Monday, April 1, 2013

Cookie Cutter Distros Don't Cut It

by Dietrich Schmitz

There's no question that Richard Stallman's great vision caused an explosion of open source wealth and sharing around the world.

We see the by-product of his genius.  The ongoing cultivation of collaborative community development continues unabated.  It's all good.  Proponents appreciate having choice and so do I.

But when one surveys the landscape and takes a tour of and comprehends how many individual Distros there are, it begins to seem like quite possibly something else is going on.

The Distrowatch rankings is a veritable weather barometer of trending Distros both on the rise and fall. It is watched like a stock market ticker tape to divine what is happening daily, weekly, monthly in the Linux World.

But is there a flip side to having so many Distros from which to choose?

What effect does one more spin variant of Debian or Ubuntu have?

Does having more 'me too' cookie cutter Distros help the ecosystem or might they dilute the strength of those that precede them causing confusion and less innovation?

I have my concerns that while differentiation is potentially good, copy cat Distros may be doing a general disservice.

What are your thoughts?

-- Dietrich
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  1. A difficult one. Those that are little more than copies with a few tweaks are possibly of little extra value. I say possibly. On the other hand, some go on to become steadily more independent and make an ever-increasing contribution. A prime example is Mint, now the established holder of slot number one on Distrowatch. (This comment is coming to you via Mint 14.)
    In general, I see some tendency to move upstream, which is, of course, much more ambitious and requires a lot of hard work, but is a greater contribution to the Linux scene. I watch with interest!

  2. I personally think the number of desktop oriented distros designed to be "easy" and for the "general user" leads to confusion and discourages some users - they do feel overwhelmed and even when they pick one others using desktop Linux are getting a somewhat different experience and so it makes it harder for them to help each other.

    With that said, such challenges go with the territory of open source. While I might pick some distros I would want to see "culled" it is not *my* choice nor yours... nor should it be. And with some of those distros they grow and end up contributing ideas and great value to the overall ecosystem, such as Ubuntu did and then Mint based on Ubuntu. Others contribute little - but that is just the nature of the beast. We can deem it good or bad but it *is* and I would not want to have it any other way. That is what choice and real freedom are about - people get to do things which I do not agree with as being a good idea. Good for them - I absolutely support their right to do so (in terms of making new distros and the like).

    With Stallman, I greatly admire the GPL and his work on it and other things, but overall I think he is now doing more harm to open source advocacy than good. I tend to side more with Linus Torvalds who said "There are 'extremists' in the free software world, but that's one major reason why I don't call what I do 'free software' any more. I don't want to be associated with the people for whom it's about exclusion and hatred."

    I think Linux is right about Stallman and the "Free" movement having gone to extremism and a focus on "exclusion and hatred". I would like to see more inclusion and less focus on an ideology which is in many ways anti-freedom but refers to itself as pushing what is "Free". Additionally, while few people know of Stallman's comments about uncensored porn in schools and other rather repulsive ideas he has shared on his own site, if this was made more public and tied to the open source world it could have huge detrimental affects in terms of how the open source ecosystem is seen. Stallman, in my view, has become more of a detriment and a risk to the open source movement than he is a benefit to.

    Still, I think he has a right to say and do what he wishes... I just wish more people in the open source community would stop, think, and learn more about what Stallman is really pushing. No reasonable person can really back him at this point.

  3. Mr Schmitz

    Having read through your contributions to this site, I find that I am a little confused about your understanding of the subjects you've covered.

    Firstly, every article you've written seems to point out some real or perceived deficiencies in the Linux ecosystem. That's great by the way. The point of "open" development (i prefer the word FREE as it's less ambiguous) is to allow accountability which leads to discussion and ultimately change for the better. Yet your stance seems to reflect a very common misunderstanding about the nature of FREE software development. That is: The development of FREE software should be done more like a corporation would do it. Which is exactly the opposite to the natural progression of FREE software.

    Specifically, this article is a shining example of a misunderstanding. You suggest the very thing that drives FOSS development "cookie cutter distros" (that is, random people creating distros out of a desire to change something for the better, no matter how small the problem is, or how many people want it to be solved) might be a "problem".

