Open Ballot: is Graham Morrison wrong?


Our kid Graham has had a rough time of it on the internet recently. His article for our sister site TechRadar, "The trouble with Linux: there's too much choice", sparked off a few flamewars. Most notably, Caitlyn Martin over on the O'Reilly blog delivered a no-minced-words response: "Are you intimidated by breakfast cereal?".

We want to know what you think, for the podcast we're about to record. Read both sides of the argument and let us know. Is Graham on the right track, and the vast range of options in the Linux world is confusing for newcomers? Or is he wrong, and having many choices of distros and packaging systems is like having choices of breakfast cereals? Post your thoughts below - and use a name other than Anonymous Penguin if you want to sound like an awesome person in our podcast.

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Your comments

Choices abound

Choice can be a good thing or a bad thing, it goes both ways. When Microsoft released Vista, they had around 6 or so (don't really remember) versions for users to choose from. That frustrated many people because they didn't know what they needed and the person selling it wasn't sure what the user really needed, so in the end they ended up with the wrong version.

Linux choice is astounding. With Distrowatch listing all available versions of Linux, that is quite overwhelming. Choice is a very good thing, but when a Sanskrit Ubuntu is released instead of being another Ubuntu version, its counted a whole new version of Linux.

Instead of making each individual version of Ubuntu count as a single different version of Linux, make it count as only Ubuntu with multiple desktops. The overwhelming number of Linux's (linuxes, linuxi, ???) is part of the stumbling block in widespread adoption, but also makes it one of the great things about the OS. An individual user, given time can find the Distro that is right for Him/Her.

Graham is close but wrong

The real problem with Linux is that the big distros don't have the courage of their convictions

Another perspective?

One thing I never hear is that, perhaps, just maybe, Linux as a whole SHOULDN't be mainstream. In terms of an analogy, perhaps Linux already succeeds as a specialist tool. Lots of people use knives, but no one would say that everyone needs and should use a surgeon's kit or a filet knife when making a pasta sauce. Breakfast cereal is overly simplistic, but so is Graham's argument. Some tools are made for a certain job, excel at it, and don't work as well elsewhere. The world is so rarely as it should be.

But what's the market share?

Personally, I like choice, but I suspect that many of us are just making the same choices, so that there are a few key players in each category . . . and then a load of also-rans for the adventurous, curious and just damn awkward. So, deb and rpm probably account for about 90% of software packages actually in use on Linux; *buntu, Fedora, Suse, Debian and possibly Mandriva probably account for the vast bulk of desktop Linux use; OpenOffice and Gnome Office probably account for the vast bulk of office software in use on Linux, etc. So, there's a reasonably common core and a wide, varied periphery.

Plus 1 for me...

Sorry, but I'm in the GM was wrong camp. Anonymous Penguin (not verified) - October 4, 2010 @ 5:15pm is pretty close to how I feel on the matter.


Of course there's too much Linux choice. All you need is Red Hat/Fedora, which is the distribution I've been using since 1994. Pity other people can't see this, and just think and do as I do. Come to think of it, I have this problem in many other areas of my life.

well yes, but...

I'm not sure it's reasonable to compare software or distros to breakfast cereals. Most people already inherently know how to operate a spoon. The mechanics involved in bringing granola to one’s mouth happen automatically. Most people do not inherently understand what an RPM is, or whether Mono is at the root of OS software selection decisions.

Once again, I am concerned that the discussion we’re having will be limited to people who know what grep is. Choice in computing is fantastic, of course, but not to my Mum. Perhaps Graham’s article should have been titled, "The trouble with Linux: too much choice creates difficult collective marketing."


