LinuxUser Column 11

Is the Linux world suffocating it’s potential success through the plethora of distributions being made available? I certainly think so. Keeping things simple is not just a recurrently fashionable buzz-phrase; it’s a fundamental truth.

Companies such as Sony and Dell are not performing as well as they could be partly due to the complexity of their product range. When a consumer has to decide between 23 variants of a product which have numeric names (buy the amazing new TX3260i today!) they are likely to turn to a simpler competitor.

Before Apple made any real competitive headway note that Steve Jobs radically simplified the Apple product line so that there was a laptop for consumers and a laptop for professionals. Each of these had only three configurations available and the same applied to desktops. So the sales process became much simpler: Firstly convince consumer that they should get a Mac (the tough part in those days), Secondly ask if they were using it as a pro or at home. Thirdly laptop or desktop. Done. There’s a few more options, like screen sizes, available these days but the essential product simplicity remains roughly the same. In contrast visiting HP for a home office laptop I was offered three different brands – HP Pavilion, Compaq Presario or HP Special Edition. There were then 9 Pavilion laptops alone to pick from – where to begin?

So now shift your thoughts to the poor befuddled PC user, achingly tired of the sorrows Windows has brought upon his life. Moaning that he could take trojans, viruses and crashes no more he sits down to find himself a copy of Linux to install. But which one? There’s Red Hat, SuSe, Mandriva, Ubunto, Knoppix, Debian, Slackware, Gentoo oh good grief. Distrowatch.com has 359 Linux and BSD distributions in its database and that’s not all of them – there’s even a “Best Debian Derivative Distribution Award” which Ubuntu recently won.

The phrase “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” springs to mind. Creating and supporting a distribution should be seen as something like entering a very serious, long term relationship. Even when you don’t feel like it you’ll have to keep supporting the distribution, giving it your love and attention. That’s because unless it’s totally rubbish you’ll have users rather unhelpfully using the distro and finding bugs.

The problem is that politically nobody can march in and shout “STOP – THIS IS SILLY” but that’s what they need to do. Not even Richard Stallman can because I don’t think many people would listen and he’d refuse to impinge on their freedoms. Yet this exuberance of distribution creation is delivering an abundance which impacts negatively on consumer Linux adoption.

I imagine that the average IT manager is more than capable of making an informed decision on which flavour of Linux to use for which purpose if they put their mind to a little research (no, the answer isn’t IBM this time). But for the home user or teacher with the thankless task of running the school PCs – they haven’t got a chance!

For anything to happen in our wonderful freewheeling community it’s going to have to be a ground-up grassroots exercise in merging and eliminating distributions. I doubt we’ll ever get down to one but we need to create simplicity for Linux’s sake. All that’s happening at the moment is tinkerer programmers are creating experimental distros and corporations are investing in their distros to try and maintain strategic advantage in the marketplace. The underlying assumption if that if the distro is slick enough and the marketing strong enough the other distros will be beaten into the ground. However the result is more and more distros SHOUTING ABOUT HOW GREAT THEY ARE! And for the outsider trying to get into Linux all they see is noise. Ugh.

Perhaps I’m worrying needlessly. Many of those who’ve dived headlong into creating a Linux distro may well get bored and give up leaving their distros to drift like ghost ships. But I think that it may well be too late by then – for a seriously big growth in consumer Linux adoption (and no not embedded – I know it’s everywhere but I’m talking desktop here) we need action now. The great and the good like Maddog and Bruce Perens need to twist some arms and say encouraging things to help people swallow their pride and realise that by making it easier to pick Linux the market will grow for everyone who’s involved with Linux.

Apple’s simplification set the stage for a massive growth in their business. This has created a rising tide which has lifted all those involved in Apple software and accessories. We know Linux is a great product and the more people who use it the more potential customers we’ll have but we need to get it into their hands first. So let’s simplify the distributions and focus on adoption. No distribution will be perfect, no product ever is, it just needs to be good enough. This is very, very difficult for those with geek tendencies to accept. But accept it they must – good enough, repeat slowly five times. Now let’s get busy and squash some distros.

This column first appeared in the excellent LinuxUser magazine, available internationally. For more information visit http://www.linuxuser.co.uk

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