Why So Many Linux Distributions?

There are literally hundreds of different flavors of Linux, for servers, for desktops, for mobile devices. A frequent line of questions among desktop computer users being introduced to Linux is,

Why are there so many to choose from? What are the differences? Wouldn’t it be better to have just two or three to choose from to make it easier?

This posting is an attempt at answering those questions as briefly as possible and in “plain English” for those of us who aren’t technically inclined.

What are the differences between Linux distributions?

  • Many Linux distros are built for “niche” markets. They may not use the same kernel or include the same drivers. Some distros are a good fit for older, modest hardware (Lubuntu, Xubuntu, Crunchbang, AntiX, etc) and some at new, high-end machines. Some distros are aimed at little kids, some at high school kids and college kids, some for “casual users,” some for geeks and some for technophobes. Some for gamers, some for musicians, etc. Some for business and some for home computers and laptops or netbooks. Different distros fit different users. Choose a distro according to your particular needs.
  • There are differences in package management, even among the popular “one size fits all” distros like Ubuntu, Mint, PCLinuxOS, OpenSUSE, Fedora, etc). These differences matter because they try to resolve software dependencies with varying degrees of success and completeness. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s package management.
  • There are differences in software repositories from one distro to another, depending on their “niche” and/or a parent distro. For home desktop users this is a really big deal. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing its repositories.
  • There are differences in support options, like paid support services for server and desktop (Canonical, Red Hat, and SUSE offer these) and free community support for users (a distro’s Wiki, forums, community). Choose a distro and you’re also choosing one of these options, and some are just better than others.
  • There are different software tools that developers choose for their distro, from it’s boot manager (Lilo, Grub legacy, Grub 2) to it’s desktop. Many are unique to a single distro, like Ubuntu’s Software Center and Linux Mint’s Mint Updater. Choose a distro and you’re also choosing it’s tool set.

Why so many to choose from?

Partially answered in “niche markets” above, a lot of the reason comes from combinations of all the factors above.

Another reason has to do with the GNU license that Linux is released under. Anyone is free to copy, modify, and distribute Linux as they see fit. There are dozens of “distrolets,” as I call them, created only so that some narcissistic nerd can call himself a “Linux developer.” Take any existing distro and change the wallpaper and branding a little bit and bingo – a new “distro” is born. It’s not illegal, even though it’s tasteless and tacky. While the GNU license is wonderful because it facilitates a worldwide community of contributors to make Linux awesome, it also has the unintended consequence of enabling some people to “plagiarize” the work of others and release it under their own brand. There’s no such thing as plagiarism in Linux, other than names, logos, artwork, and that sort of thing, because of the GNU license that – when used for nobler purposes – benefits the entire Linux community and all Linux end-users.

The GNU license is also the reason Linux users don’t need a “certificate of authenticity” or have to agree to the terms of an “End User License Agreement.” It makes some novice Linux users uneasy, and quite a few have heard that Linux is “pirated” software and therefore illegal or unsafe. My goodness, nothing could be farther from true. The GNU license means that you actually own the software on your computer and are free to copy it, change it, reverse-engineer it, twist, pull, fold, spindle, and mutilate it to your heart’s content. But if you really think you need a license, here. Take mine, print it out, and stick it on your computer case so you’ll feel better:

xubuntu certificate
xubuntu certificate

Feel better?

Why not just a few to make choosing easier?

Under the GNU license it just isn’t possible. But that’s actually a very good thing, not at all negative in any sense even though it may be frustrating to newcomers to Linux. But you can narrow down your choices by knowing ahead of time what you want to use your computer for, what your computer can handle, whether the high-end fancy eye-candy and deluxe applications or if you need a “lightweight” operating system with lightweight applications that conserve RAM and processing power. And your own talents and limitations when it comes to “tech stuff.” Got mad tech skilz talents and want to let your inner geek out to play and do some real damage? Try Arch Linux, or Gentoo, or Linux From Scratch. Got no such talents and the mere thought of tinkering with your computer’s operating system terrifies you? Try PCLinuxOS, Simply Mepis, Ubuntu, or any of dozens of Ubuntu derivatives like Linux Mint, Zorin, or Easy Peasy. Got an old computer like mine? Xubuntu is my favorite for older hardware owned by casual and slightly technophobic users like me.

