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Editor's Note: A Little Coopertition Never Hurt Anyone

The More, the Merrier

July 13, 2000

This is an old question, but one that now bears a new look: are there too many Linux distributions available, and are we merely confusing the vast unwashed sea of non-Linux users by supporting a wide range of distributions that may or may not have a lot to differentiate them?

This is not an idle question. Those from the retail field know that there's such a thing as offering too many choices to users, and that a distinctive design (or a set of designs that fall within some clear parameters) and a notable brand will usually lead to greater consumer awareness.

I bring this up now, as we're in the midst of a rash of new Linux distributions hitting the market:

  • A consortium of 23 Japanese companies (including Sony, Toshiba, NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and TurboLinux Japan) announced a deal to jointly develop an embedded Linux designed for consumer devices, including mobile phones and car-navigation systems. This is by far the biggest Linux news to come down the pike in quite a while: these are industrial giants that have the muscle to take on both Microsoft and the European phone giants (like Ericsson and Nokia), while having the potential at the same time to wipe out emerging embedded-Linux vendors like Lineo.
  • Linux veterans Bruce Perens and Ian Murdock announced that their firm has received seed capital to develop a Linux distribution based on Debian GNU/Linux that will feature advanced, yet-to-be-revealed networking technology.
  • Chilliware appeared from nowhere and announced a new mainstream Linux distribution that will also include a set of applications that will help you more easily manage an Apache Web server and Web-server applications.
  • In each case, the new Linux distribution is designed to either fill a niche or else to push new technology.

    Contrast this, then, to ZDNet's bold assertion recently that only two Linux distributions--Caldera and Red Hat--really matter, and that the rest of the Linux world could disappear and it wouldn't really matter.

    Of course, the folks at ZDNet were merely trolling for readers (as they often do), and I am not going to reward this blatant effort with a link back to the original article. But the assertion is rather silly: I would imagine that if SuSE Linux, Debian GNU/Linux, TurboLinux, Slackware Linux, Storm Linux, Corel Linux, or any of the embedded Linuxes were to disappear, the computing world would be heavily diminished.

    That's why I hold the opinion that the more Linux distributions, the better. While I'm not a rabid free marketer, I do believe that the Linux world has been seriously enhanced by the sheer number of distributions available, and that the unique blend of cooperation and competion in the Linux world--let's call it coopertition (while also pointing out that the term was first used by Ray Noorda when he was at Novell)--has served both users and developers well.

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