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.