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The Convenient Fiction of Distributions

Nov 30, 2007, 23:30 (32 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

I am increasingly convinced all of the arguments between Linux distributions are going to become moot very soon. If they aren't there already.

Not that I have anything against diversity, mind you. I have (and will) actively support the right to create and use any Linux distribution you want. My concern is, I think the distributions are becoming so similar in their construction, and the differences between them so subtle, the whole notion of distribution superiority is completely moot.

When people compare distributions, what--really--are they comparing? Assuming a common platform, here's a quick list of the more commonly reviewed aspects:

  • Kernels
  • Drivers
  • Installation Software
  • Package Management
  • Included Applications
  • Desktop Eyecandy

Right away, you can cross off "Included Applications" as a real basis for comparison. If Distro X has 493 packages and Distro Y only has 351 packages, it would not take very long to go out and download the "missing" 142 packages and get them into Distro Y. You might be able to take a half-point or so off for unavailable packages (rare, but possible) or the inconvenience of not getting what you want right off the bat, but that's really nitpicky.

So, too, can we cross off the "Eyecandy" and "Drivers" categories. Anything Distro X has should be available in some form (even if it's source code) for Distros Y and Z.

This gets us down to the real key differentiators between distributions: what kernel is it loaded with, how is the distro installed, and how does it handle package management? In truth, the kernel should not be that big of a difference anyway, but since the commercial vendors take such glee in modifying "stock" Linux kernels and gussying them up with their own unique brand of coding fun, we have to say that it makes a big difference.

Many times, though, a review will focus on how easily a distro is installed and how well is its software managed. This tends to drive some readers nuts, because focusing on the installation seems silly. But reviewers still do it because its one of the few legitimately unique things any given distro has going for it. Geez, we even give the installation software names, like Anaconda. Even now, the need to highlight installation seems a tad overzealous: Linux typically installs pretty well these days, and any installation glitch that might occur is usually due to a missing piece of software--which isn't strictly the installation program's fault.

Which leads us to what I believe is the most contended aspect of distros--the one thing that really separates them: how their package management system works. Is it source-based? RPM-based? Deb-based? Is there a good GUI tool like YaST or Synaptic to handle the job? How do the command line apps work? Whenever I install a new distro, this seems to be the one thing that's really unique about it: and most often where the distribution succeeds or fails.

As time goes on, I wonder how long this one true bit of uniqueness will last. As more and more of the smaller distros adopt one of the big commercial package managers to handle this task, even this aspect won't stay diverse for long.

I imagine this theory might kick up a lot of dust, and I am sure there will be examples of some truly distro-unique software out there that I have neglected. But let's be honest here: how many of those "unique" aspects are really unique that that distro, or simply are just preferences that someone else has reinvented in other distributions?

When distros first started, the differences between them were night and day. Now, it seems that the real differences boil down to the package management and one other thing I haven't mentioned: where does the distro fall on the freedom vs. proprietary software scale? How free a distro is can become one of the most important features for anyone choosing a distribution.

Does this mean that we are moving towards one Linux to rule them all, despite ourselves? No, I think that as long as the creative spirit and commercial interests are alive, there will always be separate distributions. But when you find yourself trashing one distro over another, just remember: but for a few small differences, your favorite would be exactly like your loathed distro. It's just the way the same building blocks were put together.