Hopefully this little posting has made choosing a Linux flavor a little easier, at least by informing you of what the differences are and what to consider in making your choice.


5 thoughts on “Why So Many Linux Distributions?

  1. Okay you had me at the *not actually required on the label. Also I love the point that you made that we actually own the OS as opposed to renting it from Microsquash.


  2. This feedback from Martin Ieding, posted to Ubuntu Discourse, is very enlightening. Thanks, Martin!

    Your article sums it up pretty well. I think the main thing is obvious when you look at the conflict points of the distributions:

    Mir / Wayland: Ubuntu is adopting Mir instead of Wayland since that lets them port their Unity shell onto mobile phones. All other windows managers (say KWin) are moving towards Wayland since that seems to be the emerging community standard. This sets regular Ubuntu apart from every other distribution.

    Upstart / systemd: SysV is old and needs to be replaced. Canonical created Upstart and will stick with it. Others have created systemd which uses even more aggressive parallel processing for faster startup times. However, it seems that it is taking over more and more functionality from other components. Also, it works only with the Linux kernel. Therefore, Debian with its support for other Kernels, cannot adopt systemd right away. If they choose Upstart, they are (with Ubuntu) the only ones using it.

    deb / RPM: You already wrote about it. RPM is now Linux Standard Base certified, but Debian will still stick to its own format. Arch Linux has its own format. Debian seems to be easier to get the dependencies set right, but I have not much experience with RPM.

    Level oder user friendly extra layers: Arch Linux says that the simplest way is to remove all helpers and just have the plain system at hand. You got your config files and that is it. No GUI admin tools that you have to understand additionally to the config files. That makes the system very easy and raw. Other distributions, and I feel especially Ubuntu, wants it to be easy from a new user perspecitve, now from a technical perspective. Therefore, they do configuration differently (way less options in the installer).

    Release cycle. Ubuntu has 6 Months (or two years for LTS), openSUSE has 8 months, Debian has two years (I think). Arch Linux has rolling release. This might be an issue as well. I become more conservative over time, but I still need a recent LaTeX distribution.

    This is why I do not use Arch Linux (too much work to do the easy things). Nor do I use Debian Stable (since LaTeX is too old). openSUSE has not enough packages in its main Repository. I did not try Fedora yet.

    Please visit http://discourse.ubuntu.com to join the discussion!


  3. So I ran across a reference to this post (and the neat sticker) while searching for something completely unrelated… It’s really awesome, but I’d like to make one using fake-MS letters/numbers. A while back, found a list of purported Microsoft keys and made it into a set for my password generator (see pwgen.us) – they look like AAJQT-KJX9N-F9F2Y-BD6WJ-9NQH9 (which of course has been randomly generated but will look eminently familiar to Windows users. hehe)

    Is there any way I could either get 1) your sticker source file, 2) a ‘blank’ one to add/edit myself, or 3) if it’s easy for you, a custom one using a key like that one above? First two are preferred just because I want to print some up – with different keys – to stick on friends and family computers as I convert them. hehehe. Might as well make it look ‘legit’ and have unique keys, right? 😀

    If none of this is convenient, my apologies for disturbing you — but at least I can say your sticker looks awesome, and I adore the idea. 🙂


    1. What are you “converting?” Windows computers to a free OS? If you’re hoping to create phoney Windows stickers, I would advise against it.

      But you can create stickers for any GNU/Linux system using Gimp. I didn’t create that one at all, but found it in a Google search of images related to Xubuntu, my favorite Linux distro. Here is one for Ubuntu and another one for Debian. A generic one for GNU/Linux is found here: .


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