Opinion: How many distros is too many? (re-post)

Original article: 09/08/08 appeared in Full circle Magazine #18
In this installment, the Professor re-educates the young Padewan, Alter, in answer of the question 'how many distros is too many?'

I had just sat down with a pot of tea and a muffin, when Alter interrupted.
“I overheard you talking to your Knowledgeable Friend the other day, Professor.”

This is generally Alter's way of opening an argument. As if it's not irritating enough that he overhears all my conversations. I play along.

“Which bit in particular did you overhear?”
“He said - I've only one problem with Linux -”

Only one? Evidently he's never tried setting up wireless internet with a USB dongle.

“ - too many distro's.”
“Distributions, please, Alter. We'll have none of that slacker language in this house. Anyone would think you're a teenager.”
“Sorry, Professor. Surely there's no such thing as too many distros - sorry, distributions?”
“How many can you think of?”
“Let's see; Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, PCLinuxOS, Fedora, and MEPIS are quoted as the 'official' top five by numbers of desktop users, not forgetting Novell and Red Hat are the top tier in the corporate world...” Alter began a mental count and quickly gave up. ”Doesn't that prove the merits of the Open Source/Free Software ethos? Freedom to develop? Freedom of choice?”
“The triumph of free-market consumerism?”
“Yes! No! Err...”

I had hoisted him by his old Marxist revolutionary politics again.

“There must be five hundred listed on the DistroWatch website.”
“That's a lot of distributions.”
“Anyone with a some spare time on his hands can create one. The 'Linux from scratch' website even provides you with step-by-step instructions for building your own customized Linux system entirely from source.”
“I could be my own software house? I could finally release Alter-Linux Jedi Edition”
“Have you no standards, Alter? I'm not talking about that Hawaiian shirt, either.”
“Standards, Professor?”
“Think back to the 1980's in the early days of the personal computer, how many competing platforms we had - and I include some of the consoles like the Atari, Amiga and Commodore alongside the IBM's and Apple machines. You could argue that until PC-DOS came along there were no standards.”
“You can't be serious, Professor! Surely you can't justify decades of allegedly monopolistic and anti-competitive practices -”

I have to admit, I've taught him well; you never know when they might be listening.

“ - on the grounds that it contributed to widely accepted international standards?”
“Would I ever?”
“So what your Knowledgeable Friend really meant was 'there are too many standards?'”
Alter was perplexed. I took pity.
“Too many distributions - according to what parameters?”
“His personal judgement?”
“Everyone likes to think they have made the superior choice - be it the football team they support or the car they drive.”
“Or the religion they follow?”
“Precisely. Although in your case, declaring yourself as 'Jedi' on the census form was clearly not a rational act. But there's also a natural tendency for humanity to turn tribal.”
“The distros are tribes?”
“It would explain all the playground 'my-Linux-is-better-than-your-Linux' spats that go on.”
“Are forks a problem, then?”
“Only when eating soup or green peas.”
“I meant forks in the Linux software code, Professor. Surely that's how we've got so many distros?”
“There are practical reasons for distributions to fork. Do you want an office suite, a creative suite or a firewall? Unbuntu forked from Debian because of Shuttleworth's ambition for an easy-install desktop.”
“I thought there are only so many developers to write Linux code. Surely they can't all keep going?”
“Lots of the forks in Linux run to dead ends or rejoin the main branches of development. Any worthwhile improvements made by the tribes will be absorbed into the main branch. The truth is Linux isn't so fragmented as people think. We have a few 'benevolent dictators' guiding the core code. The Linux the kernel hasn't forked in any significant way, thanks (I think) to Linus Torvalds' control. Where are the numbers of users? They're with those top five and the corporates you mentioned.”
“So why does your Knowledgeable Friend have an issue with too many distros?”
“He doesn't know which one to use. He's not used to Linux's greatest asset; choice. What do you do when you want to buy a car to get you from A to B?”
“Buy a recognised badge with four wheels and an engine.”
“And when you want to go drag-racing?”
“Assemble a dragster!”

The boy will go far.

“So what's the answer, young padewan?”
“How many distros is too many?”