Why are there so many Linux distros?

10th Feb 2011 | 09:31

Why are there so many Linux distros?

A distribution is just the tip of an iceberg in a sea of alternatives

There are two great questions in life that people struggle to answer. The first is why we're here, and the second is why there are so many different Linux distributions.

A Linux distribution, for the uninitiated, is the stack of software, configuration tools and desktop environments, all bound to the Linux kernel, that go together to make the entire operating system, which most of us call Linux.

Everything from the colour scheme, the character set, the update frequency and a contributor's nationality can be used to differentiate one distribution from another. As a result, there are hundreds. As I write this, there are 317 being followed by www.distrowatch.com, for example, but there's no real reason why so many exist, and why so many thrive.

What's worse, there's no consistent past or future for those that do enjoy success. The difficulty is that a distribution is just the tip of a complex and convoluted iceberg, floating in a sea of alternatives. It's the storm caused by the butterfly.

Contributing factors

There are an infinite number of contributing factors that lead to any single distribution's development and popularity. Fedora, for example, strives for freedom and transparency, while at the same time acting as a test bed for the incredibly profitable Red Hat Enterprise distribution. It has gravitas.

Ubuntu, on the other hand, is a commercially sponsored endeavour that's designed to bring a shiny, corporate sheen to the Linux desktop. It's the head of the new wave.

Distributions with a community focus, such as Debian, Slackware or Gentoo, scratch their contributors' various itches in the hope that they're scratching yours too.

Then there are the autocracies – the likes of PCLinuxOS and Crunchbang. They're the result of one person's vision, and their popularity is a result of others appreciating and sharing many of the same ideas as the author.

Some Linux distributions trump these stories for survival with an ongoing drama that seems to have more in common with a script from a soap opera than a SOAP script for Opera, and the current distro du jour, OpenSUSE, is no exception. This is a community distribution developed by Novell in the hope that it will save the company's fortunes when its NetWare finally succumbs to irrelevance.

Innovation and drama

Novell and its Linux distribution have brought innovation and drama in equal measure to the world of free software. You could trade its online distribution builder for its patent cooperation scheme, for example, or its significant contributions to OpenOffice.org for the voucher trade-off it ran with Microsoft.

However, over the last few weeks, Novell played out its last act as Linux vendor when it finally acquiesced to a take-over deal from a private equity firm called Attachmate. But there's more to this story than venture capitalists taking over one of the biggest and most popular Linux distributions.

As an aside to the main deal, Novell announced that it has also agreed to transfer certain intellectual property assets to a company calling itself CPTN Holdings LLC – a consortium of technology companies it admits is being organised by Microsoft Corporation.

We don't know any of the details, but Novell still owns a lot of Unix-related intellectual property, and with resurgence of Unix technologies within Apple's OS X, its iOS mobile platform and the various places you find Linux, grabbing control of this property could put Microsoft in a very powerful bargaining position for the future. It's spending $450 million on this, so it's going to be more than a speculative investment.

Novell makes good money from its old customers, and its Linux technology is still a credible business proposition, but the new ownership of its intellectual property is cause for concern for the future of its Linux investment, and for potential users of its open source software.

This puts the viability of SUSE in doubt, and makes alternatives like Red Hat more attractive. Removing the openness of free software removes half its advantage, but these fluctuations in strength aren't new, and while OpenSUSE might not escape its current situation, there will be other projects that rise and fall in the struggle to dominate the Linux market.

This is part of the reason why there are so many distributions. They're like background radiation left by the Big Bang, only in this case, the bang was Linus Torvalds posting on a newsgroup in 1991: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby, won't be big and professional like GNU)." From then on, the Linux universe expanded.

The rest is down to history. And butterflies.

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First published in PC Plus Issue 304

Liked this? Then check out The trouble with Linux: there's too much choice

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