Interesting as these kind of debates are - I ask myself are they relevant?
Nokia and others might have asked in the beginning if what Apple did was removing choice from the mobile phone users. Well now they are not asking but trying to catch up.
Humans are by default quite lazy - it is in our nature - we follow OSPF by default. The same comes with computers and technology - how many times do we say RTFM, however we never seem to ask why do we need to say RTFM. With Apple users say you do not need the manual as it is sooo intuitive.
I have never used Apple myself, I read manuals and I dabble with computers a bit (as I like it) however most people don't and hence what do they choose.
I hope they will choose Linux and that they will choose what suits them, just like I do. However like with all things first impressions make a lasting impression. So if the choices shown to them are confusing and not to their liking are the likely to continue or give up? History has shown that they give up and choose the OSPF method...
So Graham has some points as does Caitlyn arguing about it does not seem to get us anywhere though.
Driving FOSS forward we need to listen to users and present simplicity while allowing for choice. I could not live without the choice anymore. I am often so confused when I use windows now adays and when I realize that the things I take for granted are things I have to pay for if I am to use in Windows. I can do more at home on Linux than I now can on my office computer and I work for a large corporation. That is diversity and something to celebrate and build on not argue about.

Real Life Relfections

how many of us actually eat more than 1 (or maybe 2) types of cereal? yes, there are a lot of choices (for linux or cereal). However, once one picks a flavor, it rarely changes. I think what helps us in choosing a cereal are the pictures (and the nutritional info panel) on the boxes (taste really comes after the cereal is bought) So, with linux "flavors" I suggest that the "boxes" could be a bit more descriptive. There are so many flavors of linux trying to do it all. Maybe each distro could promote the focus and strengths of their product, so that the consumer can make the best choice. oh, and 1 last thing no anti-competitor distro stuff. that's not in the spirit of linux.

mostly not

Linux distros agree on a common kernel. It would be nice to have that expanded. It would not be unreasonable to have a standard file system format, configuration utilities, shell, package manager and desktop environment.

It is unfortunate that we are divided by some of these issues. We are not talking about a few less popular distros creating these divisions. The top five or ten distros have many differences on fundamental levels.

Distros could have their "standard" version. That wouldn't prevent them from making a few remixes (ubuntu, kubuntu, etc...)

You don't have to take away choice. Users who want to change their environments, applications, etc... could do so at will.

I do think it is important for developers to have a standard environment to target. Otherwise it will not be worth their time (in a business sense).

As much as I enjoy my custom system and open source applications and even finding creative ways to solve use cases that are trivial on other OS'es... if we are talking about growing the user base then you have to get to things that "just work".

Having the choice to use commercial applications on a standard platform would be important in that matter.

Until people can get things to just work the platform won't be taken seriously in the home user space.

Businesses are largely the same. Small business seems to be a large segment where MS is dominant. SUSE Enterprise seems to have taken a stab at it with some success. In the end I don't think they offer enough of a benefit over MS servers for MS shops to justify the change.

All this aside there seems to be another issue... for example, something like Netflix. Cases where it seems the platform is deliberately isolated puzzle me. I think the man is just trying to keep the penguin down.

Linux has advanced far enough that a great desktop (as defined by the other 98%) is a realistic goal. If the community can establish a standard toolset and some solidarity the user space is there to be had.


p.s. I appreciate the work the Linux Format crew does. keep up the good work.

cereal killer

by the way the cereal analogy is a terrible one. you are just changing what you are pouring into the bowl. changing the os seems like it would be more akin to swapping out the bowl and spoon rather than the cereal.

since the analogy is terrible why not cling to it here...
the bowl is the linux kernel.
the spoon is your distro--the desktop environment, shell, utilities that what you use to do things or enjoy content. the cereal would be the content and maybe content specific apps.

while some people may eat their cereal with a claw arm, a stick, or just drink from the bowl it is nice for those less adventurous types to have a spoon to resort to.

note to self: wasting time on flame wars is a waste of time. civ V ftw!

if ( grahamsArgument.isTrue() ){ "it's a matter of scope" }

Linux is so much bigger than this...