    To highlight my point, consider this: each and every person who downloaded and applied the rooting patch for IOS 6 wanted to change their device to suit their needs. Not only that, but imagine how many people would like to change IOS6 to better suit their needs, but either don't know they could, or, don't have the technical expertise. We are talking huge amounts of people!

    So I would suggest that FOSS software not only represents the real world desires of a MASSIVE amount of people, but actually provides a realistic way to realise those desires in everyone's life. If you want a slightly altered version of IOS 6 - NO PROBLEM, here you go, its called ILOVEYOU-OS6.

    Brining into question the natural diversity of FOSS development is like questioning the existence of personality.

    Unfortunately though, there are always those people who do not understand the desire to be slightly different. the types of people that look at their neighbour's car and say to themselves, "what an idiot, they bought a Lexus, don't they know BMW is better"

    Don't be one of those people. They are closed minded and ultimately a hindrance to human progression. If we limit diversity, we limit progression, they are one and the same thing.

  4. You score a 10 for extreme politeness and I commend your British manners.
    I leave a lot out of what I write--those gaps which you don't know about me or my thinking may be revealed over time.

    Necessarily or unavoidably, that leaves the reader, correctly or otherwise, to make inferences and draw conclusions which are not necessarily correct

    Am I edgy? Absolutely. That is how I put forth ideas and challenge the status quo. I am testing all previously held assumptions and find many simply don't hold true.

    If you take my 'schtick' with a grain of salt you will eventually see that you and I really are, to a large extent, on the same page.

    For now, accept that I will bob and weave, jab and right upper-cut as needed to elicit a reaction from my readership, some of whom tend to be used to a regular diet of pablum.

  5. Then I'll look forward to your contributions, It'll definitely bring
    out the best in people wanting to clarify the FOSS ecosystem ;)

  6. "Cookie cutter" distros have their function. They are a constant reminder that innovation is more than just changing the defaults values and repackaging the parent distro. One can say that Fedora and CentOS are copy-cats of Red Hat as much as Ubuntu is a copy-cat of Debian.

    But if you watch closely there are different priorities between the parent distros and the copy-cats sometimes. They address different problems and appeal to different audiences, they have different release cycles etc etc.

    You can almost think of these "cookie cutter" distros as different brands of whole wheat bread in the supermarket. Essentially they are all "whole wheat bread" just made by Wonder-bread and Demsters and Harvest Hill and other bakeries. People always have favourite brands.

    Same thing with GNU/Linux Distros. Some like Ubuntu because they like the fast pace the fancy smancy interfaces and icons and all the latest and greatest and some like Debian because it's rock solid and you have to try lots to break it. Likewise some like Fedora and CentOS to RHEL, some like RHEL's support and release cycles and so on and so forth.

    Proponents of the "Linux is too Fragmented" argument are in favour of only a few major linux distros (if any more than just one). They think that Linux NEEDS to go head to head with Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X for OS World Domination... the fragmentation shows only one thing. People only care how to best do their jobs. If something doesn't fit they have the freedom to change the whole OS if they need to.

    What's more innovative than this? You don't like the Linux kernel on Debian?
    Use the kFreeBSD kernel. You think GCC creates unoptimized binaries for your apps? go with LLVM/Clang and speed things up. You don't like Unity? change it up with E17.

    Productivity is not a cookie-cutter notion. There are more than one ways to skin a cat. GNU/Linux gives people that option. My opinion? Let people create their own way of doing things.

  7. Here's one for you to ponder, Dietrich. Should Andrew Wyeth have created the Fedora spinoff Fuduntu? Shouldn't Andrew have just contributed to the upstream Fedora to incorporate his changes into the parent? Or does Andrew's derivative creation bring added value not found in Fedora?

    In other words, what makes a distro a "cookie cutter" distro?

  8. There way too many flavors of Linux. Personally I use Debian. The Ubuntu environment is so crowded, there's no way that all those 'me too' distros can survive. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this issue, since I've always wondered how long this could go on..