Choice: The system of Checks and Balances in Linux

Posted by garymax on Nov 4, 2007 12:36 AM EDT
LXer Linux News; By Gary Maxwell
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In a recent article on, Kevin Carmony, former CEO of Linspire, reported that he has switched to Ubuntu. In the same article he also said that as Linux becomes more mainstream there would be a consolidation of Linux on the desktop. By this, I presume he meant that only a few of the big Linux distributors would be vying for the desktop space through OEM deals. This makes a lot of sense as consumers would be confused by the offering of literally hundreds of distros on various models of computers. But it also raises questions about what consolidation would mean to Linux in the future.

[An excellent article submitted to LXer by one of our readers - Scott]

For many years Linux has flourished as distros big and small have dotted the landscape. That's the beauty of Linux. Each distro is created to either meet a need, solve a problem or scratch a developer's itch. Either way, most distros roll merrily along with their release schedules without ne' er a worry.

For many distros the developmental overhead is relatively small. They do not need to make millions of dollars in order to remain solvent. In fact, some distros are a voluntary enterprise choosing to release a product to the community without remuneration of any kind. But some of the bigger, more popular distros such as Ubuntu, Red Hat, and SuSE are products of commercial companies—companies that need a lot more than gratitude to stay in business.

Of the three just mentioned, two of them have to please shareholders. And all three have more developmental overhead than, let's say, Slackware—a fine one-man distro from “The Man” Patrick Volkerding (Yes, I am a Slacker). Now, if in the future there were to be a consolidation of Linux on the desktop, not only would this mean less choice for the consumer, but with a larger overhead, there is more of a chance that corporate issues could impede the progress of these bigger distributions.

For instance, Novell just announced that it's cutting costs by laying off 250 employees and will be outsourcing some of the engineering to India. Will this affect SuSE in any way? Probably not. At least not in the near term. Is this a sign that Novell is in trouble? Of course not. But any time a big company announces lay offs, cut backs or restructuring of any kind, people's perception of the company is affected. It's just human nature. And this could, in turn, affect consumer's perception of the brand, and ultimately, their decision to purchase a computer with Linux pre-installed.

Consider Ubuntu. My experience with it is mixed. Although this very popular distro gets a lot of things right, the bugs, regression, and memory-hogging eye candy (on a 6-month cycle no less) cause a variety of user experiences—not all of them pleasant. Yes, it has a lot of developers but even with scores of developers, there are still way too many bugs for a distribution that is as popular as this. Could it be that Ubuntu has grown too large for its own good? Are decisions being made for the user instead of by the user? As a Linux company grows, it loses some of the closeness that a smaller distro has with its constituency. Choices are not only made for the benefit of the user, they have to also be made for the benefit of the company (think overhead, investors, etc)

Corporate issues may also raise other concerns: will the company make enough from the sale of Linux to cover their costs/overhead? (Put another way, will the company be supporting my business server well into the future?) Are corporate cutbacks and labor outsourcing a sign of poor financial health or is it a simple restructure? How about business agreements with companies that others believe are a threat to Linux in general? Does the company listen to its users? These are real issues that the bigger distributions are likely to face—and will have to answer to—as they present their brand of Linux to the world.

By comparison, small one-man distros or distros with a small to medium sized developer base have the best of both worlds. They lack the large overhead of the big boys and corporate politics is nonexistent; yet, they have enough developer power to produce highly polished distributions (distros like Slackware, Puppy Linux, Mepis, and Vector come to mind, here). Granted, they may not have the support infrastructure but then again, these distros usually appeal to a user base a) that knows what they want, b) knows how to configure their machine, and c) whose needs are met by the distribution. These smaller distros needn't worry about pleasing shareholders, corporate suits, or OEMs. And as long as their low overhead is met, along with the needs of their user base, the distro will continue to be released. And supported.

What am I getting at here? Just that Linux has and always will be about choice. And although it is probably good to keep choice to a minimum when it comes to OEM deals (so as not to confuse the unwashed masses), it must be remembered that Linux can never consolidate to a point where only a few distros exist. Not only is it impossible given the nature of Linux and the needs of its users, but even if it did happen, corporate issues/politics could eventually muddy the development process and possibly the public perception of Linux in general. Smaller distros not only exist for the benefit of their user base; they exist as a system of checks and balances to the big boys and will keep the whole entire Linux ecosystem alive and moving well into the future.

Long live small to medium sized distros. Long live choice.

» Read more about: Story Type: Editorial; Groups: Community, Linux

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