Graham, in a way you are correct. If the number one priority for a group of Linux distributions is to become a Windoze replacement for home desktops making use of commercial software... then standardization is important.

Many distibutions are so much more than just desktop environments for home users though. So, really your argument is... to prevent fragmentation of Linux you should create a new fragment. If a group of distributions decide to specifically target a market segment and work together to create a standard then it could be a good idea.

However, really, eventually users will just pick a distribution and suddenly there's your standardization. It's all just an abstraction.

mrEvans: some proprietary software products involve an exchange of funds for usage rights. active sync is a great example of this, silverlight may be too. a free distibution may not want to pay for the usage rights. or it could just be the man geting you down.



No but yes but no but yes

see above

Graham Morrison is not wrong.

Great podcast guys. I wanted to wait to hear it before drawing a final conclusion on this, and it's clear to me that Graham's point was taken drastically out of context.

Regardless of that, these flame wars are doing no one any good, and certainly not helping the cause of Linux. If the flamers could learn to curtail their 'knee jerk reactions' and discuss the topic instead of responding emotionally and angrily right away, it would be vastly more constructive.

That said, I'd like Graham to know that I and my rather large family appreciate his efforts and opinions and we say, keep on truckin'!

I disagree with Morrison.

I disagree with Morrison. However, I think I somewhat understand his agitation. Linux is trying to come into a world where, for over 20 years, there's really only been ONE choice.


A lot of people think, and incorrectly, that having a lot of flavors of a particular operating system seems to make compatibility between all the choices an issue. They're COMPLETELY oblivious to the nature of POSIX and what it allows a Linux distribution to do. You *can* and you *will* consistently run the same software across multiple distributions, be it Ubuntu, Debian, Arch, SuSe, or Red Hat.

Proprietary software is not even that much of a concern even if POSIX governs binary compatibility by no means (Which is why the Linux Standard Base came about.). Yet, again, the same proprietary apps still consistently find themselves working generally the same and just as well as any other distribution.

And distributions competing amongst each other is VERY good for end users. This competition can and does spurn on a LOT of advancement and upstream contributions to individual open source projects.

Bottom line: Linux (Far more than even GNU) has done so much to bring open source to the top. Because of its popularity and attention from millions of developers worldwide, you run a useful open source project, you'll find its hard to keep up with what your users do to improve your software.

Choice is Fun

I personally enjoy trying out different distros. To find the one that suits my needs. Especially if a distro becomes too buggy and bloated and no longer works for me.

However isn't great in the GNULinux world people are free to have their own point of view on GNUlinux like Mr Morrison.

Not enough choice!

When you visit your local PC World (Or whatever other shop) there are Windows PCs & Macs. Generally there's nothing with Linux pre-installed.

To carry on the dubious car analogy put forward in the podcast - you're basically taking your new car home and fitting a different engine that you haven't test driven and don't know will work properly in this car. (OK so probably most readers of this will have installed an operating system but this is a big deal for most people who have never needed or wanted to do this.)

Until machines with Linux pre-installed are visible and easily available on the high street I suspect the market share for Linux is unlikely to exceed 2%.

Choice or newbies, they don't go together

Two questions are (a)What is the target market and (b)is there a need for Linux to dominate?
Having tried lots of distros, from early slackware on, I like choices and sometimes swap apps along with distros. I frequently disagree with some of the choices made (GIMP I find awful, Evolution is too heavyweight, the open java clones are not as good as the Sun/Oracle implementation etc). I know others disagree and they're right to. For us more techie types, we can easily find/replace the things we want as long as there is choice, so choice is good. But what about new users?
My wife uses one of my machines. If I change the email client on it I know I will be in trouble. She can't find things and has no idea how to get back and re-install the one she uses. Choice is bad for new or nervous users. As someone who taught IT in a school for many years I know the easiest way to confuse teenagers with a computer is to change the version of (say) Word so that menu items move. That's all it takes. If your target market is new users, choice is bad - and look at the criticism over all the versions of Windows 7.
But does it matter? Unless we want to dominate the world then as long as there are enough users (and there are) Linux will stay healthy and prosper.

