Windows users face as many choices as Linux users

Posted by hkwint on Sep 29, 2010 1:53 PM
LXer.com; By H.Kwint - The Netherlands


LXer Feature: 29-Sept-2010



A while ago, Graham Morrison wrote: "The trouble with Linux: there's too much choice". Implicitly, the article refers to "more choice than with Windows". The article led to reactions from Carla Schroeder [1], Caitlyn Martin [2], Alastair Otter [3] and Ron Miller [4]. While the articles provided for an interesting discussion, none of them addressed the fundamentals of Linux distributions and choice of desktop software in my opinion. Because from an objective point of view, Windows users face as many choices as Linux users do. But most Windows users are just not aware of all the choices they're making.

Different distributions: Different needs

When I want to install Windows or Linux, I can opt for support by a company, or not. If I want support for Windows, I have to buy it from Microsoft or one of their resellers. When I want support for Linux, I have to buy it from RedHat, Novell, Oracle or Canonical.



When defining a distribution as a 'collection of software', Microsoft offers different distributions of Windows for different goals. Microsoft offers ten different Windows distributions for servers, called Windows 2008, and six distributions for desktops, called '7'. If I want, I can still buy the older six distributions of Windows Vista.



Those distributions are aimed at different needs: Microsoft has a software collection for netbooks, another for developing countries, one for enthusiasts and small businesses, one for the family, one distribution with all those features included, and one for large enterprises - which has its own distribution channel. Because of a requirement of the EU, all those have a distribution with or without Windows Media Player. The cheaper versions have different distributions per language.



Looking at corporate backed Linux, the situation is not that different: There are different distributions for different goals. The only difference is, there are more companies to buy from if you want 'enterprise Linux'. When it comes to 'consumer Linux', not so much, Canonical seems about the only choice, now Mandriva seems fading and Linspire disappeared. Most Linux distributions include all languages and a media player, leading to less choices to be made.



"Community" editions

Now, of course, I hear you say: "But what about operating systems without support?". Because the majority of the 200+ Linux distributions don't have support. You don't have to look very far to find 200+ Windows distributions without support, and those are only desktop versions. Some of them are 'real' distributions, with 3d party software and an office suite included.
However, because of Microsofts / Adobe / Oracle licenses, it may be illegal to bundle Acrobat Reader, Flash Player, a Java JRE, the Opera Web Browser and Microsoft Office in one image and distribute the result. If not illegal, there would probably be much more Windows distributions with all kinds of software bundled for different groups of users.



As a result, Windows decision making starts after you installed Windows. "Which torrent client do I install? Which web browser, which media player, which PDF-reader, which scripting environments, which AV and which office suite?" It goes on: which theme, which wallpaper, and what animations do I enable or disable? Even beyond, there's tons of configuration choices to make.



Those are tons of choices, which the average Linux user doesn't have to make. They choose their distribution and they're done. All application / configuration choices are already made for them. So Linux users have to make less choices than Windows users, it seems.



A similarity - and a big difference

But that's not the whole story. You can use Linux in the same way as Windows if you want, and install a bare OS. Debian has such an option, and of course Gentoo is another example. You have to make about the same choices as with Windows, building your own system. Other distributions, like Sabayon in the past, included as many software as possible, so the user only have to choose what to use and not what to install.



So it turns out Linux users can choose how many choices they want to make! Just as Mr. Otter notices: "Choice is good for users that want it or need it."[5] However, Windows users normally buy their PC with Windows pre-installed, so it seems they have less choice. Of course, they forget they have the choice to wipe the pre-installed OS and install their own, and they forget the zillions of choices they have to make before they can actually use their OS to do some real work.



