Windows users face as many choices as Linux users
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.
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.
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." 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.
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.
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.
Then there's the 'version' problem, as Mr. Miller notes . 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?
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.
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