

Day 70 of the #100DaysToOffload Series: