Blog Post

What if there was just 1

  • Linux distribution?
  • Linux Desktop environment?
  • Linux email client?
  • Linux web browser?

Myself and Jordan were talking about this yesterday. I am all for more than 1 of each whereas Jordan was just for one. It was interesting to see the arguments on both sides. Today I asked the Chicago GLUG guys on IRC the same question, and it had very similar results as mine and Jordan’s conversation.

So I ask you, is having thousands of distributions bad or good, and why? What about desktop environments?

My arguments all stem from the same topics.

  • more options mean more choices – more choices leads to stiffer competition
  • more options means stiffer competition – stiffer competition means better software

I am interested in hearing what others have to say. If you blog about it, link back here so we can track it. Thanks!

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  • I wrote about this last year.

    “I also agree that it is beneficial for developers to pool their resources by working together on the same project. At the same time, it is beneficial for them to be able to create new applications that meet their needs. This gives users the option to choose the application that they like best.”

    Are there too many Linux applications that do the same thing?

  • anon

    we don’t need one distro what we do need is one way of doing things, package management comes to mind and one UI engine would be nice.

    The ideal situation would be where the user doesn’t care what he or she is running but that a package for linux is what they can use. no fuss with rpm’s deb’s .package’s and many more.

  • excellent point about pooling resources. One thing that I would fear with having just 1 project and the many developers, is a power struggle, or not enough to do which could lead to people leaving the project.

    I think this is an excellent topic with excellent points on both sides, at the same time it is really hard to do a what if. You could look at Microsoft as a pool of developers sharing resources to get an idea of the possibility of outcomes. The same with Apple.

    Also, I think at this point in time, this discussion may be useless as well. With all of the great distributions and the great desktop environments, and the slew of applications, it would be impossible to have just 1 now.

  • anon, I think the 1 distribution idea really stems from the 1 package manager, so maybe I should have added that as well. Right now, like I stated in my last comment, that would be very tough to do. Still a very interesting view.

  • Songwind

    I am firmly in the camp that diversity and competition breeds excellence in software. Another great thing about FOSS is that if group A does something really excellent, their code is available for other groups to study or use. In that sense, the splintering of resources isn’t nearly as severe as it would be in a proprietary environment.

    That said, I think that the number of distros has long since passed the point of usefulness.

  • While I agree that there are more distros than one could shake a stick at, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Many times, the biggest difference between distros is the community surrounding them: some are extremely welcoming, and some might say too welcoming; some are very unwelcoming, very competitive, and very protective of their own; some are extremely concerned with bleeding-edge technology and maximum optimization; some are centered around a corporate environment, demanding high performance and stability.

    Different people work on different distros; if a “RTFM!”-style developer was forced to work on Ubuntu, they would quickly get frustrated and drop out — while I don’t want to deal with such a person, I don’t want to discourage their contribution to FOSS, as long as they do so very far away. Innumerable distros allow developers to work on what they want to focus on, in an environment they’re most comfortable in. Does some work get duplicated? Yes, but less than you’d think. The good things go back upstream.

    Were everyone happy with a specific distro, everyone would be using the same distro. While Ubuntu has gained quite a bit of popularity, there are quite a few people who prefer different distros for their own reasons, and those reasons aren’t without merit.

  • For me many is better then just one, for the same reasons as you said in the first post, it’s mostly just freedom of choice for me, I just like linux because it can be anything and look like anything but stays stable and pretty easy to use (easy to use just most of the time).

    BUT if one distribution would lead to the end of microsoft and many wouldn’t, I would chose to have one, I only hope that it would be a nice on then ๐Ÿ˜‰ ๐Ÿ˜€

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  • Florian

    The probability for any project to do something wrong, whether that would be having too many or to few features, having the wrong one, doing the improperly, going into legal trouble, losing a key member……. is significant. The probability that all projects working on the same/sinilar problem will all fail is negligible. I’d rather have many projects around, on the important things.

    Likewise, while the successful project(s) focus on providing and maintaining their reliable solution, they are not always (rarely?) in the best position to try unusual things, think out of the box, and stumble upon the Next Major Inovation ™, but outsiders can do so.

    I am not going to use 5 web browsers, 3 kernels, and 12 image editors, but I am certainly happy that there are a lot around, that their are in a competitive -yet-collaborative mood, and that great stuff will keep on happening, even if it is not the software that I chose that comes up with it first.

  • I prefer more than one distro to rule them all, but at the same time I don’t like a thousand distros. It’s like “just because we can (create our own) doesn’t mean we should”. Sure we have the freedom to make our own distro and probably have valid reasons as well. But sometimes, we also have to take into account how it will affect the whole Linux ecosystem. Tristan is right. We need to pool our resources as well. Although this doesn’t mean removing the freedom or right to make a distribution, but rather thinking twice whether it will be beneficial in the long run. Strive for balance

    I’m a bit biased and would say that I would like KDE to be the only one. But that would not be good for the ecosystem of FOSS development. I think what we should try to do is to bridge the gap between these Desktop Environments. There are some efforts that try to do that. It’s not perfect, but at least the drive is there.

    As for other apps? The more the merrier! But my final thought on this is that we have to try to strike a balance between the “I want to make this separate app/distro” and the responsibility of working together to make the FOSS world a better and smoother place to live in.

  • Hilton


    IMHO it’s not a question of one’ness, but rather open standards for the desktop, as there are open standards for the internet. We do not talk of one internet browser, but rather an HTML 4.0 open standards compliant internet browser.

    This is why I fear M$ and the subversion of the open document standards, M$ knows it’s about standards and the more they own the better for them.

    Cheers. My 2c worth.

  • Mr Troll

    In an environment with a limited amount of resources dividing them into multiple projects doing similar things is mostly just plain stupid and suicidal. All 99% of the open source projects are doing is re-inventing the same wheel all over and over again. Go to ffs and browse the directory tree for a moment – I do it on the nights that I feel bad anyways and I am just looking for a reason to cry.

    Diversity in open source software really does not lead into “stiffer competition and better software”, but into the nearly complete lack of balls and innovation situation that exists today. The arguments you were given in some zealot irc channel were just plain trash and not based on the experience of what is actually happening or any solid logic whatsoever. There’s no re-use outside of a few libraries, and most of those applications are pretty plain mediocre.

    Ubuntu project could for instance very easily handle that bug #1 and within the next 3 years gain some 50% market share. It wouldn’t even cause serious sweating yet. I once outlined such an initiative just out of the interest. It seems quite plausible actually as a target, and the funny part is that many of the required components already exist (in blueprints, ready software, etc) but no one seems to have any frigging idea of the big picture.

    It is called strategy. Strategy can be commonly defined as something as being activities done by the management on behalf of the owners of a company to maximize its efficiency in its environment in the long run. The same works for the open source as well. You have to make some pretty hurting decisions and even kill good projects to maximize the growth and potential of the even better ones. There are enough resources as in developer resources (at least for what comes for coding, it doesn’t hold true for usability or marketing skills etc at all) to build something absolutely stunning by just shifting the focus a little bit from that futile constant re-inventing of the wheel.

    I am not getting into the list of most important targets. However… One of the things that really counts is the last 5%. The polishness, and the ability to enlight the user with the small details all the way, especially with genuinely high usability. It takes a lot of time and resources to build, for which this “popping up like mushrooms on rain” sort of development of silly applications is absolutely poisonous.

  • Jonas

    I’m all for competition, but with a few caveats.

    1. The number of distros. While choice is good, I think we’ve reached the point when it is getting silly. I think someone made a joke about it somewhere…”We’ve finally reached the point where the number of Linux distros outnumber the number of Linux users.” If there’s an unexploited niche, then a distro to fill that slot may be good but a new distro attempting to become the new perfect desktop distro? Is there really a point to that now, with so many excellent distros attempting just that? Smacks of NIH syndrome to me.

    2. The rpm/deb “mess” for lack of a better term. First, it encourages people to not know Linux as well as they maybe should. I would say that it encourages the user to learn Fedora, Ubuntu, or whatever it is they are using. Put a .deb user infront of .rmp-using distro and he would, at least for a while, be at a loss to how to use the package management tools. Furthermore, it makes it harder to create distro-independent packages. Even further, even if two distros use the same packaging system the, a package for Fedora isn’t necessarily usable on Mandriva for example. Then there’s autopackage…and whatever other forms of package management there is out there.