Choice for the experienced, recommendations for new users

New users want advice, not just choice.

I would suggest the best way forward would be to have a rating system for applications. In any one category, a user can select the application with the best rating. The choice is still there though.

We all benefit if linux is more popular, if only in that more hardware manufacturers will provide drivers.

My cereal doesn't last that long

The cereal analogy is weak at best. When I select a breakfast cereal, I am making a choice that I will live with for what, a week?
Graham is a long term Linux user, enthusiast, writer, etc. He wants Linux to grow past the 2% uptake that the current linux model has succeeded in attracting. We've tried status quo for more than 10 years. Perhaps it is time to try another approach.

Im a newbie.

Before a year or so I had spent a whole hour in an non dos/windows environment. But I had a pretty good idea what they entitled.

I tested Knoppix to its full extent, or rather what I believed was its full extent. When I gave up I grew more and more discontent with how windows operated. It seemed to slow and buggy. But with enough usage you learn how to make it bearable. Now seven years after I first got interested in linux i have tried two versions of K/Ubuntu, OpenSuse and Fedora. Iv never actually used it more then a week in a row. The reason for which I thought I would share here now.

When new to linux you have steep learning curve. Which of course it true if you switch every time you switch an operating system. But once you have learned the basics they are there, and the changes really are trivial enough that you don't have to get confused, etc. On linux on the other hand the basics is the same but how you do the basics differ. It ranges from everything from .deb to .rpm to tar.gz and even less technical things like how to change your settings.
I could easily learn how to do the simplest of things using the terminal in Ubuntu, trying it in OpenSuse didn't work to well and took some reading to figure out. I even got the wrong package format a few times.

While little things like this can seem kinda trivial as really it only takes a bit of reading to figure out. I really believe it to be what keeps linux out from the masses(besides the obvious lack of "professional" software and games).
I really do believe that everyone would be better of with a uniformed control panel, one package manager front and to go with that one package architecture. That way no matter which system someone uses they could get help from virtually anyone, regardless of their system of choice.
I'm not saying that taking away distortions or even killing of software projects because there is already one that does that is the solution on the other hand. I believe that to be a strength.

While I think it won't happen as there isn't one governing organ, it makes me kinda sad the fix for, to me, the biggest issue with linux would be overcome by simply working together a bit more. Even then it doesn't have to be the same program(referring to the control panel), just uniform.

The answer was in what i believe was a quiet rude fashion, that alone makes me inclined to agree with him besides the points said.

Give me a universal distro when it works universally.

Not all versions of Windows work on all machines. Try running Windows 7 on a 256M Windows XP machine, even if you can find the drivers. Try running OS X on a Mac Plus with 128M RAM.

We can't even standardize on one type of computer or automobile, why should we expect to have a one-size-fits-all distro?

The arguments in both articles are inane. Automobile drivers are expected to go from a Mini Cooper to a Cadillac Escalade at the drop of a credit card at a car rental kiosk, why can't knowledgeable computer operators be expected to go from a Windows 7 to a Mac Mini to a Fedora laptop with the same facility?

Its all about choice

6 billion people in the world, 7 billion opinions (schizophrenia, you know). Why not adopt the signature of a linuxoid friend of mine - "Linux, the lifetime learning experience." (I am a linuxoid also but not as brainy as he is.)

In the last 10 years, I have installed at least 14 different distributions, some of them in several versions. I am still looking for the perfect distribution. If every distro becomes exactly the same, it will still not be perfect and the bar to innovation would be much elevated. Bad deal.

BSD is also a very good OS but there are very few versions compared to Linux. The ones I have tried have focussed on parts of the OS that are less addressed by the Linux community. IOW, BSD'rs are a great but different community from the Linux community. Let's keep the choice.

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