Raison d'être

At this point, one might ask: "Then why do Linux distributions exist in first place? If Windows doesn't need distro's, because users effectively roll their own - just like in the case of bare distributions like Gentoo - then why do Linux users need it?" I have asked myself the very same question lots of times, because at first there seems no point in collecting what people can collect themselves.
However, when looking closer, there are several reasons to have distributions:

  1. Limited capabilities of users
    Because it's too hard for end users to configure and collect the software themselves. This is the historical reason why Linux distributions came into existence. Today, distributions like Gentoo and Slackware show it's less difficult than in the past, but still it's a lot of work and reading, which leads to 2).
  2. Convenience
    It saves some time not having to configure everything yourself, and hunt for software for certain tasks. Moreover, if you don't know what programs can do task X, most pre-chosen distributions provide software for all popular tasks.
  3. Uniform and consistent interface
    Those of you who fiddled with distributions like Gentoo or Slackware, probably know it takes some 'dirty hacks' and 'plumbing' to make software work together, and making sure it looks consistent is hard and takes lots of time. Bundling NextStep, XFCE, Gnome and KDE applications and some which are part of neither all in one system is sure to cause some headaches and an ugly appearance of the "desktop as a whole".



Distributions ought to solve some of these problems. Sure, you can use Linux without using a distribution, and just download and install the software yourself like you'd do with Windows. However, it's not that easy, takes lots of work, and will lead to an inconsistent looking end result. The same is true for Windows, but to a much lesser extent. Installing Flash Player, Silverlight, Java JRE and Acrobat Reader yourself is a bit harder than not having to, it's not that convenient and the end result won't look very consistent. The difference with Linux is, in the Linux desktop world, some people are working to change this. Most of this is done in the FreeDesktop initiative, and people are working on Flash-alternatives.



"Version hell"?

Then there's the 'version' problem, as Mr. Miller notes [4]. But looking closer, with Windows it's just the same. There's XP, Vista, and 7, all with different levels of 'service packs' and patches. The situation is not much different from Android, actually. Software for one version doesn't run on another version lots of times, and people are used to it.



Coping with choice

Now, how do people manage choices? When discussing cereals with Caitlyn, I envisioned a wall of 200 meters long in the supermarket, with every two meters another brand of cornflakes. How to choose?
Turns out reality isn't that "scary": There's a better way to arrange the hundred brands. You just use the rule: "The more popular some brand is, the more displaying room it will have". This is how cloud tags work. People who are afraid of choice, just see the six popular choices which cover the majority of the area. They also see a small area with 94 less popular choices, but ignore it. Savvy users won't mind wading through the 94 choices in the small area. The situation in Linux is about the same: There are about six popular distro's most of the time, and hundred others. If you don't like choosing, only look at the six popular ones and ignore the rest.



Now I have to admit, only looking at Windows will lead to a limited view of the discussion. Point is however, most people don't complain Windows offers too many choices. A Google search for "Windows text editor" turns up seven times more results than a search for "Linux text editor", and for "office suite" the difference is a factor twelve.



Then why all the suddenly, do people complain when Linux offers about the same amount of choices?



Of course, desktop Linux has its flaws. But confusing people with more choices than Windows is not one of them.



  1. Schroeder, Carla. "Editor's Note: Linux and Too Many Choices." Linux Today. QuinStreet Inc., Sep 17 2010. Web. 29 Sep 2010.
  2. Martin, Caitlyn. "Are you intimidated by breakfast cereal." O' Reilly Community. O'Reilly Media Inc., Sep 4 2010. Web. Sep 29 2010.
  3. Otter, Alistair. "Linux: Paradox of choice." MyBroadband.co.za News. MyBroadband. Sep 21 2010. Web. Sep 29 2010..
  4. Miller, Ron. Too Many Flavors Could Spoil the Android Platform Internet Evolution. UBM TechWeb / IBM. Sep 15 2010. Web. Sep 29 2010.
  5. We can turn this around: "Choice is bad for people who don't want or need it". This is true, and is the reason why companies like Apple are successfull. I'd say: "Some people don't want to choose their clothes, so they choose to wear a uniform". Also, this explains the recent creation of the SimPC.

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