    Personally, I would like to see .deb and .rpm to merge, and that the merged version would be more distro-agnostic. It would also be nice if the package format made sure there would be no need for separate 32-bit and 64-bit packages.

    3. And finally, the DE. Personally, I prefer KDE but I’m not advocating that everyone use that. That would be silly, since there is nothing like “One size fits all”. I would love a much better integration of Gnome apps into KDE, and the other way around. They install, and can be used. At least most of the time. BUT…the compatibility is sometimes a bit shaky. And the apps can look really out of place when in the “wrong” environment. Some sort of splitting apps into a backend-component and a GUI-component would probably be the best solution here. If the program’s written with that in mind, it would be only be a matter of choosing the correct gui-package which the package-manager could take care of. I.e. if in KDE it chooses the qt-package as a dependency as default.

  • zero-9376

    One is never going to happen, not for any of these, for me choice is good except when it comes to distros.

    There are MANY great distros out there, that said I don’t think that creating a ‘new distro’ whenever someone wants to add a few new features/capabilities/themes is the right way to go, ubuntu studio is an example of what I am talking about.

    I personally think that creating a repo for the packages with a metapackage that depends on all the packages for the added features would be enough. Stick that package on the front page of the website, have it change sources.list if required (if you cant get your packages in main repos) and away you go. If people want the packages at install time, make an ‘addon cd’. Instead of spending energy putting together a distro, just make sure that the packages work with the base system. Obviously there would be a bit more involved here but Im guessing it would be less work than creating yet another linux distro.

    That brings me to another point (segway based on Yast) where consolidation is sorely needed, configuration. There needs to be standardisation here, put the files that configure a peice of software in one place, and provide a GUI for configuring it, even just a simple one for the basics that most users will need to modify, eventually add an advanced section for those who know what they are doing but still dont want to edit configs by hand. Have a single application that these config programs can plug into, call it linux control center instead of kde/gnome control center. I know that this isnt how everyone wants it to be and thats fine, remember choice is good the question is why cant I choose to configure the basics of my software without editing text files, more importantly why cant my mum.

  • Martin Tapankov

    well, in the first place, the sheer diversity of linux distributions is good in the first place. we already know what happens if there is no competition in the OS market (*cough* MS *cough*). I personally think that there is no harm in having so much distributions. I have used Slackware and Ubuntu extensively, and each one of them has something to offer. In fact, if someone forks a distro to create one of its own, then he must have a good reason to do it. And I’m OK with that. The same applies to desktop environments. All of them, GNOME and KDE, and my personal favourite, Enlightenment, has something for everyone. Depends on what your requirements are. If you want something which looks familiar, with a lot of bells and whistles, and endless configuration, KDE is the way to go. If you prefer someting more clean and tidy, GNOME is the thing. If you want something clean, fast, and good-looking, check out Enlightenment.
    Actually, the whole situation in the linux environment (and the FOSS model) represents more or less an evolution of the software. The good ones change and stay popular, the less competitive wither away. And I think that’s the way to develop software. Not to pretend that this piece of code is the best, and you don’t need another one, but instead to wait for it to claim its respect and position. My opinion is, with the development of LSB, the distributions will sooner or later become more compatible, because it’s ridiculous really to have a .deb that runs only on a limited number of distributions, if not only one, despite the large number of Debian based distros out there.

    zero-9376 mentions the current state of linux configurations. IMHO it is not *that* difficult to change several lines of text for the most common tasks, there are a lot of how-tos for these. If you need something more complex, then you have to get dirty. but then again, it is the same with Windows. anyone trying to mess around with Vista networking lately? Don’t. Trust me, I talk from experience. The funny thing is, that I could make it work with a CLI in secs with linux, but the GUI options make me sick, and I cannot find what I need to make it work. No how-tos whatsoever. It’s just a matter of experience, to make it work by clicking around, or by writing a simple command.

  • JW

    The diversity is a benefit and detraction.

    First, it made my personal hunt for a distro difficult. Unlike Micro%^&* or App@# I actually had to learn what the different distros were good for. If there was only one main distro, that would help stand against the other two a bit better; it would be more shrink-wrapped. What’s Linux? It’s this [hands a URL or box to someone]. “Install and enjoy!”

    However, the diversity is good. As was pointed out, the differences keep everyone else sharp. There are also purposes for each distro. I went with Kubuntu because there is more about the “Ubuntu Way” that I like over the others. I have found some caveats versus a few of the others, but I could make that choice AGAIN and move to a new distro.

    To me, the diversity beats out the model The Companies Who Shall Not Be Named use. If we follow that model alone, there is then only “One Ring To Rule Them All” and we are mindless; and option-less. With the diversity we get great options (e.g., running Linux on an older machine but still getting newer software!), great software, and the developers actually pay attention to the bugs, issues, and users. Were this to all congeal into one distribution, I have a feeling we mere users would become faint voices drown out by the din of the corporate machinations (like the damnable call of Wall Street’s quarterly expectations).

  • disz

    I also believe that the development of FOSS as a whole can be seen as a kind of evolution – and for this process to work it is healthy to have a variety of implementations doing the same thing a bit differently.
    The fitness in this context would be the ability of the software to spread and “find” developers in order to evolve. It has to fill a niche so that company x decides to pay someone to work on it. And/or it has to do that in a way to attract independent hackers so that they spend their free time on it.
    And there is also the possibility of genetic recombination. Can you imagine a process like the forking and merging of the compiz/beryl project happening in the closed source world?
    Having multiple implementations keeps the system adaptive.

    On the other side, too much choice does not always make the individual happier:
    This is probably mostly a problem for the beginner and the best solution for the beginner is the “one program for each task”-approach Ubuntu takes.

  • Hype

    True: in some cases they can be a lot of apps; but truely how many survive?

    The most intersting thing for me is how linux, by its open source nature, could provide a “network” of interconnected apps or protocols (think of dbus as a way of communication between them).
    Thats were we could have One application that’s just a “command center” for a bunch of other interconnected apps.

  • Hype

    Mr troll,
    you cant prevent students, or other curious mind to create an application, or a “complicated” script. One can prefer making his own application to understand how it works, not just to “get the job done”
    The worst for me, in your own terms, is that people -like MS- still make you pay the “wheel”, tho this technology should (actually is) be available for everyone for free.

    By the way, you can easily notice that when you consider huge projects like xorg, its almost impossible to really be able to “clone” it and make an equivalent, and actually noone is even trying to do it. Tho its easier to “recreate” a simple app in order to just understand how it works.

  • Certainly both plurality and singularity have their benefits, being choice versus simplicity in the argument’s simplest form. Yet one argument I have read on the web is that plurality and singularity can be combined for the benefits of both.

    To me this means that you appeal to two very different markets – which, in a sense, is definitely the case with Linux. Linux is trying to appeal to a) the expert, the hacker, the control freak; and at the same time b) the human being, the desktop user whom mention of “command line” can set into fits of epilepsy. Traditionally Linux has been geared much more towards a) – providing high levels of control and customizability – indeed, ultimate customizability since all component packages are ideally open source. Now, many people want to give Linux a “desktop-friendly” makeover; but as often argued, the overwhelming choice of available options makes this difficult.

    My preferred option is to preserve that availability – fork away, folks! – but provide a standard “desktop friendly” suite being ONE distribution, ONE browser, ONE email client. That way you have more options available just a click away through Synaptic; but if you just want to get your office work done, you have a standard program available, one that has been refined and prepared especially for standard desktop use.

    Ubuntu has capitalized on this synergy and the only thing remaining is for Ubuntu to gain enough popularity that it is unanimously “the” desktop distro. That resolves the question of “What Linux distro should I use?” posed by someone who would feel overwhelmed; and at the same time, Ubuntu can serve as a “gateway” distro, introducing people to Linux’s advantages, and users who became familiar with Linux thanks to Ubuntu (like me!) can then look to other distributions when they are ready.

    Ubuntu’s approach, in short, nullifies the argument of “Choice or simplicity?” by marrying the two and reaping the benefits of both.

    So my answer is, there never should be just one Linux distro; just one web browser; because Linux by nature has a spectrum of preferences and abilities, and different distros will appear to suit those preferences. However, this can translate to confusion and an overwhelmed feeling ONLY if there is no strong “when-in-doubt” distro to use.

  • Hype

    And actually if you think of it as this:
    Different distros can choose apps thats fits the most with its Desktop environment , including which library to use, or why this app will be chosen and not another (considering speed, ease of use or any other revelant aspect)
    So basically, even if there’s a reasonable number of distro (im’ thinking about Xubuntu Kubutnu Ubuntu), each distro maintainer will “choose for the user”:
    You’ll just have to got to “internet Browser menu”, and you get a browser that fits the DE you’re using. User wouldnt event know what app he’s starting. Same for “media player” etc..

    I think the Desktop environment is more revelant to the user than the distro it-self.
    And i think its distro maintainer’s role to have “the tool that works” configured nicely and set by default to make all simple actions available out of the box, eaisly.
    Personally, thats why i keep using ubuntu.

  • Each Linux distro is essentially what old-school IT would call an integration. That is, the distro starts with a specific goal and integrates the various upstream projects into a coherent assembly to reach that goal. Goals can change and the amount of coherency can be argued, but that’s the basic idea.

    Now imagine that there _was_ a single distro and that the intent was to achieve a mere 50% “market penetration” world-wide. I don’t believe that you could (or should) tell that large a user base “just do it this one way.” So the distro would need to offer several dozen “flavors” to allow for the goals of the various users. Hardly sounds like a _single_ distro anymore, does it?

    Plus in practice it works so much better that developers and distributors are free to organize as they see fit.

    Now the standard of cooperation articulated by the Code of Conduct and seen with efforts like the and ODF are what will alleviate having multiple distributions and multiple apps that handle the same task.


  • erik

    True. I can’t prevent the students etc from doing those horrible things. I wish they kept them to themselves and never published those Frankensteins.

  • I *completely* agree. You sad it perfectly at the end of your article:

    * more options mean more choices – more choices leads to stiffer competition
    * more options means stiffer competition – stiffer competition means better software


  • holy smokes, I think these are the best arguments I have read concerning the topics presented. I was not truly expecting the amount of action on this topic. Thank you everyone, and hopefully we can get some more comments from people who would rather see one of everything. There were a couple leaning towards the “one’ness” a little bit on a collaborative scale.

  • erik

    Nixternal, as you might have noticed: Some tried giving also reasoning WHY things are like they are. Some brainwashed clueless zealots just yelled things like

    “I *completely* agree. You sad it perfectly at the end of your article:
    * more options mean more choices – more choices leads to stiffer competition
    * more options means stiffer competition – stiffer competition means better software

    without anything to base their views on. Please re-read all the comments and take that into account while pondering this matter over – in case you already did not do that. (Feel free to also email at least me if you got any questions.)

  • @erik: oh, I have read all of the comments and taken them all into account. You know, I usually enjoy your commentary as you are obviously very well knowledged, however I do not like the fact you blatently disrespect people in your comments. I can obviously defend Aaron by stating he is not a “brainwashed clueless zealot”.

    However, you stated it best, and that is I would like to have the basis of their views as well. My previous comment was cut short as I had to get out and prepare the swimming pool for the winter months ahead. Although, right now I wish I would have waited another week or so, because today is beautiful swimming weather.

  • @erik: I can’t agree with someone on their post?

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  • Quote:

    more options mean more choices – more choices leads to stiffer competition

  • Jonas

    Mr Troll, that outline you mentioned…have you posted that somewhere? Including what the required components are in your view? I for one would be very interested in reading it.

  • Richard,

    Does this mean you changed your stance on unifying the Ubuntu brand? ๐Ÿ˜‰


  • Nope, as it stands, I still am not for the unification. If you think about it, making everything “Ubuntu” with this or that, is really just making 1 ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Hilton


    Just curious. Can somebody point me in the direction of the Linux Desktop standards ? I am looking for usability (where buttons go etc..) and functionality (how to setup email sending) standards ?


  • Dan

    I think this question is phrased wrong, given what Linux is. “Should” implies a decision. Linux isn’t one thing that one person is in charge of. Thus, nobody can make the decision of whether to have one or multiple of these things. The question is not “should it happen”, but “will it happen”.

    To me, the decision involved was to make things free and open, and that allows for power for people to choose. That’s all that matters to me. If everybody likes Gnome, it will follow that there will be only Gnome. If people like Gnome and KDE, it will follow that there will be Gnome and KDE.

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